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Q&A: Tzitzith

June 22, 2014

Question: Should I wear tzitzis all the time?

Answer: Maimonides says, “Even though a person is not obligated to purchase a tallith and wrap himself in it so that he must attach tzitzith to it, it is not proper for a person to release himself from this commandment. Instead, he should always try to be wrapped in a garment which requires tzitzith so that he will fulfill this commandment.” (Laws of Tzitzith 3:11) This is reiterated by all the later codes, including the Shulhan Aruch.


Question: Why don’t some men and boys have a tallis?

Answer: The fact that only some wear a tallith on a daily basis is one that has bothered great Ashkenazic decisors for centuries; many, like Rabbi Soloveitchik and the Hafetz Hayim, felt it was not worth keeping the practice, and even trained their children to wear tallithoth during prayer, as do the German Jews and the Sefaradim. (This is another example of not allowing “minhag” to prevent the performance of an obvious commandment.) The historically accurate explanation for the practice, or lack of practice, is that in Eastern Europe, where most of the Jews were dirt poor, a nice tallith was considered a wedding present. As they did then, most tallith-less men can rely on the halachic fact that the tallith qatan is halachically equivalent to a tallith gadol. The only difference is that one is much bigger. It is important to consider that tzitztith can and should be placed in any four-cornered garment that is not meant as sleepwear, not just the only two types of garments that we have become accustomed to.


Question: Should I wear techeiles in my tzitzis?

Answer: Yes. It is also a commandment of the Torah. (Numbers 15:38)


Question: But my Rabbi does not wear techeiles, and many gedolim don’t either!

Answer: Misplaced conservatism disguised as piety. It has been proven beyond a reasonable doubt that murex-trunculus techeleth is the real deal, and the only objection is that it has not been done in a long time. And more and more rabbis are getting with the program.


Question: How do you know who’s a big rabbi?

Answer: Rav Sherlow says you use the Jethro method. When a rabbi does not know something, whom does he consult? When he does not know something, whom does he consult? You follow the chain of consultation. It so happens that for many communities in the states, Rabbi Herschel Schachter is the one who now gets the questions, for example, and he says to wear techeleth. In Jerusalem and greater Israel, Rabbi Zalman Nehemia Goldberg is similarly one of the addresses of the real, hard questions, and he is now also on board with techeleth. There you have two certified, mainstream gedolim. (Update: after the passing of Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, Rabbi Schachter described how Rabbi Belsky was also convinced that the techeleth we have today is the real deal.)


Question: How many strings of techeiles should I have per corner?

Answer: The opinion of Maimonides is one half string out of four strings, the Ra’avad says one whole string out of every four, and Rashi and the Tosafists say two out of four. R’ Schachter says Ashkenazim should follow Rashi and Tosafoth; others challenge that assertion, claiming that 1. Rashi and Tosafoth were not ruling on the matter, but rather just giving a plausible understanding of the relevant discussion in Menahoth. 2. Maimonides and Ra’avad are both following an explicit talmudic source that says that only one string (either out of eight or out of four) should be techeleth, and that the Gemara in Menahoth can easily be read to agree with that source. 3. Maimonides and Ra’avad are reporting a positive tradition that one string per corner is sufficient, and R’ Schachter himself says that because Maimonides is reporting a positive tradition and not just a plausible reading of the Gemara, we should tie the techeleth within the tzitzith according to Maimonides’s tradition, so why not also follow Maimonides’s positive tradition that one string is sufficient? 4. One of the greatest Ashkenazic authorities to weigh in on the matter, the Vilna Gaon, agreed that one string per corner was the commandment, so it is not necessarily the “Ashkenazic practice” to have two per corner, especially considering no classical Ashkenazim ever wore techeleth.

Because it seems that Maimonides and the Vilna Gaon are correct about only one half of a single string per corner having to be techeleth, you can buy a set of four, full length, Raavad style strings, then cut each in half, and join those eight halves with ordinary strings, and then you’ll have enough techeleth for two garments!


Question: Do I have to wear wool tzitzith, or can I wear cotton?

Answer: Maimonides and the Shulhan Aruch claim that the biblical commandment of tzitzith only applies to garments of wool and linen, and that garments woven of other materials, like cotton, are only obligated rabbinically. However, the classical Ashkenazic authorities have always challenged this assertion, and ruled that any woven materials, possibly even synthetics, are also biblically obligated. Both positions seem to have sources in the Talmud, the controversy stemming from the argument between how to decide between the sources. Many great Ashkenazic rabbis were said to even wear cotton tzitzith themselves, like the Vilna Gaon, the Hazon Ish, and Rabbi Soloveitchik, although the Hafetz Hayim felt we should be stringent and follow the Shulhan Aruch. My rabbeim always said that you fulfill the commandment by wearing cotton tzitzith. Most factories only make wool tallithoth anyway, so good luck trying to find one made of cotton, and the custom has been for centuries to not make linen garments for tzitzith, but that was because of the scarcity of techeleth. Normally the prohibition against sha’atnez, combinations of wool and linen, was waived when the the linen garment required techeleth, which must be made of wool, and once techeleth was unavailable, there was no permission to use wool strings in a linen garment. Nowadays, the practice should be that linen garments may be used because techeleth is once again available.


Question: Why were you wearing your tallis at Mincha the other day?

Answer: Because you and I are supposed to wear a tallith at every prayer, not just at Shaharith. The Aroch Hashulhan, which was written as recently as the last century, assumed that a tallith gadol should always be worn at prayer (Orah Hayim 8:2 and 24:2):

“And all the children of Israel wear upon themselves a tallith qatan all day long, and a tallith gadol at the time of prayer.” Note that he, like every single other halachic authority, makes no distinction between the morning prayers and the other prayers.


Question: But the Shulhan Aruch does not say so!

Answer: Actually, it does. Maimonides, after describing the minimum dress requirement for all prayers, writes, “It is customary for all Sages and their students to pray only when ‘atufim, wrapped,” (Laws of Prayer 5:5), and to clarify what he means by atufim, see Laws of Tzitzith 3:11: “In particular, care should be taken regarding this matter during prayer. It is very shameful for a Torah scholar to pray without being wrapped in a tallith.” The Shulhan Aruch, Orah Hayim 91 quotes Maimonides verbatim, showing his agreement with Maimonides’s opinion, namely that it is customary for those aspiring to be like the Sages to wear tallithoth when praying, and that it would be shameful not to. Note that none of the sources we have referenced make any distinctions between shaharith and the other prayers. (‘Atufim usually means with a tallith, like the blessing goes, l’hithatteif batzitzith, and does not, as some have suggested, mean wearing a Borsalino.) Our former Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Abba Bronspigel, used to purposely even put the tallith over the hazan or Torah reader’s head. He did it to me once, too.


Question: Shouldn’t bahurim (unmarried men) not cover their heads with their talleisim?

Answer: That’s an idea that is based on one out-of-context reading of a Gemara which says that in 4th-century Babylonia, bachelors did not wear a certain type of turban. As the Hafetz Hayim points out and as Rabbi Bronspigel demonstrated, it’s even desirable that bachelors cover their heads with the tallith during public prayer and Torah reading.


Question: So why doesn’t everyone else wear his tallis at Mincha?

Answer: Convenience. It already was folded up and put away after shaharith, and it would look weird to walk around in a tallith all day.


Question: I happened to be wearing my tallis and tefillin at Shacharis, and lingered in the synagogue until Mincha. Should I continue wearing them?

Answer: If you can get away with it, yes. Why should you stop performing mitzwoth? However, if some legitimately knowledgable person makes a fuss, you should listen to him, so as not to appear arrogant. However: if the objectors are unknowledgeable, just ignore them. If it were up to them, you would not be keeping any mitzwoth.


Question: Should I have a special tallis for Shabbos and Yom Tov?

Answer: Some would even say you have to. See Ma’aseh Rav 147, where to the Vilna Gaon, the honor due to the Sabbath meant changing one’s clothes from top to bottom. Tallith, presumably is included. Yarmulka too, by the way.


From → halacha

  1. On the last point you made… really? a shabat kipah and talit are obligated? what is maaseh rav?

    • Not obligatory, but part of the commandment to honor the Sabbath. Maaseh Rav is a book about the personal halachic practices and opinions of the Vilna Gaon.

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