The Traditional Tsitsit 

The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them.  Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels (tzitzit) on the corners (kanaf) of your garments, with a blue (tekhelet) cord (p’teel) on each tassel.  You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the Lord, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by going after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes.  Then you will remember to obey all My commands and will be consecrated to your God.”  Num. 15:38-40.

And again in Deut 22:12, “Make bound fringes (g’deeleem) on the four corners (kanafot) of the cloak you wear.”  We have an obvious command to the sons of Israel to wear tzitzit.  If applied it will keep one from selling oneself out to someone other than God.  How kind and thoughtful of Hashem to give us this symbol for remembering.  But how should we observe this command?

Is the translation for tzitzit, accurately portrayed by the word fringe?  Are there other translations for fringe, (tzitzit) in the Scriptures?  Is tekhelet actually blue and is it a special shade of blue?  Why do most religious Jews of today only wear threads of white?  What did the fringe and hem of a garment mean to the people living in David and Yeshua’s day?  Should the tzitzit be worn inside or out?  Are they only to be worn by men?  With these questions in mind we will look at how the tzitzit evolved from a biblical standpoint.

We will begin by looking at some Scriptures and other ancient writings to help answer these questions.  Tzitzit, according to one lexicon, is “something like a flower or feather, the forelock of the hair, or the borders, the fringed edges which the Israelites wore on the corners of their garments(1).”

According to the above lexicon tzeetz is from the root word meaning “to shine or flourish” and is found in Song of Songs 2:9, “…There he stands behind our wall, gazing through the windows, peering (or showing himself) through the lattice.”  The root is found in the word translated as ‘peering.’  When I think of a lattice I picture something behind it, somewhat hidden, yet able to be seen.  I picture the groom, in this verse as not only gazing but also sticking out a bit, perhaps to be seen by the bride.

We find this verb again in Numbers 17:8 [23], “The next day Moses entered the Tent of the Testimony and saw that Aaron’s staff, which represented the house of Levi, had sprouted; it had brought forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne almonds,” and the plural form, tzitzim found in 1 Kings 6:18, “The inside of the temple was cedar, carved with gourds and sprouting blossoms (or flowers in some translations).  Again, here is something sticking out, able to be seen.

The tzitzit are to be made onto the corners of the garment.  The word corners, also translated as edge or extremity in Hebrew, is kanafot.  In some instances the word refers to a bird’s wings and in most cases is used figuratively in a positive association with God.  Metaphorically the word is used as a place of refuge under the wings of the Almighty (Psalm 36:7; 57:1, Ruth 2:12).  Prophetically Zech 8:23 says, “…thus says the Lord of hosts:  In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, by the hem of his robe beekhnaf, and say, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.'”  As to the rendering ‘corners of the garment,’ the JPS Torah Commentary states, “..the rendering corners is really inappropriate here since, in ancient days, men wore closed robes or skirts just as did women (no real corners!).”

The blue cord is translated p’teel tekhelet.  According to the Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament “words like tekhelet. . . denoted colors that spanned the spectrum from brilliant red through deep purple.  The term ‘blue’ is simply a conventional translation of tekhelet.”  The JPS says that there are three relevant varieties of the murex snail, which produced the dye.  One gives a blue-purple and the other two a red-purple.  If one is interested in gematria(2), an interesting aside on this dye is from a book by Dr Baruch Sterman(3):

“No two substances have exactly the same color, since no two molecules absorb exactly the same wavelengths of light.  The precise measurement of which wavelengths (usually given in units of nanometers-nm) a molecule absorbs (its absorption spectrum) is like a fingerprint, a unique way of identifying it….  J. Wouters and A. Verhecken(4) studied the properties of different dye molecules obtained from the Murex trunculus snail and discovered that the tekhelet molecule (indigotin) gets its color from a strong absorption peak centered at exactly 613 nanometers.”

We find this word, tekhelet 40 of the 50 times in the OT pertaining to the cloth in the tabernacle and worn by the priests.  Elsewhere it is on the king’s garments worn by Mordecai and on the royalty of the Assyrians.  This ties with the color being a determinant of class and rank.  By attaching the cord of blue a person shows his class or calling in connection with the command in Exodus 19:6, “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…”

The color became unused for several reasons:

1.)  According to Dr Sterman(5), Caesar (100-44 BCE) and Augustus (63 BCE-14 CE) restricted the use of the tekhelet dyes to governing classes and under Constantius (337-362 CE) the restrictions against its use were strictly enforced(6);

2.)  During the 4th century, Rome decreed that only ‘blue-blooded’ royalty could privately deal in tekhelet and even wearing it was deemed a capital offense(7);

3.)  Due to its scarcity and that the amount of dye each snail yielded was infinitesimal the cost was high, which made it prohibitive for most;

4.)  The source became unknown.  Therefore, for centuries the orthodox Jewish people have refrained from dying the blue cord, so that the tzitzit have remained all white.  Dyed tzitzit were discovered in the Bar Kokhba Caves but testing of them by modern methods has proved almost with certainty that they were dyed with indigo, which was deemed counterfeit(8).  Today, researchers believe they have found the Chilazon, a sea creature, which they believe provides the dye for the tekhelet.  As a result, one is seeing a resurgence of the blue thread back onto the tzitzit.

Some rabbinic sources reveal that the tzitzit were not only worn by women but also required.  In the Talmud(9) we find that Rabbi Judah the Prince personally attached tzitzit to his wife’s apron.  Some rabbis interpreted Sif. Num. 115(10) and Men. 43a(11) as a command for women to wear tzitzit because they fall into the category of a commandment whose observance is not limited to a fixed time (Tosef. Kid. 1:10)(12).  Some believe they are worn only while in synagogue or at prayer.  If the commandment is not limited to a fixed time, when should one wear them?  Ibn Ezra(13), wrote, “In my opinion one is more obligated to wear the tsitsit when not in prayer so that one will remember not to go astray in sin at any time, for in the time of prayer one surely will not sin.”

After looking at the tzitzit from these verses how does the tzitzit of today fulfill the command?  We see that they are to be protruding out and easily seen, (what we know of as the tallit katan or little tallit, which is worn inside, came about most likely due to persecution in hostile countries in the Middle Ages, though today the fringes are often exposed and the garment has the ‘four corners’ which the orthodox feel are a more correct interpretation), have a special ‘royal’ color most likely a shade of blue or purple, made of a twisted or braided cord and applied onto the extremity or outer edges of the garment.  Today the more common tzitzit of four fringes or cords derives from the teaching of Bet Shamai(14) and except for the lack of a blue thread most traditional tzitzit would fulfill these Biblical requirements.

“Do we make the Torah void through faith?  God forbid!  Rather, we establish the Torah”(15).  We do not need to enlarge nor diminish the borders of our garments(16) but we do need to walk in humble obedience while wearing them.  Remember, the purpose is to NOT prostitute your selves by going after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes.  By having the thread of blue, also called the Shamash, we as a believer in Messiah can see a greater fulfillment. 

If one sees the Shamash (servant) as the Messiah we see Hashem taking the seven threads, representing perfection in Judaism and binding them with the Messiah’s perfect example being a servant bound by God’s laws integrated and woven into our very being.  We have knots to hold us together, we have wrappings to cover our sins and yet we, in the end have the loose threads, which represent the freedom we have when we live, bound in His Torah.  “And you shall have the tassel (tzitzit) that you may look upon it (oto) and remember all the commandments of the Lord…”(17).  In this command to “look upon it” the it cannot refer to the feminine thread of blue (techelet) or tassel.  The Hebrew would be translated “look at Him.”  Sages teach us that when we look at the Tzitzit we are looking at “Him”(18).  Thus, when we look at the tzitzit we are reminded of Yeshua, the servant who is represented by the techelet and we therefore await His return all the more.  Perhaps the return of the blue chord, the Shamash, means the soon return of Messiah.

With this command we have a beautiful word picture; the tying and knotting, the blue thread, the attachment to ones garment, all symbolizing obedience and identity to whom that obedience lies.  As we look we will recall who called us and then remember to observe.  God leaves the choice of how to fulfill to us.

Footnotes:

(1)  Gesenius Hebrew Chaldee Lexicon (Bagster & Sons 1857), page 709.
(2)  Gematria is the calculation of the numerical equivalence of letters, words, or phrases, due to each Hebrew letter possessing a numerical number.
(3)  Dr Baruch Sterman, The Science of Tekhelet, Tekhelet:  Renaissance of a Mitzveh (YU Press, 1996).
(4)  J. Wouters and A. Verhecken, JSDC Volume 107, July/August, 1991.
(5)  See above footnote #3.
(6)  See above footnote #3.
(7)  J.T. Baker, “Tyrian Purple:  An Ancient Dye, a Modern Problem” in Endeavour, Volume 33, 1974, pages 11-17.
(8)  Encyclopedia Judaica, Tekhelet.
(9)  Menachot 43a.
(10)  Sifrei on Numbers:  an early commentary on the fourth book of the Torah.
(11)  Talmut tractate:  Menachot, page 43, side 1.
(12)  Tosef Kid:  Tosefta to Talmud Kiddushin is a statement by Mishna authorities that were not included in the redaction of the Mishna.
(13)  Ibn Ezra:  born in Tudela, Spain 1089-1164, poet, grammarian, biblical commentator, philosopher, astronomer, and physician.
(14)  Shamai:  known for teaching the letter of the Law during late BCE early CE, from Menachot tractate of the Talmud, page 41 side 2.
(15)  Romans 3:31.
(16)  Matthew 23:5.
(17)  Numbers 15:39.
(18)  Talmud tractate:  Menachot, page 43, side 2.

For further Studies:
Studies in Bamidbar, by Nehama Leibowitz
“The Modern Revival of Tekhelet,” Jewish Action, Fall 5762/2001 issue

Rabbi Y.H. Hertzog, ‘Royal Purple & Biblical Blue,’ chapter 11.“Kashrut, Tefillin, Tzitzit:  Studies in the Purpose and Meaning of Symbolic Mitzvot” inspired by the commentaries of Rabbi Samsom Raphael Hirsch by S Bailey (Jason Aronson, 2000 publishers).
Encyclopedia Judaica.“The Science of Tekhelet, Tehkelet:  Renaissance of a Mitzveh,” by Dr Baruch Sterman (YU Press 1996).

 

By Chava bat Rachel / The Traditional Tsitsit (petahtikvah.com)

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