Skip to main content

The Mitzva of Tzitzit (1)

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
Text file

Summarized by Shaul Barth
Translated by David Silverberg

In this shiur we will discuss the obligation - to the extent that it exists - of the mitzva of tzitzit.  The Torah presents this mitzva twice in the Chumash:

  1. "… they shall make for themselves tzitzit on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of tekhelet to the tzitzit of the corner." (Bemidbar 15:38)
  2. "You shall make tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself." (Devarim 22:12)

One obvious distinction between these two verses involves the type of garment requiring tzitzit.  The first verse applies the obligation to all garments, whereas the second speaks specifically of "the garment with which you cover yourself."  In any event, the obligation to wear tzitzit emerges from these two verses.

A study of the verses yields several possible understandings of this mitzva.

  1. The mitzva is to wear a four-cornered garment and attach tzitzit to it.  This mitzva would thus resemble the obligation to take the four species on Sukkot; nobody would imagine that only someone who happens to have the four species should take them.  The Gemara, however, rejects such a notion.  Evidence can be drawn from the verse in Devarim, which requires tzitzit on "the garment with which you cover yourself."
  2. Only a garment with which one covers himself requires tzitzit; other garments do not.  According to this understanding, the clause, "with which you cover yourself," describes the type of garment to which we must attach tzitzit.  However, as we will see, this approach is also rejected.
  3. Only someone who wears a four-cornered garment must place tzitzit on it.  According to this understanding, the mitzva of tzitzit belongs to the group of mitzvot whose obligation is contingent upon certain factors.  We refer here to "mitzvot kiyumiyot," such as time-bound mitzvot for women, where no obligation exists at all, but if they decide to perform the mitzva they may recite a blessing.  One could argue that the same applies to tzitzit: one has no obligation to wear a four-cornered garment, but if he does, he bears an obligation to place tzitzit on it and recite the blessing.


The Rambam writes:

"There are mitzvot which are not obligatory, but rather resemble voluntary [actions], such as mezuza and ma'akeh [the mitzva to construct a fence around one's rooftop].  A person is not obligated to reside in a house that requires mezuza, in order that he will affix a mezuza.  Rather, if he wishes to live his entire life in a tent or a boat, he may." (Hilkhot Berakhot 11:2)

The Rambam does not mention the mitzva of tzitzit in this discussion, but it would appear that it may, indeed, qualify for inclusion in this group together with mezuza and ma'akeh.  These mitzvot require that when a person enters a given situation, he must perform the given mitzva, but he bears no obligation to place himself in that situation.

  1. We may perhaps suggest that the mitzva of tzitzit differs somewhat from mitzvot such as mezuza and ma'akeh.  The Gemara (Menachot 41a) tells the following story: 

"An angel saw that Rav Ketina covered himself with a sheet [a night garment, which does not require tzitzit].  He said to him, 'Ketina, Ketina, [you wear] a sheet in the summertime and a [round] cloak [which likewise does not require tzitzit] in the wintertime; what will be with tekhelet tzitzit [i.e. when will you ever fulfill the mitzva]?'  He said to him, 'Do you punish for [the lack of fulfillment of] a positive commandment?'  He said to him, 'At a time of [divine] wrath, we punish [even for positive commandments]."

The Gemara there discusses the angel's criticism and raises the possibility that Rav Ketina faced divine retribution because tzitzit constitutes a proactive obligation; one must bring himself into a situation whereby the obligation of tzitzit will apply.  But the Gemara then rejects this notion and concludes that he deserved punishment for having employed tactics to avoid becoming obligated in this mitzva.  This implies that no halakhic obligation exists to bring upon oneself the requirement of tzitzit, but one is to be criticized if he does not wear a garment requiring tzitzit.  We can understand this criticism in one of two ways:

  1. The mishna in Avot asserts: "Run to [perform] a light mitzva as you would to a stringent one."  The Rambam there explains that one must make an effort to fulfill every mitzva.  Accordingly, there is nothing unique about the mitzva of tzitzit in this regard.  The Gemara's criticism of Rav Ketina relates to the more general issue of an attempt to avoid a mitzva - any mitzva.[2]
  2. The Rosh (Nidda 61b) explains that during the times of Chazal, most garments had four corners.  Therefore, anyone who wore a three-cornered garment clearly sought to intentionally avoid the obligation and was thus deserving of punishment.  Today, however, when most garments are not made with four corners, we cannot criticize one who dresses in garments that do not require tzitzit.  The Rosh adds that this point notwithstanding, even in his day a God-fearing individual should obtain a garment requiring tzitzit in order to fulfill the mitzva, given its importance.  It appears from the Rosh's comments that this notion, of making a concerted effort to put oneself in a situation where he becomes obligated in the mitzva, despite the fact that no strict obligation requires one to do so, applies specifically to tzitzit.[1]


Until now we have seen several theoretical approaches to defining the obligation of tzitzit.  As mentioned, the Gemara and Rishonim reject the first two possibilities, whereas the final two are accepted by various Rishonim.  We have seen the general consensus that there exists no obligation to specifically wear a garment requiring tzitzit, though one should make an effort to bring upon himself the obligation, due to both the exertion required in all mitzvot, as well as the specific requirements of this mitzva, given its unique properties.

Let us now assess the Rambam's comments in Hilkhot Berakhot that we cited earlier.  Recall that the Rambam listed only the mitzvot of ma'akeh and mezuza as "mitzvot which are not obligatory, but rather resemble voluntary [actions]."  Does the omission of the mitzva of tzitzit from this passage suggest a different perspective on the nature of this mitzva, or did the Rambam simply cite two examples to clarify his point, and thus did not express here any attitude towards other mitzvot?  We can easily point to two differences between the mitzva of ma'akeh and mezuza on the one hand and tzitzit on the other:

  1. The difficulty involved in performing the mitzva - purchasing a home clearly involves a much greater expense than acquiring a four-cornered garment to wear tzitzit.
  2. The importance of the mitzva - the mitzva of tzitzit is seen as a more important mitzva than ma'akeh or mezuza.[3]


The Or Zarua argues with this approach.  In his discussion of the laws of blessings, he asserts that we do not recite a birkat ha-mitzva on any action we are not required to perform.  Why, then, do we recite a blessing on the mitzva of tzitzit?  He explains that there indeed exists an obligation of rabbinic, rather than Biblical, origin to wear a four-cornered garment with tzitzit.  This is a revolutionary stance which, to the best of my knowledge, has no precedent.  The Or Zarua proceeds to bring an additional explanation for the blessing over tzitzit.  A person who has adopted the practice of wearing tzitzit becomes obligated on the level of a mitzva, just as for one who regularly recites Ma'ariv (which, strictly speaking, is voluntary) this prayer becomes a full-fledged obligation.  Therefore, the Or Zarua explains, one must recite a blessing over the wearing of tzitzit just as we recite a blessing over other mitzvot.  In any event, his approach is both unique and novel.

"Chovat Cheftza" or "Chovat Gavra"?

We mentioned earlier the possible relationship between the mitzva of tzitzit and that of mezuza.  We will now try to understand precisely what this relationship might be.  When discussing the mitzva of tzitzit, we must question whether it resembles mezuza, and depends on the garment -  the "cheftza" (object), just as the obligation of mezuza depends on the house, or perhaps it depends rather on the "gavra" - the individual, similar to tefillin, for example.

The obvious ramification of these two perspectives involves the Gemara's discussion (Menachot 41a) regarding a "keli kufsa" - a garment in the closet.  Must one place tzitzit on his clothing when they are not being worn?  The Gemara addresses this issue, and Tosefot claim that if we view tzitzit as a "chovat gavra" (an obligation on the individual, rather than the object), then only while wearing the garment does the mitzva of tzitzit apply.  However, as we saw earlier, one who does not wear a four-cornered garment is deserving of punishment for having avoided the mitzva.  Conversely, if we perceive the mitzva as a "chovat cheftza" (obligation pertaining to the object), then even one who does not wear a four-cornered garment is not deserving of punishment, since no obligation whatsoever applies to him personally; the mitzva is directed towards the object, not the person.

Rashi, by contrast, understands the Gemara to mean that whether we view tzitzit as a "chovat gavra" or "chovat cheftza" will have no bearing in this regard.  Either way, a person will be held accountable for not obtaining a four-cornered garment in order to become obligated in the mitzva of tzitzit.  Apparently, Tosefot felt that the difference between a "chovat cheftza" and "chovat gavra" has a qualitative impact on the fulfillment of the mitzva.[4]

We conclude with the issue of quantity.  Regarding the aforementioned dialogue between the angel and Rav Ketina, the Shita Mekubetzet asks, why did the angel immediately accuse Rav Ketina - perhaps he had in his home a garment with tzitzit that he did not wear?  This question implies that if a person has one garment with tzitzit in his home, this suffices; he need not add more garments in order to bring upon them the obligation of tzitzit.  This gives rise to an important question: if we view tzitzit as a "chovat cheftza," should one preferably place tzitzit on as many garments as he can, or would this serve no purpose?  I have no proof either way, but it would seem that if tzitzit is indeed a "chovat cheftza," parallel to mezuza, then just as we do not require one to purchase a home with as many doorways as possible in order to increase his number of mezuzot, so would we not require one to obtain many four-cornered garments.  By the same token, if we view the mitzva as a "chovat gavra," there would be no value in wearing many four-cornered garments in order to bring upon oneself multiple obligations of tzitzit, despite the fact that some rabbis indeed maintain that one should preferably wear multiple garments with tzitzit.


We have surveyed some fundamental concepts of the mitzva of tzitzit.  We touched upon the question of whether this mitzva resembles other mitzvot such as ma'akeh and mezuza, or if it is of a different nature, and we addressed the Rambam's position on the matter.  We then proceeded to the question of whether we should view tzitzit as a "chovat gavra" or "chovat cheftza," considering the possible ramifications thereof.

(This shiur was delivered in the yeshiva on Motza'ei Shabbat Parashat Noach, 5763. The summary has not been reviewed by Rav Lichtenstein.)


[1] This approach also emerges from the Gemara in several different contexts.  Berakhot (12a) explains why the parasha of tzitzit merited inclusion in Keri'at Shema, exalting the greatness of this mitzva.  We find several derashot in the Sifrei regarding the importance of tzitzit, maintaining that it adds a level of holiness to Am Yisrael, that it equals all other mitzvot combined, and so on.  These and other sources emphasize the singularity and significance of specifically the mitzva of tzitzit over and beyond that of other mitzvot of its type.  The Rambam writes (Hilkhot Tzitzit 3:11), "Although one is not obligated to purchase for himself a tallit and wrap himself in it in order to [become obligated to] make tzitzit for it, it is improper for a pious person to exempt himself from this mitzva… A person must always be very meticulous with regard to the mitzva of tzitzit."  The Rambam appears to speak about two groups of people: a "pious person" who does not wear tzitzit acts "improperly," while for other people it is preferable to be meticulous in the performance of this mitzva, though failure to wear tzitzit does not constitute an inappropriate act.  In any event, he clearly emphasizes the specific importance of this mitzva as opposed to all others.

[2] Similarly, the Gemara (Sota 11a) states that one must make a concerted effort to observe the mitzvot ha-teluyot ba-aretz (the laws pertaining to the land in Eretz Yisrael, such as terumot and ma'asrot), even though one can, technically, find ways to exempt himself from them.

[3] According to this argument, we must inquire as to how one determines the stature or importance of given mitzvot in relation to others.  I am not certain that we can measure or even know the index by which to measure this variable.

[4]  However, the Shita Mekubetzet explains Tosefot to mean that, qualitatively, the mitzva remains the same either way. However, according to perspective of "chovat gavra," the individual is less guilty for refraining from fulfilling the mitzva.

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!