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The Mitzva of Tzitzit (2)

Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
Text file


Based on a shiur by Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
Summarized by Shaul Barth
Translated by David Silverberg

          In the previous shiur we dealt with the fundamental issues concerning the mitzva of tzitzit, such as whether we should view it as a "chovat gavra" or "chovat cheftza," and we addressed the practical applications of the various approaches.  In this shiur, we will deal with some halakhic details of this mitzva, first focusing our attention on the form and material necessary to require the placement of tzitzit on a garment.

The Rambam writes at the beginning of the third chapter of Hilkhot Tzitzit:

"A garment on which one must, according to Torah law, make tzitzit is one that has four corners or more… and the garment must be [made] of only wool or linen.  A cloak of other materials, however, such as silk or cotton-wool… and the like are subject to the obligation of tzitzit only by the words of the Sages [as opposed to by Torah law] in order that we be scrupulous with regard to the mitzva of tzitzit… for all the garments mentioned in the Torah refer only to [those made from] wool or linen."

From this halakha we will proceed to discuss two issues that perhaps relate to one another: what form of garment requires tzitzit, and how should we understand the demand for a certain material from which a garment must be made to qualify for this obligation?


          This issue arises in the verse in Parashat Ki-Tetze discussing the mitzva of tzitzit: "You shall make tassels on the four corners of your garment with which you cover yourself" (Devarim 22:12).  The Gemara (Menachot 43b) expounds upon this verse as follows:

"On the four corners of your garment - four and not three.  You say four and not three; perhaps [it means] four and not five?  When it says, 'with which you cover yourself,' a five-cornered [garment] is included!  So how do I interpret 'four'?  Four and not three.  On what basis do you include a five-cornered [garment] and exclude a three-cornered [garment]?  I include a five-cornered [garment], for within five there is four, and I exclude a three-cornered [garment], because within three there is not four."

This means that one could have understood the verse as including specifically a garment with five corners and not one with three because a five-cornered garment "covers" more than does a three-cornered one.  Thus, when the verse points to an expansion of the halakha, by stating, "with which you cover yourself," it refers to a five-cornered garment.  The Gemara, however, rejects this reading.  Instead, it requires tzitzit on a five-cornered garment because such a garment necessarily possesses four corners.  We can understand this conclusion in one of two ways:

  1. A five-cornered garment requires tzitzit because it includes within it four corners, and the additional corner does not affect the obligation.  According to this understanding, we take the expression "five includes four" at face value, that this garment requires tzitzit by virtue of its being a "four-cornered garment" only with one extra corner that has no effect on the others.  Accordingly, only four out of the five corners would require tzitzit.
  2. A five-cornered garment itself requires tzitzit, not merely because we may view it as a type of four-cornered garment.  The Torah required placing tzitzit on any garment possessing four corners or more.  According to this understanding, "four is included five" means that halakha makes no distinction between a four-cornered garment and five-cornered garment with respect to the obligation of tzitzit.  The obligation includes both types of garments.  Accordingly, a five-cornered garment would require tzitzit on all five corners.

The Rambam address this question explicitly and writes the following (Hilkhot Tzitzit 3:3):

"On the four corners of your garment - a four-cornered [garment] and not a three-cornered [garment].  If so, [perhaps one would claim] a four-cornered [garment] and not a five-cornered [garment]?  The verse therefore says, 'with which you cover yourself' - even one with five or more corners.  Why do I require [the placing of tzitzit on] a five-cornered [garment] and exempt a three-cornered [garment], given that neither is a four-cornered [garment]?  Because four is included in five.  Therefore, when one makes tzitzit for a garment with five or six [corners], he does so only for the four corners most distant from one another among the five or six, as it says, 'on the four corners of your garment.'"

The Rambam indicates that he accepts the first explanation mentioned above.  He therefore rules that even a five-cornered garment requires tzitzit only on four corners. 

From the Gemara, however, it appears that the halakha concerning a five-cornered garment hinges on a different issue.  The mishna (Menachot 28a) posits: "The four tzitziyot are indispensable with respect to one another, for all four constitute a single mitzva.  Rabbi Yishmael says: The four constitute four mitzvot."  Later, the Gemara (37b) comments that the debate between the Tanna Kama and Rabbi Yishmael surrounds the status of a five-cornered garment.  Rashi there explains:

"The Tanna Kama, who says that they are a single mitzva, holds that specifically four [tzitziyot are required to fulfill the] one mitzva, and when the Torah adds [an obligation for] a five-cornered [garment], it added [the requirement] of placing [on] four corners… According to Rabbi Yishmael, who says that the four corners constitute four mitzvot, when the Torah adds a five-cornered [garment], as well, it added it [with the requirement] to place [tzitzit] on all of them, for each one constitutes an independent mitzva."

In other words, if we view the mitzva as a single obligation to place tzitzit on four corners, as the Tanna Kama understood, then the fifth corner of a five-cornered garment is not included in the mitzva, and it does not require tzitzit.  If, however, we view the mitzva as consisting of four separate obligations, to place tzitzit on each corner, as Rabbi Yishmael maintained, then the fifth corner would require tzitzit just like the other four.[1]

          Until now we have assumed that a five-cornered garment requires tzitzit, in accordance with the aforementioned Gemara in Menachot, and we addressed the issue as to whether the fifth corner itself requires tzitzit.  Elsewhere, however, the Gemara questions the status of a five-cornered garment altogether.  In Zevachim (18b), the Gemara discusses the bigdei kehuna (priestly garments), which, the halakha establishes, must fit the kohen wearing them.  The Gemara there questions the status of bigdei kehuna that are too long, and hinges the issue on a debate between Tanna'im as to whether a five-cornered garment requires tzitzit.  The one who holds that the five-cornered garment does not require tzitzit sees the extra corner as an integral part of the garment which cannot be ignored.  Hence, we must define this garment as a five-cornered garment which is exempt from tzitzit.  By contrast, the one who includes five-cornered garments in the obligation believes that we can overlook the extra corner and consider this as a four-cornered garment, which requires tzitzit.  This debate, the Gemara claims, will determine the status of the long bigdei kehuna.  If we cannot overlook the excess part of the garment, then we must take the entirety of the bigdei kehuna into account; thus, since they do not fit the kohen, they are invalid.  If, however, we are entitled to ignore the excess, then we may overlook the extra length of the begadim and thus validate them for use.

          Later, the Gemara rejects the association between these two halakhot.  It concludes that, in truth, both Tanna'im agree that we cannot overlook the extra corner.  However, the clause "with which you cover yourself" applies the obligation of tzitzit to a five-cornered garment, and thus the question of whether or not we may overlook excess parts of a garment bears no relevance.

          According to the Gemara's initial understanding of this dispute, the status of a five-cornered garment hinges on the fundamental issue of whether we can ignore excess material.  We would then have to consider this question in light of many other halakhot in all areas, such as a Sefer Torah with an extra letter, or, as we saw in the Gemara, bigdei kehuna that do not fit the kohen wearing them.  In conclusion, however, the status of a five-cornered garment with respect to tzitzit involves only the local issue of how to understand the verse.

          The Rishonim dispute which view halakha adopts.  The Rambam, as we have seen, rules that a five-cornered garment requires tzitzit, a ruling accepted by the majority of Rishonim.  Some Ashkenazi Rishonim, however, exempt a five-cornered garment.  Preferably, then, one should refrain from wearing such a garment so as to avoid this question.[2]

          We now turn our attention to a three-cornered garment, in an attempt to identify the precise reason why the obligation of tzitzit does not apply. Two possibilities may be considered:

  1. Halakha does not define it as a garment ("beged") with respect to the mitzva of tzitzit.
  2. Alternatively, one could argue that the garment essentially qualifies for the mitzva, but the mitzva requires placing tzitzit on the four corners of a garment. Technically, then, the mitzva cannot be performed on a garment with only three corners.

In other words, the problem involves either the "cheftza" (object) of the mitzva, or the "kiyum" (performance, or fulfillment) of the mitzva.

          We may perhaps find an answer to this question in the Gemara's discussion of provision known as "ta'aseh ve-lo min ha-asuy" - that tzitzit must be attached to the garment only at a point when the garment requires tzitzit.  The Gemara states that if one had placed tzitzit on a three-cornered garment and now transforms it into a four-cornered garment, the previous tzitzit on the garment may not be used, since they had been placed onto the garment before it had qualified for the mitzva.  This would suggest that the problem with a three-cornered garment relates not to the ability to perform the mitzva, but rather to its lacking the status of a "cheftza shel tzitzit," a garment requiring tzitzit.  Therefore, placing tzitzit before transforming the garment from a three-cornered to a four-cornered garment gives rise to the problem of "ta'aseh ve-lo min ha-asuy."


          Many sugyot in the Talmud address the question of the materials from which a garment must be made in order to qualify for the obligation of tzitzit.  We will touch upon just one central sugya on this topic - Menachot 39b.  The Gemara there cites the position of Rav Nachman that garments made from other materials (besides wool and linen) require tzitzit only mi-de-rabbanan.  The source for this view, the Gemara writes, is a baraita which claims that unless specified otherwise, the term "beged" throughout the Torah refers specifically to wool and linen garments.  Therefore, the "garment" of which the Torah speaks in the context of tzitzit must also refer only to garments made from these two materials.  The Gemara proceeds to cite Rava, who disputes Rav Nachman and extends the Torah obligation of tzitzit to garments made from any material.

          The Rishonim disagree as to which position we should accept.  The Rambam (Hilkhot Tzitzit 3:1-2), as we have seen, claims that garments made from materials other than wool and linen require tzitzit as a rabbinic obligation, following Rav Nachman's view.  Tosefot (Menachot 39b, s.v. "ve-Rav Nachman," at the end), by contrast, cite Rabbenu Tam and Rashi who side with Rava.  It is worth noting that in presenting this halakha, the Rambam deviates somewhat from the standard formulation he employs with regard to other mitzvot.  He writes:

"A cloak of other materials, however, such as silk or cotton-wool… and the like are subject to the obligation of tzitzit only by the words of the Sages [as opposed to by Torah law] in order that we be scrupulous with regard to the mitzva of tzitzit." (Hilkhot Tzitzit 3:2)

We immediately discern two peculiarities in the Rambam's formulation.  First, he describes this obligation as originating in "divrei Chakhamim" ("the words of the Sages"), as opposed to the usual term he employs - "divrei Sofrim."  Secondly, the Rambam provides a reason for this rabbinic enactment - "in order that we be scrupulous with regard to the mitzva of tzitzit" - something he rarely does in the context of other rabbinically ordained prohibitions.[3]

          As far as the final halakha is concerned, we follow the Rambam's view, that garments made from materials other than wool and linen require tzitzit mi-de-rabbanan.

          In our discussion of this sugya, we presented the two views of Rav Nachman and Rava.  We may, however, suggest a middle position in between these two extremes.  Before presenting our theory, let us first bring some examples to the idea we wish to develop from other areas of Halakha.

          We find in the Torah two verses concerning the prohibition against possessing chametz on Pesach: "Leaven shall not be found in your homes" (Shemot 12:19); "Leaven shall not be seen by you throughout your boundary" (Shemot 13:7).  In Pesachim (5b), the Gemara explains that each of these two verses both restricts and expands the prohibition.  The first verse ("Leaven shall not be found in your homes") expands the level of the required elimination of chametz - that it should not "be found" - but implies a restriction as to the location where this applies - "in your homes."  Similarly, the second verse ("Leaven shall not be seen by you throughout your boundary") suggests a restriction in terms of the level of required elimination - that it suffices if the chametz is not "seen" - but expands the location to include all areas "throughout your boundary."  The conclusions we would reach from these verses appear to contradict one another.  The Gemara therefore concludes that we must adopt the stringent measures emerging from each verse, given the gezeira shava (relationship established) between the two verses indicated by the common usage of the term "se'or" (leaven).  This discussion implies that were it not for this gezeira shava, we would indeed distinguish between the two verses and establish two different categories within the prohibition of chametz: in the home - chametz may not be found, whereas throughout one's territory - chametz may not be seen.

          A similar question arises regarding the prohibition against wearing sha'atnez.  Here, too, we find two different verses in the Torah: "You shall not put on a garment from a mixture of two kinds of material" (Vayikra 19:19); "You shall not wear sha'atnez, wool and linen together" (Devarim 22:11).  The first verse broadens the prohibition to include any instance of "putting on" such a garment, but restricts the item to which the prohibition applies by speaking specifically of a "beged."  In the second verse, we have a restriction of the prohibition to "wearing" (rather than any type of "putting on") but an expansion to anything that is worn (as this verse never specifies "beged").  Indeed, we find in the Rishonim echoes of two distinct tracts within the prohibition of sha'atnez, as manifest, for example, in the fact that someone selling clothing may wear sha'atnez if he uses it as a cover rather than as clothing.

          May we impose this model on the mitzva of tzitzit, as well?  Here, two, we have two verses presenting the mitzva: "They shall make tzitzit on the corner of their garments ['al kanfei bigdeihem'], for the ages" (Bemidbar 15:38); "You shall make tassels on the four corners of your garment with which you cover yourself" (Devarim 22:12).  We could interpret the first verse as implying that only an item defined as a "beged" requires tzitzit, as the baraita cited above (from Menachot) understood. The second verse, however, suggests that anything used to cover oneself is subject to this obligation. (Only the verse in Bemidbar employs the term "beged" - "bigdeihem."  In Devarim, the word "kesutekha," literally, "your covering," is used in reference to a garment.) 

          At first glance, we could claim that no practical difference exists between these two concepts.  However, the Gemara discusses the question of whether or not garments not currently being worn require tzitzit.  One could argue that the first verse would, indeed, require the placement of tzitzit on clothing in one's closet, while the second verse, which applies the mitzva only to that which covers, would not.  Therefore, clothing not currently worn would require tzitzit only if it classifies as a "beged" - if it is made from wool or linen.  Other garments, that actually "cover," would require tzitzit regardless of the material.

          We have thus tried to equate the model of tzitzit to that of chametz before the gezeira shava and that of sha'atnez.  The verse of "on the corners of their garments" defines the type of objects requiring tzitzit - any "beged" - and thus restricts the materials from which the garment must be made.  The second verse, "You shall make tassels… with which you cover yourself," limits the type of clothing to those garments with which one actually covers himself, while extending the obligation to garments made of all materials.

          If we accept this model, we arrive at two separate areas of obligation with regard to the mitzva of tzitzit:

  1. "begadim," those garments made of wool and linen;
  2. garments with which one covers himself, irrespective of the material.

As discussed, the practical ramification between these two categories would be garments not currently worn.  As they would require tzitzit only due to the first obligation, only wool and linen garments would be included.

          This approach may very well affect the first question we discussed, the status of a five-cornered garment.  A close examination of the two verses dealing with tzitzit reveals an important difference with regard to the number of corners required.  The first verse (in Sefer Bemidbar) requires tzitzit simply "on the corners of their garments."  In Devarim, by contrast, the verse specifies "on the four corners of your garment."  According to the model we developed, it will turn out that a garment that does not have four corners would require tzitzit only if meets the definition of "beged," namely, it is made from wool or linen.  A four-cornered garment, by contrast, would require tzitzit even if it is made from other materials - so long as it currently "covers" the individual.


          In this shiur we dealt with two central issues concerning the obligation of tzitzit:

  1. The number of corners required on a garment to incur the obligation of tzitzit.  We saw several different views on this issue and brought various ways to explain the basis for the argument.
  2. The type of material from which a garment must be made in order to qualify for the obligation of tzitzit.  Here, too, we saw a variety of opinions.

Towards the end of our discussion we showed how these two questions may actually stem from the same issue.  We should note that the Gemara never raises such an approach, and it addresses the two issues entirely independently of one another.  This approach is not mentioned in the Rishonim, either, and therefore it has not been accepted as Halakha.

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


[1] We should note that the Beit Yosef cites an opposite explanation of this Gemara, that if the mitzva consists of four obligations, then one may not add more tzitziyot, given that the mitzva requires only four.  If, however, there is but a single obligation, then the mitzva requires placing tzitzit on each corner, such that on a five-cornered garment one would have to place tzitzit on all five corners.

[2] We should mention in this context that one view among the Rishonim maintains that specifically a five-cornered garment requires tzitzit, whereas garments with six or more corners are exempt.  Clearly, this distinction is logically very difficult to accept.

[3] Other Rishonim explain that Chazal instituted this obligation of tzitzit on other garments because the Torah requires that we "see" the tzitzit, a commandment with important ramifications in terms of yir'at Shamayim.  Chazal emphasized this obligation by extending it to garments that do not require tzitzit on the level of Torah law.


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