Shelah Lekha–Fringe Benefits

They should make them a fringe (tzitzit) on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach an indigo cord to the fringe at each corner . . . . Look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them.   (Num. 15:38-39)

A fringe or tassel on the garment is not unusual in the Ancient Near East.  What is unusual here is the color and the intent.

The indigo color prescribed is made from a dye derived, not from a plant, but from a substance secreted by the murex snail.  The labor-intensive extraction and preparation of this dye made it quite costly. It was used for royal garments in many places in the Mediterranean region, as in Israel it was also used for priestly garments and for the cloth furnishings of the tabernacle.  The color matches the concept of Israel as a “kingdom of priests.”  Remnants of clothing found in the caves inhabited by Bar Kochba’s followers demonstrate that such indigo twists were still worn in the second century CE.  Eventually, issues of cost and accessibility forced the rabbis to drop this color requirement for tzitzit.

The intent of the tsitsit is to remind the wearer of God’s commanments, like a string around one’s finger.  This verse is part of the daily Shema, a ritual created during the Maccabean period (164-63 BC) to underscore exclusive allegiance to the One God and to reinforce the wearing of tefillin (sacred amulets) and tzitzit. 

In addition to the difficulty with the blue dye mentioned above, dress style has changed so that most garments do not have square corners, which the rabbis saw as necessary for attaching tzitzit. Tzitzit today are worn mostly as part of the Jewish prayer shawl, the tallis.  Orthodox men and boys also wear a tallit katan, a sleeveless piece of cloth with a neck hole and corners on which tzitzit are attached.

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