This piece is part of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes series.
This piece is in commemoration of the 5th yahrzeit (anniversary of passing) of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi — a soul whom I never met, but who I couldn’t help but feel knew me whenever I study his teachings.
Siman/Chapter 9, Part 1: Tzitzit
For those who know me know that the mitzvah/commandment of tzitzit (“zeet-zeet”) is one close to my heart and beginnings in the Jewish faith.
As an overview, the Torah commands Jewish people to don four fringe tassels on the corners of their four-cornered garment also known as a tallit (“tah-leet”). There are two types of talitot (“ta-lee-tote” — the plural version). There is a tallit katan (“katan” meaning “small”), a smaller, undershirt-sized poncho-like garment typically worn underneath their regular shirt daily. There is also a tallit gadol (“gadol” meaning “big”) which is also known as a prayer shawl. This is what you’ll see worn by Jews during morning prayers.
A tzitzit fringe is made of four wound wool strings that are run through holes in the four corners of the tallit katan or tallit gadol. These strings are folded in half, making the appearance of eight strings that are knotted and wound in a method containing ritual numeric significance. The knotted and wound section make up about a third of the overall fringe that is approximately a foot long.
The purpose of the tzitzit is to be a visual reminder to a Jewish person of the commandments of the Torah.
“And you will look upon it and you will remember all the mitzvot (commandments) of Hashem (God).”- Numbers 15:39.
In the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, there are many requirements of tzitzit.
– The hole of the tzitzit should be no more than three thumb-breadths from the corner and no less than one thumb-breadths so that it is still considered the “corner” while not being so close to the edge that it may be easily torn off. – Even if the hole is ripped after the tzitzit was tied to the garment, it’s ok — as long as it was tied in the proper place when first tied. – If a tzitzit is torn completely off, it must be untied and re-tied through the mended hole — not merely having the hole mended around the existing loop. – You should check your tzitzit before putting them on to make sure they’re in good shape and not tangled. One exception is if you’re running late for prayers. – Before you put on a tallit gadol, you should utter the blessing of “al’mitzvat b’tzitzit” — “concerning the commandment of tzitzit.” – Before you put on a tallit gadol, you should put it over your head, utter the blessing of “l’hita-tef b’tzitzit” (“to enwrap ourselves in tzitzit”) while throwing the corners over your left shoulder “up to your neck and wrap yourself in the manner of the Arabs.”
– It’s customary to keep the tallit gadol over your head for four seconds. I never quite understood this until I saw the late Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, ob’m, do so. The way he did so was as though he was giving his tallit gadol—and by extension, his Creator — a loving hug. I continue to practice this mostly due to the way this action struck me.
– The blessing of tzitzit should only be uttered during the daylight hours because the purpose of tzitzit is to see them. – If you take off your tzitzit with the intention of putting them back on soon, such as taking off your tallit gadol before using the restroom, you don’t have to say a blessing. However, if your tallit gadol fell completely off accidentally or you took it off without intending to put it back on, you need to say the blessing again before putting it on. – etc.
There is one part of tzitzit/tallit gadol wearing that surprised me in this section.
“It is permissible to borrow someone’s tallis (tallit gadol) on an irregular basis, even without his knowledge, and use it for prayers and to recite a berachah (blessing) over it, because it may be assumed that one is pleased that a mitzvah is performed with his property, if it is at no loss to [the owner]…”
Wait a minute. This means that if, say, I’m running late to services and find someone’s tallit gadol there and know that they probably won’t be attending services, I can pull it out, unfold it, and throw it on as though it were my own?
Yep — even if I’ve never met this person.
What makes this halacha (ruling) even more significant is that someone’s tallit gadol is an extremely personal item. Ritually speaking, a man from an observant Ashkenazi (European) Jewish background first receives their tallit gadol as a present from their wife on their wedding day. They pray with this item every morning. Because they’re worn as shawls, they’re rarely washed, so over time, they start to take on that person’s familiar scent (the scent of my own daily-worn prayer shawl reminds me of the smell of my father’s or grandfathers’ jackets — natural scents I inherited from them). When this person dies, one of the tzitzit fringes is cut off to symbolize that the commandments no longer apply to them. Their body is wrapped in the tallit gadol in their casket. For those buried according to Jewish ritual, this is the only personal item they are buried with. They’re not even buried in any of their own clothes, instead dressed in linen burial tachrichim — simple white pajama-like garments made for this purpose. This tallit gadol is essentially like a child’s beloved security blanket, yet I’m allowed to just borrow it, willy nilly?
The message this sends me is that community trumps materialism. In the western world, we’re all about our stuff. We lock our doors. We customize our homes. We have our stuff just the way we like it. Our possessive spirit creates a bubble around us. You have your stuff. I have my stuff. “Never the twain shall meet.”
This ruling, however, tells a different story. It says: My most prized, personal, spiritual possession is also yours to use if you so need it. If I am not in immediate need of it, I am willing to lower my force field of materialistic grasp and offer it to you. You should not be without simply because of my own connection to and history with this particular item.
What if we treated not only our items this way, but also our time? What if we said, “If I can help you, my help is yours”? Like another’s tallit gadol, how many of us would accept this help? After all, this help smells like you, it feels like you — like the grasp of your hands and all of your experiences.
Like we offer up our prayer shawl to those without one, we should also offer up our time and help. On the other side of this situation, we should be willing to embrace the broken-in prayer shawl of another and embrace their help.