Apr 132015
 

The following is an exchange with a prospective customer who seems to be debating whether he wants to wear a cotton tallit katan or a wool tallit katan. Although I found some of his questions a bit surprising, I think the exchange may be instructive for some other people out there interested in buying a tallit katan.

With wool tallit katans, do I wear it against my skin? What is the general custom for wearing one? Thank you for your time.

No, you can’t wear wool against your skin (try it and you’ll see what I mean). Even our Wool Comfort undershirt style tzitzit is not meant to be worn against your skin. You need an undershirt. It is made from a very soft wool, but it’s still itchy.

(I once told a customer who asked a very similar question that there’s no such thing as wool that can be worn against the skin. I was wrong. He was from New Zealand, which is one the the world’s leading producers of wool, and he gave me a quick lesson on Merino wool.)

People who don’t like to wear three layers choose a cotton undershirt style tzitzit garment.

How would I wash the wool undershirt tzitzit?

Personally I wash mine by hand, but I think woolite and a gentle cycle, cold water should be fine. The real problem is the tzitzit. Even on a gentle cycle they can get horribly tangled. Did you even buy one of these? If not, there are ways to improvise. You can tuck the tzitzit into a sock and tie it up tight and wrap rubber bands around it.

Thank you very much for the response. I know someone who wears the wool against his skin and he is an observant Jew. So I wasn’t sure if it was against halacha or not. Are there special undershirts for wool katan use? Or can just any cotton shirt work?

What if they made wool katans with a special thin soft lining that is only on the inside. The inside that touches the skin? But without commiting shatnez? It would be interesting. It beats 3 layers.

If I may ask, what is it that you wear? Do you wear wool katans?

I have both cotton and wool.

There are some opinions that wearing the garment against your skin (cotton or wool) is inappropriate. Not against halacha, strictly speaking, but sort of showing a lack of respect for a mitzvah item. But a tallit katan is in essence a regular garment, so it does not have the kedusha of items like a mezuzah or tefillin. According to that opinion, which is a stringency that not all poskim concur with, because a tallit katan is used specifically for the mitzvah of tzitzit, it’s more than just a regular garment. These opinions state that an undershirt is meant to absorb sweat, so creating a tzitzit garment that serves that function is disrespectful.

Shatnez is not an issue here because the fabrics involved here are wool and cotton. The prohibition is against a combination of wool and linen. Cotton and linen are not the same thing. Linen is made from flax/linseed.

Mar 262015
 

We offer a wide range of tzitzit and tzitzit tying options on just about every talit and talit katan we sell, but the extensive number of options can be overwhelming for some of our customers. This week I had a number of email exchanges with a customer who bought a tallit from us and now wanted to buy his first talit katan. I could tell from his questions that he was not very clear on how to order tzitzit, so I wrote a complete explanation, laying out all of the relevant terms.

Hello Ben!
Do you sell any extra extra large tsitsit katan Beit Yosef?
What size would it be? And how much? Thank you, David

I’m pretty sure it was important to David to have Sephardic tzitzit, but he didn’t know how to relate that. Since some of these concepts may be a bit unclear to other visitors to our blog and website, I’m copying all of the details here:

I think you may be confusing “Beit Yosef” with Sephardic tzitzit tying. Let me explain all of the terminology to avoid misunderstandings in our communications.

Rabbi Yosef Caro wrote two tremendous halachic works: Beit Yosef and Shulchan Aruch.

The tallit you bought is named after his early work, Beit Yosef. But that’s the tallit itself, not the tzitzit.

Almost all Sephardim want their talit gadol (prayer shawl worn in synagogue) and talit katan (tzitzit garment worn all day under your shirt) to have Sephardic tzitzit tied on.

There is no difference between the tzitzit strings used to tie tzitzit. The difference is the way they are tied. There are four main tzitzit tying customs:

  • Ashkenazi
  • Sephardic
  • Yemenite/Rambam
  • Chabad/Arizal

The term Sephardic tzitzit means they are tied in such a way that a ridge spirals around on top of the windings. There are four sections of windings.

On a talit gadol almost all Sephardim have the custom to do the have the following number of windings: 7-8-11-13, just like Ashkenazim and Chabad.

On a talit katan, most Sephardim have the custom to tie the tzitzit with the following number of windings: 10-5-6-5. The gematria for 10-5-6-5 is Hashem’s name, therefore many people refer to this tying pattern as yud-kay-vov-kay.

Not all Sephardim are clear on all of these details. Many will just say, “I want Sephardic tzitzit.”

There is also one more Sephardic tzitzit tying custom known as Ben Ish Chai. This is fairly rare. We almost never get orders for Ben Ish Chai.

We can tie tzitzit according to any tying custom, no matter which product you choose.

On almost every product page you will see three options to select: size, tzitzit and tzitzit tying.

If you’re looking for a talit katan, in the product description you will see a size chart. Each product has a different sizing system (e.g. the sizing for a cotton talit katan and a wool talit katan are not the same; for example, size 9 cotton = size 6 wool).

Under the tzitzit option you select thin, medium, thick, etc.

Then under the tzitzit tying option you would select Sephardic 10-5-6-5 or Sephardic 7-8-11-13.

Feb 162015
 

I have a hunch that very few readers will find this post engaging, but since for several years I’ve been making a living by selling tallit and tzitzit products and sending them to customers around the world, I was quite intrigued to come across a court decision that delved into the definition and description of the type of products we sell.

Apparently a Jew in New York by the name of Dwek wanted to import talleisim and tallis katan garments without having to pay too much in import duties. It sounds like he got in a spat with U.S. Customs, and the case was brought to court, where they had to determine whether a tallit and tallit katan should be viewed like other cotton or wool garments, or whether the importer could “claim duty free status as a religious article under subheading 9810.00.90, HTSUSA.”

“Determination of the HTSUSA classification of the subject merchandise requires an understanding of terminology which is germane to the issue,” reads the decision, noting that “Customs interprets the use of the merchandise to include the manner in which it is worn, as well as the reason for which it is worn.” The following definitions are then listed:

Prayer Shawl – A tallith. Webster’s II, New College Dictionary 868 (1995).
Tallith – A fringed prayer shawl with bands of black or blue, worn during worship by Orthodox or Conservative Jews. Id. at 1125.
Tallit – Prayer Shawl, usually of silk or wool, sometimes banded with silver or gold thread, and fringe at each of the four corners in accordance with biblical law. (Num. 15:38) [I would add that sometimes the mitzvah is fulfilled according to Rabbinical Law (d’Rabbanan), but not at the level of Biblical Law (d’Oreisa).] The wearing of the tallit at worship is obligatory only for married men, but it is customarily worn also by males of bar mitzvah age or older. [That is true for most Ashkenazim.] Occasionally it is spread over the marriage canopy or used as a burial shroud. In recent years, some women have begun to wear tallits. Mordecai Schreiber, The Shengold Jewish Encyclopedia, 255 (1998).
Arba Kanfot – Literally, four corners. A rectangular vestlet covering the chest and back, with ritual fringes, or tzizit, attached to its corners, in remembrance of the biblical command that Jewish males wear a fringed garment (Num. 15:37-41). It is also called a tallit katan, or “little tallit.” Id. at 28.
Tzitzit – Tassels hanging on each of the four corners [of a Tallit or Tallit Katan]. If you look carefully you will see that they are made of eight strings, or more accurately, four strings doubled over to make eight. You will also notice that they are attached through a small hole near the corner and that they contain five knots and four groups of windings between the knots. Aryeh Kaplan, Tzitzith: A Thread of Light, 9 (1984).

“Furthermore, after consultation with various sources concerning the practice of the Jewish faith, Customs notes the following explanation of the usage for the subject merchandise:

When dressing one should add to his garments the Talit Qatan (little talit), better known as ‘Arba Kanfot’ (four corners), which should be worn all day. The Talit Qatan consists of an oblong piece of cloth with a hole cut in the middle large enough for the head to go through. It should be large enough to fold over the upper body in front and back, and should have Tsitsit on its four corners… The Tsisit, as the Torah prescribes, serve as a reminder of God’s commandments: “And ye shall look at it and remember all the commandments of the Lord.” (Num. 15:39)… If one of the threads is missing the Talit should not be used. . . . Today, the Tsitsit come ready made, attached properly to the Talit and Talit Qatan. See Isaac Klein, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, 3-5 (1979).”

As you can see, the terms “tassels” and “fringes” can get very confusing. I think the safest usage is to refer to tzitzit as “tzitzit” or “tassels” and to reserve the usage of the word “fringes” for the decorative fringes along two sides of a tallit gadol or usually along the front edge of a wool tallit katan.

If you are not bored to tears by now, and are still reading, here is where the legal discussion of Customs regulations gets interesting: In its ruling the court decided that import taxes should be levied on a tallit or tallit katan – unless it has tzitzit tied on!

As stated in the above cited sources, both the talit and arba kanfot are symbolically used for prayer and have specially knotted tassels and fringe attached for their use and purpose as such. Therefore, if the subject merchandise is imported with the tassels attached, then the importer of record may claim duty free status as a religious article under subheading 9810.00.90, HTSUSA.

So there you have it in black-and-white: If it has tzitzit tied on, it’s a “religious article,” if not, it’s just an article of clothing.

You could even go one step further. The concluding section states, “if imported with the specially knotted tassels and fringe properly attached” [italics added] the tallit or tallit katan is duty free. In that case, if the tallit does not have kosher tzitzit, for any reason, the importer would have to pay taxes!

Feb 042015
 

This week I had an email exchange with a prospective customer interested in buying a tallit with techelet tzitzit.

Nice talking with you on the phone this morning…. But, I forgot to ask you something: If I choose just the “Handmade Thick Tzitzit” and the Chabad – Arizal tying,  will it still be with seven white & one blue string??…. or does it have to be one of the “techelet” options to get the white w / blue tzitzit strings? Thanks, Jim B.

I explained to Jim that the handmade tzitzit option he was referring to is white only. Techelet is the biblical word for the type of blue dye referred to in the verse.

דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם וְעָשׂוּ לָהֶם צִיצִת עַל כַּנְפֵי בִגְדֵיהֶם לְדֹרֹתָם וְנָתְנוּ עַל צִיצִת הַכָּנָף פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת
He then wrote me a quick note:
I appreciate your reply’s…. So the extra cost of the Techelet… is just for the one string with the dye?
Techelet is a very involved issue. There has been a huge debate over authentic techelet dye for about two decades. There are a lot of Christian sellers on the Web who sell tzitzit at low prices. In almost all cases the tzitzit are not kosher and if they sell blue tzitzit, it’s certainly not the blue dye referred to in the Torah, in most cases it’s a simple plant-based dye. I told Jim that if has the time and energy to look into the topic he should refer to this page and the links found there.

If you look online for “Ptil Tekhelet” you’ll see that most places sell it for $80-$120 per set, not $60-$70.
What’s interesting is that the techelet makers price the “Rambam” set with the half white/half blue tzitzit string (i.e. what you use to get one blue and seven white when tied) the same as the “Raavad” set with the all blue string. I imagine they decided to do that to avoid creating a situation where people make halachic decisions based largely on finances.
Feb 022015
 

Someone by the name of Mark has sent me a few questions on techelet by email and today he called me on the phone. One question that has apparently been on his mind lately is how many strings of techelet should you use: one blue and three white, according to the Raavad, or one blue/white and three white, according to the Rambam?

“According to the simple meaning of the verse in the Torah, doesn’t it make sense to go like the Rambam, so that [after tying] you have one blue and seven white?” said Mark. “After all, the Torah speaks of a string of blue, not multiple strings.”

I told him that if you are looking at the simple meaning of the verse, it makes more sense to me to follow the Raavad. “Someone comes up to you and says he has a four-cornered garment and he just got a supply of tzitzit strings. ‘How should I go about attaching them to the garment?’ So you would tell him, ‘Take three white strings and one blue string, insert them in the hole and make a double knot…’ The Raavad is looking at the question from a perspective of production, while the Rambam is looking at the final product.”

But I was wrong. The truth is the Rambam is reading the verse in a very straightforward manner as well.

דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם וְעָשׂוּ לָהֶם צִיצִת עַל כַּנְפֵי בִגְדֵיהֶם לְדֹרֹתָם וְנָתְנוּ עַל צִיצִת הַכָּנָף פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת

Read the posuk slowly, according to the simple meaning, with the working assumption that “tzitzis” = white strings and “ptil techeles” = a blue string.

So according to the Rambam the Torah says, “And they made tzitzis on the corners of their garments, for all generations, by placing on the [white] tzitzis strings of the corner a string of blue.” In other words you should tie on white tzitzit strings and then wind a blue string around the white strings.

Jan 302015
 

Machine-spun tzitzit stringsWe often receive inquiries about bulk tzitzit strings purchases. Sometimes they are odd requests, making me wonder what the prospective buyer plans to do with them, but typically the purchaser intends to buy tzitzit strings in bulk for a tzitzit-tying project for children or teenagers — summer camp, a synagogue program or a project at a Jewish day school.

Almost invariably they choose machine-spun tzitzit strings, which are quite affordable to begin with, and we also offer bulk discounts. We make buying in bulk very convenient: you simply select the quantity of tzitzit strings you need, and then the discount is applied automatically on the product page, before checkout.

       Buy Machine-Spun Tzitzit – Wholesale Prices>>

We purchase the tzitzit at low wholesale prices, and pass those savings on to our customers.

 

Dec 032014
 

I normally am not outspoken in my opinions, but I feel no hesitation to bring the opinions of prominent rabbanim on the techeiles debate to the public. So I have taken the initiative to selectively translate excerpts from letters written a number of leading poskim in Eretz Yisroel. If you would like to see the letters in full in the Hebrew original, go to the techeiles.org website.

Source of Murex techelet dye

Murex trunculus

Five years ago, in 5770, HaRav Moshe Mordechai Karp, one of the leading poskim in Kiryat Sefer, wrote an approbation for a book by Rav Eliyahu Tavgar, the rabbinical authority for the Ptil Tekhelet Foundation. “Although in practice,” writes Rabbi Karp, “for a number of reasons we cannot obligate one to wear techeiles, as Maran HaRav Yosef Shalom Eliashiv shlita [he has since passed away] has ruled, nevertheless certainly those who had the merit to clarify the halacha and arrived at the conclusion that [Murex trunculus is authentic techeiles] must fulfill the mitzvah, and embarassment has no place when it comes to fulfilling halacha.”

HaRav Gershon Meltzer, a well-known posek in Jerusalem who delivers a class at Mir Yeshiva, wrote an approbation for a pro-techeiles booklet written by Rav Meir Hellman. Rabbi Meltzer writes that the booklet presented the case very thoroughly, based on the Gemara, Rishonim and Achronim, and delved into practical aspects as well. His arguments are “well-founded and he effectively counters all of the dubious claims [against his thesis].”

Rabbi Meltzer goes on to argue that the contemporary debate is a worthy discussion and the arguments in favor should not be casually dismissed. He recalls that when machine matzah was first introduced, several of the leading poskim were staunchly opposed, primarily because matzah had been baked by hand for millenia, therefore in our generation one cannot come along and introduce a radical innovation.

He explains that the reason Rishonim did not wear techelet is already mentioned in the Ramban (Shemos 28:2), who says because it was used in clothes for royalty, the gentiles considered it an act of rebellion if Jews wore attire dyed with Murex trunculus.

Rabbi Yisrael Belsky, a prominent posek in the Orthodox Union and Yeshiva Torah Vodaas wrote an approbation two years ago in 5773 for a booklet on techeiles called Lavush Ha’aron. Like Rabbi Meltzer, he says that those who tie techeiles onto their garments certainly have valid reasons, their decision should definitely not be scorned and the matter should not be lightly dismissed. “Torah scholars would do well to carefully examine the clarifications and sources cited in the booklet, and apparently it can be relied upon in practice,” writes Rabbi Belsky.

In the summer of 5766 (eight years ago) someone, who’s name I cannot decipher, wrote a letter to HaRav Sariyah Dublitzky, saying he was thoroughly convinced that Murex trunculus “is the techeiles that the Creator commanded us to tie onto our clothing,” and asking Rav Dublitsky if he felt he should add it to his tallis katan, at least when worn discreetly.

“I myself wear Murex on my tallis katan,” HaRav Dublitzky wrote in a very brief reply.

In 5771 HaRav Shmuel Nadel, a well-known dayan in Bnei Brak, reviewed a booklet called Chotem Shel Zahav. During the time of the Gemara, writes Rabbi Nadel, “gentiles used and dyed with techeiles, and in all of the books by the wise men of the nations that contain detailed information on all of the types of dyes in use during the time, this snall appears as a source for dye, and no other snail used to derive techeiles is mentioned. Since it has been clarified that techeiles dye can be produced from this snall — which I saw with my own two eyes — there is no logical reason to cast doubt on the identity of the snail. The technique for producing the dye also appears in the gentiles’ books from that period, and it reselbles the production process familiar to us today.”

“Although clearly this is the techeiles used during the time of Chazal, there still appears to be room for debate over whether we should tie techeiles onto our talleisim considering the fact that for over a thousand years the Jewish people have not used techeiles tzitzis, therefore we cannot reintroduce this mitzvah, even if we are certain of the authenticity of this techeiles. I do not concur with this view, however this is a question worthy of consideration.”

Rabbi Nadel writes that the detrators assertions are illogical and baseless.

 

Sep 292014
 

If you are thinking of tying techelet tzitzit on your next tallit or tallit katan, but are not sure which tying custom to follow, you’re not alone.

With all white tzitzit, usually there’s nothing to decide: if you’re Ashkenazi, you tie Ashkenazi, if you’re Sephardic, you tie Sephardic, if you’re Chabad, you tie Chabad. But since it’s highly unlikely your parents, grandparents or great-grandparents had techelet tzitzit, you have no tradition to follow, and are left in a bit of a quandry.

The first thing you need to know is that tying techelet tzitzit according to the Ashkenazi or Sephardic custom is not the correct way to go about it. These customs were developed in the absence of techelet, but the Gemara provides many details about how to tie tzitzit and the Ashkenazi and Sephardic tying customs for all-white tzitzit do not meet many of the requirements in the Gemara.

Namely, the Gemara speaks of chulyot, saying you must have a minimum of seven and a maximum of thirteen. Normally chulyot are understood to be sets of three windings. Thus, for example, the Vilna Gaon writes that you should do thirteen chulyot as follows: after the first double knot, do 3 windings using the white shamsash string, three with the blue, three white, and three blue, i.e. four chulyot. Then make a second double knot. Repeat this sequence another three times so that you have a total of 12 chulyot. Then do one final chulyah of white and tie a final double knot.

Some of the other approaches, such as Sefer HaChinuch and Amram Gaon, are quite similar, while the Rambam and the Arizal have different approaches regarding how to create the chulyot.

If you insist on following the standard Ashkenazi or Sephardic tying custom, at least be sure that the very first and last windings are white, a basic requirement that the Gemara states unambigiously.

If you have the opportunity to delve into the topic, you’ll find the discussion starting on Menachot xxb. To see images of the primary techelet tying approaches, refer to this guide.

From a halachic standpoint, even more important than which tying custom you follow  is how many strings of blue you use. We know four tzitzit strings must be tied onto each corner. Once they are tied you see what appears to be eight strings hanging down. The Torah refers to a פתיל תכלת in the singular, but does that mean one of the four strings, i.e. one complete string of blue, or one of the eight strings, which would be achieved by using one string that is half blue and half white? The Rambam holds that one of the eight strings must be blue, while the Raavad holds that two of them must be blue. (The Tosefot has another approach according to white half of the eight strings should be blue.)

The Arizal and others agree with the Rambam, while the Gra, Sefer HaChinuch and others side with the Raavad. In practical terms, some say that today, in the absence of a mesorah, Ashkenazim should follow the Raavad, while Sephardim should follow the Rambam. But not all rabbanim agree with that approach, and it is recommended that you consult your rabbi on this question.

Sep 032014
 

It’s fairly rare that a customer asks me not to tie the first knot on the tzitzit too tight. That’s why I was surprised to see this note a customer added to an order for a white-on-white Beit Yosef talit.

Please see that the tsitsit be tied on both tallitot to have flat corners. That is, that the first knot is not so tight that it crumples the corner more than just a very small amount. I was told that they tied the first knot tight to prevent movement of the strings around the corner of the garment. However I am a little particular about the corners and personally I think the stiff corners of the Beit Yosef prevent that. Thank you, Dean.

Dean is actually quite right, but the truth is we would have done the same even without receiving the request.

There is a halacha, mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch, regarding how tight to make the first knot of the tzitzit (O.C. 11, 15). On one hand, we want the tzitzit to fall along the side of the tallit so that it hangs right alongside the corner when worn (“notef al hakeren“). If that first knot does not keep the tzitzit snug alongside the tallit, they are liable to make their way around the corner to the other side, so that when worn the tzitzit hang from the bottom edge parallel to the ground, rather than the fringed side.

On the other hand, if you make the knot very snug, according to some opinions, scrunched up fabric does not count when measuring the distance from the hole to the edge. The minimum distance is about 4 cm. The hole is usually positioned 5 cm away. So if you bunch up the fabric too much, according to these opinions the tzitzit are not considered attached to the kanaf.

Notably Lubavitch has a very innovative solution that allows them to have their cake and eat it too: They don’t scrunch up the fabric at all, but add a second hole, looping the shamash through it before the first winding, thereby anchoring the tzitzit to the correct side of the tallit.

Those who follow the Chazon Ish bunch up the fabric a lot, and many Sephardim are careful not to bunch up the fabric at all.

Some tallits have stiffer corners than others, which helps the tzitzit stay in place. High-end tallits, such as Chatanim, Hamefoar and Beit Yosef (as Dean notes) feature stiff wool corner patches for this reason. And sometimes decorated corners, notably on Yemenite tallitot, are very stiff.

Aug 072014
 

We get a whole lot of tzitzit questions, but this one was fairly unique.

Hi Ben – I would like to get tzitzit for a musician that I manage who is XL and gets very hot on stage and we need something very cool with Lubavitch knots – is that possible?

The question of how to wear tzitzit without getting overheated is actually very common, and is probably on many people’s minds at this time of year. So I’m pasting my reply in full:

Thank you for your inquiry. The first question is does he wear cotton, or does he insist on wool?
If, for halachic reasons, he insists on wearing wool, then go to this page and look at the Kalit and the Wool Comfort.
If cotton, then we’re up to question two: The traditional type, worn on top of an undershirt and under a shirt, or the undershirt type? The latter is worn directly on the skin in place of an undershirt, thereby cutting the three layers down to two.
You can see all of our cotton options on this page. The basic undershirt type would be either the PerfTzit or the Cotton Comfort, which are basically the same idea with a slightly different design.
Another option you might consider is the Sport Tzitzit, also on the cotton tzitzit page. Note that it has sleeves.
All of these products should have a Chabad tzitzit tying option available. But if he’s very particularly about the diagonal Chabad tzitzit holes, you’ll only find that on traditional wool and cotton tallit katan garments. All of the options discussed here have a single hole on each corner.