The Torah tells us to make tzitzits for ourselves – v’asu lahem tzitzis (Bamidbar 15:38). Based on these words, the Talmudic Sages and later the Shulchan Aruch ruled that tzitzit strings must be made with intent (lishma), i.e. when making the strings one must have intent that they eventually be used for the mitzvah of tzitzit.
What exactly is lishmah? Perhaps the secular legal definition sheds some light on the concept. According to Barron’s Law Dictionary, intent is “a state of mind wherein the person knows and desires the consequences of one’s own act.”
Tzitzit strings factory
Let’s say you own a tzitzit strings factory. One day a yo-yo manufacturer approaches you, saying how much he admires the quality of your string. “It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for,” he says, and makes an offer to buy 10,000 meters. That amount is the equivalent of about one day of operation on your tzitzit machine. You agree, telling the yo-yo man you’ll run the line on Tuesday.
Handmade tzitzit production line. Photo courtesy of www.COLlive.com
Tuesday morning you arrive at the factory, adjust the settings and hit the button to start the machine. By the end of the day you have 12,000 meters of string and deliver 10,000 to the yo-yo manufacturer. Can you use the surplus 2,000 meters as tzitzit strings? Of course not. They were not made with intent to perform a mitzvah.
The next day, you again adjust the settings and just before you hit the button you say aloud, “this is for the mitzvah of tzitzit.” You have full intent to prepare tzitzit strings. But the machine that actually does the spinning and twining does the exact same thing it did yesterday. The question is, was your intent at the starting point enough?
The simple answer is no, which means tzitzit strings must always be spun by hand. These tzitzit are commonly known as avodat yad, literally “handmade.” However, according to some poskim (halachic decisors), that initial intent is sufficient, therefore tzitzit strings can be spun by machine.
Note that there is no such thing as a machine that ties tzitzit and there is no room in halacha to permit machine-tied tzitzit. Tzitzit are always hand-tied. (Also, among Christians who keep certain Torah mitzvahs – so-called Messianic Jews – you will often come across “pre-tied tzitzit,” i.e. strings that were tied and then simply clipped onto a belt or shirt. This is explicitly forbidden by halacha and definitely cannot be considered kosher tzitzit according to any definition.)
To read further on the topic of lishmah, see “How Tzitzit Strings are Made”>>>