Bar-Ilan University

The Faculty of Jewish Studies

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Daf Parashat Hashavua

(Study Sheet on the Weekly Torah Portion)

Basic Jewish Studies Unit


Parashat Shelach

The Source of a Custom

And They Shall Make for Themselves Fringes on the Corners

Of their Garments (Num. 15:38): The Yemenite Tallit

Dr. Aaron Gimani

Integrated Department of Jewish Studies

In our day, the use of the tallit (prayer-shawl) is largely confined to times of prayer. To "beautify the mitzwa," that is, to carry out the commandment in the best possible way, some people have quotations from the Bible or blessings embroidered upon their tallit, and (as with all articles devoted to religious uses) it is always handled with respect.

Jewish sources indicate that the tallit was originally made of wool and that the person wearing it might treat it as an ordinary garment for various purposes--bundle up his wares in it, or use it to cover himself or the bed he was lying on. Saadia Gaon, who translated the Bible into Arabic (c.900 C.E.), renders "their garments" in the verse "And instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments" (Num. 15:38) by a word which means 'a garment to cover the body'.

In the Yemenite Midrash Gadol, on the same verse, we read:

For Saul persecuted David and it would have been permissible for David to kill him, but he was punctilious about the commandment to wear tzitzit (fringes), as it is said: "And David arose and cut off the corner of the robe that Saul wore ... and David's heart smote him" (I Sam. 24:4). He said, "Woe is me, for I have prevented him from observing the mitzwa of tzitzit for a short time"--for the mitzwa requires the presence of all four tzitziyot [and David had cut off one corner].

From a responsum written by RMb"M (Maimonides--1135-1204) we can also infer that it was then customary to wear the tallit throughout the day. Verses from the Bible should not be written upon a tallit, in RMb"M's opinion, because of the nature of the use made of the garment:

"And therefore it is permitted to go into a toilet wearing a fringed tallit--both when one's nakedness is hidden and when it is not--and to tread upon it with the foot and to make use of it--for example, spreading it out and using it to cover things--all this is permitted. And how can we expose verses from the Torah which were written in sanctity from the mouth of the Almighty to such degradation?" (Responsa of the RMb"M, 268).

The ruling given in Karo's authoritative sixteenth-century Code, the Shulchan Aruch, is that "It is permissible to go into a toilet wearing tzitziyot" (Orach Chaim 21:3), while Rabbi Petachia of Regensburg, who visited the East in the twelfth century, tells us that the Jews of Baghdad "go about in shawls and wrapped up in a tallit of wool, with tzitziyot."

The restriction of the tallit to times of prayer and the development of the tallit katan, a small garment with fringes worn in addition to one's clothes and underneath them, derive from the acculturation of Jewish society within the general environment (see Z. Meller,"Tallit shel Tefilla" [Ph.D dissertation], Bar Ilan University, 1986, pp. 24-36).

There are many points which distinguish the tallit worn by Yemenite Jews from an "ordinary" tallit, and which indicate that the Yemenites have preserved ancient traditions. These include the shape of their tallit, the way they wrap themselves in it, and the use they make of it. We shall now briefly examine some of these points.

The tallit and its use: The tallit is made of black sheep's wool and is called shamlei. Once it has been put on it is worn throughout the day, and is used for any necessity. Rabbi Jacob Sapir, an emissary for religious organizations in Israel who visited Yemen in 1859 and wrote an account which was published in 1866, noted that "God-fearing men, teachers of the people, will wear another garment, with four corners and bearing tzitziyot, below their upper garment and over their backs, from above--the shamlei (so it is also called in Arabic), black or with black and white stripes, made of thick wool, square, with four corners, with which they cover their head and body all the way down, and on the four corners they hang tzitziyot, according to the law, and they cover themselves with the shamlei throughout the day ... at night too they cover themselves with it, or use it to cover the mattress on which they lie. And it will be used for every task; people carry things in it when they go buying and selling in the market, or they use it to carry wood" (p. 58b).

The sages of Yemen employed the corner of the tallit to make a kinyan sudar (a form of contractual agreement whereby the seller or buyer lifts up an object--often a handkerchief--which the other gives him). Rabbi Y. Kafich, esteemed Yemenite Rabbi and scholar, considers this use of the tallit a tradition of ancient times, and this receives some support from Saadia Gaon, for in his commentary on the book of Proverbs, Saadia compares "You have struck your hands for a stranger" (Prov. 6:1) to the procedure for a kinyan, remarking that the best garment for this purpose is one that reminds us of the mitzvot (commandments). The Yemenite practice of using a corner of a tallit

for a kinyan sudar is therefore most appropriate, since we are told in Numbers 15:39 that looking at the tzitziyot should make us "remember all the commandments of the Lord."

The making of tzitzit: The pattern to be followed in making up the tzitziyot is much disputed. Yemenite sources contain references to customs that are in harmony with those of other Jewish communities, and on occasion these were actually followed. But many Yemenite Jews are accustomed to make tzitzit with seven "joints" not separated by any knots. After the cords have been inserted into the hole at the corner of the tallit, a double knot is made. The longest cord is wound three times around the other cords, and this is the first joint. A small space is left and the cord is wound around another three times, and this constitutes the second joint; and the process continues until the tzitzit displays seven joints without any intervening knots.

By contrast, the practice that is widespread in many Jewish communities is to start with a double knot, make a joint by winding the cord around seven times, and finish it with another double knot. The second joint is produced when the cord is passed around nine times, followed by a double knot; the third joint requires eleven passes plus a double knot; and the fourth and last joint consists of thirteen passes and a final double knot.

Asking what the size of a joint should be, the Babylonian Talmud records a Tannaic opinion (in a baraita) that the cord should be wound around three times, and that not fewer than seven nor more than thirteen joints should be made (Menachot 39a). The question concerns the making of tzitzit with a blue thread (techelet), and some rabbinic arbiters therefore consider that the ruling applies only to tzitziyot of this type. RMb"M, however, thinks it applicable in all cases: "And this method of winding around--if someone wishes to make joints as was done with a blue thread he is entitled to do so, and this is our custom" (Laws of Tzitzit 1:9). Rabbi Joseph Kafich comments on this with regard to the practice of Yemenite Jews, "And such is our custom from of old" (see his edition of RMb"M's Mishneh Torah, 2:20). Writing on Yemenite Jewish customs, Rabbi Isaac Ratzaby remarks, "At any rate, it would seem that a clear preference should be given to our custom, which explicitly appears in the Talmud, whereas other practices were introduced without any comparable source." See his Responsa, Olat Yitzchak (Bnei Barak, 1992), 2,13. According to Rabbis Kafich and Ratzaby, then, the Yemenite tradition should be maintained in Israel as well, since its source is ancient.

Yemenite Jews (so too the Ashkenazi custom) used to leave the threads which came out of the tallit garment as a decoration at the edges, despite the opinion of many rabbinic authorities that they should not be left hanging. On this point, Rabbi Kafich remarks that "the custom of our ancestors is [equivalent to] Torah, and it is quite unnecessary to trim the threads at the corners of the tallit as others do" (see his edition of Mishneh T, Laws of Tzitzit 1:6:13; and the illustration below).

As for the tallit katan, it was worn only by some Yemenite sages, but once the Yemenite community had immigrated to Israel their custom changed to conform with that of their brothers. Rabbi Shalom Isaac Halevi, who came to Israel from Yemen in 1923, writes in his responsa Divrei Shalom (Jerusalem, 1972; responsum 1) that "it is correct that only a few individuals were accustomed to wear the tallit katan, but this does not mean that Yemenite Jews thought it sufficient to wear a tallit during prayer only. The accepted custom is that every Yemenite Jewish male in Yemen would not go out of the door of his house unless he had a tallit on his shoulders, and this was the tallit that he wrapped around in the synagogue during prayer." He goes on to remark that Yemenite Jews living in Israel ought to do as other Jews do, and wear a tallit katan throughout the day.

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