Hebrew In Israel | Tzitzit – Learn Torah

"Speak to the people of Isra’el, instructing them to make, through all their generations, tzitziyot on the corners of their garments, and to put with the tzitzit on each corner a blue thread." Numbers 15:38

tallit, jewish prayer shawl, tsitsit, tzitzit, tassel meaning, fringe meaning, tassel,

Hebrew In Israel | Tzitzit – Learn Torah

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In this week’s Parashah, we read about the Tzitizt (fringe) and the Tekhelet (blue cord) which are to be made on the skirt of our garments.  There are several important words which must be discussed in order for us to understand this commandment correctly.

Kanaf

The first word is כנף-Kanaf, which many understand as corner.  It is notable that the word is also used to indicate the wings of a bird, and the ends of things, even if they are not squares or rectangles.  The actual meaning of this word is edge or skirt.  The interpretation of corner stems from the practice to use a four-cornered garment as the Tzitzit garment (i.e. Tallit).  However, the study of the word as used in other places, and the examples we have from the ancient world, show that this was the skirt of the garment, and not the four corners.  An upper four cornered garment to wrap oneself with was used only by the upper echelons of society, while most people wore a simple tunic or skirt.  Hence the wearing of Tzitzit should be on four sides of the skirt, and not necessarily four corners.  Some have suggested (Stephens 1931) that garments were cut in a wave shape at the ends, giving it the feel of actual bird wings, which might have brought the use of the word Kanaf to describe the skirt of the garment.

A Syntax Problem

A different problem is the misuse of the syntax in Deuteronomy 22:12.  In the usual understanding of the text and the common renditions, it says “on the four corners” making it sound as if there is a need for placing the Tzitzit on four specific places.  This has led many to believe that the garment is to be of specifically four sides.  The structure in Hebrew however does not support this understanding.  It is very simple to read it as four random places at the skirt of the garment.  The first point is that one needs to let go of the image of a four-sided garment.  Many garments did not have four edges, and when rounded or cut in a non-corner way, you will not have four corners/edges.  If the text was על ארבעת כנפת כסתך –“On THE four corners of your garment”–as a long definite construct chain, the common reading would be correct.  The definiteness of the statement would be determined by the pronominal suffix of ך marked in red. The adding of the ת in red would link the words together.  However, it is על ארבע כנפת which is indefinite.  If it were definite then the reading of specific four sides would be correct, however the lack of a definite chain creates a nonspecific, random way of placing the cords.

Tekhelet

The next word is תכלת-Tekhelet.  The word can be found in Akkadian as Takiltu, and represents an expensive Phoenician fabric of dyed wool which was used for taxes.  The problem we have with this is that the dye was so expensive, it was difficult for the average person to obtain it.  We have very few examples of dyed fabrics, and we only find dyed cords from the end of the 2nd temple.  Most cases of dyed fabrics were not actually dyed, but rather were painted on top of the fabric.  There is the possibility that Tekhelet does not refer to a colourant, but to a colour.  If this is the case, we do not need to use the expensive Phoenician dye used for taxes, but any dye which can produce the desired colour. 

There is also a debate on the actual colour itself of Tekhelet.  Though most people agree it was a shade of blue, some argue it might have been purple or even turquoise and green.  The argument presented before me in the past was that the spectrum of colours used in the ancient world included many colours which we today would define differently.  Hence anything in the “blue” family will be called Tekhelet.

Tzitzit

The last word is ציצת-Tzitzit.  The word is derived from the root ציצ/צוצ which is the flowering of something.  It is interesting to see the fringes used in Assyrian art which explains the way they would have made Tzitzit.  The Assyrians would braid cords together and end it with a flower shape.  This description fits perfectly to the idea of גדילים-Gedilim, which are braided cords as mentioned in Deuteronomy 22:12.  


 גְּדִלִים, תַּעֲשֶׂה-לָּךְ, עַל-אַרְבַּע כַּנְפוֹת כְּסוּתְךָ, אֲשֶׁר תְּכַסֶּה-בָּהּ

You are to make for yourself twisted cords on the four corners of the garment you wrap around yourself.


Hence it seems that one is to braid the cords, and end them with a flower.

Conclusion

Many technical issues can be found in the common understanding of the commandment of Tzitzit.  Only a detailed understanding of the words and historical context, can shed light on the ancient practice.  The colour, shape and placing of the Tzitzit can be determined by examining what we know about clothing, fabrics and economics in the ancient word.

Sources:

H. Frankfort, “The Art and Architecture of the Ancient Orient”, Yale University Press 1996

H. Verlag, “A concise dictionary of Akkadian”, Wiesbaden 2000, p.394

J.H Walton, “Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary” vol.1, Zondervan 2009, p.363

P. Galpaz-Feller, “The Sound of Garments”, Carmel Publications 2008, pp.149-152

2 comments

peter

June 19, 2017 at 6:18 pm

very informative yoel thanks again for sharing, I do have a question on your post tho you said I qoute : Some have suggested (Stephens 1931) who is this person and where can i find this source? just curious…thanks again

    Admin

    June 20, 2017 at 6:25 am

    Stephens, F.J., “The Ancient Significance of SISITH”, JBL 50 (1931), pp. 59-70.

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