The Obligation to Wear Tzitzit

  • Rav Binyamin Tabory
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

The Weekly Mitzva
Yeshivat Har Etzion

Parashat Shelach


The Obligation to Wear Tzitzit

By Rav Binyamin Tabory



            There are seven mitzvot that Chazal considered equivalent to the entire gamut of mitzvot.  Interestingly, three of them directly relate to Parashat Shelach. Rashi (Bamidbar 15:41) cites Rabbi Moshe Ha-darshan as explaining that the Torah in this parasha juxtaposed the story of the "mekoshesh" (the person who desecrated Shabbat – see Shabbat 96b) with the laws of inadvertent idolatrous worship because both Shabbat and idolatry are equivalent to the entire Torah.  He adds that the laws of tzitzit follow the story of the mekoshesh as that, too, is a mitzva which is equivalent to the entire Torah.


            But whereas it is obvious that we must observe Shabbat and refrain from idolatry, wearing tzitzit does not, at first glance, appear to be an outright obligation.  After all, Halakha requires one to wear tzitzit only if he wears a four-cornered garment.  In fact, the gemara (Menachot 41a) asks rhetorically, "Is it possible that one who does not wear a four-cornered garment is obligated in tzitzit?"  The Gemara there relates that Rav Katina wore special clothes in order to avoid wearing a four-cornered garment and was harshly rebuked for this practice.  When he responded, "Is there a punishment for not fulfilling a mitzvat asei?" he was told that it is improper to maneuver in such a way so as not to perform a mitzva.  Moreover, in a period of divine anger, one would be punished for intentionally avoiding a mitzvat asei.


            Tosafot (Arakhin 2b) maintain that this punishment only applied at the time when most people wore four-cornered garments.  A person would then have to obtain special clothes in order to avoid wearing tzitzit.  However, in a generation when people do not generally wear four-cornered garments, there is no punishment for not fulfilling this mitzva.  Tosafot did not say that no obligation at all would exist at such a time; they merely said that not wearing tzitzit would not incur punishment.


            The Gemara (Pesachim 113b) included a person who does not wear tzitzit in the list of people who are "excommunicated" by God.  Tosafot there comment that this refers only to a person who wore a four-cornered garment and did not put tzitzit on them.  They then proceed to cite a second view, that a person must always make an effort to involve himself in mitzvot.  This list would therefore include every person who could buy a four-cornered garment and wear tzitzit, but fails to do so.


            We have seen that at severe times, in periods of "divine anger," one may be punished for not wearing tzitzit.  Additionally, someone who does not fulfill mitzvot in general may be excommunicated by God. There does not, however, seem to be an absolute obligation to wear tzitzit.


            The Or Zarua (Hilkhot Birkhat HaMotzi, 140) attempted to explain the reason for the different formulations used in the berakhot recited over mitzvot.  He claimed that the "le-" form (e.g. "le-haniach tefillin") is used when there is an absolute obligation to fulfill the mitzva.  By contrast, we employ the "al" form (such as "al netilat yadayim") when performing mitzvot that are not necessarily obligatory.  The Or Zarua therefore asked why over tzitzit we recite the berakha, "le-hit'atef be-tzitzit," given that there is no obligation to wear tzitzit.  He answered that Chazal indeed instituted an obligation to fulfill this mitzva.  He also suggested another answer, that once it became the custom to make a point of wearing a four-cornered garment to obligate ourselves in tzitzit, it automatically became an obligation.  He compared this to the ma'ariv service, which the Gemara considered a "reshut" (optional) but became an outright obligation once it was accepted as such.


            The Rambam's position on this issue, of the nature of the tzitzit obligation, is somewhat unclear.  After his list of the mitzvot asei in his Sefer Ha-mitzvot, the Rambam listed sixty mitzvot which normal people – who live in a city, do business, marry and have children - must perform.  In this list he includes the mitzva of tzitzit.  True, the Rambam also includes mezuza in this list, and one can absolve himself from this obligation by living in a boat or tent (see Hilkhot Berakhot 11:2).  However, a clear distinction exists between tzitzit and mezuza.  A normal person under normal circumstances lives in a house and is therefore obligated to place a mezuza on his doorframe.  But a person could lead an entirely normal life (especially given today's style of clothing) without ever wearing a four-cornered garment.  If the Rambam included tzitzit as a mitzva which must be performed under normal circumstances in daily life, he apparently felt that there is an absolute obligation to fulfill this mitzva.


            We may draw further proof from a ruling of the Rambam in Hilkhot Shevuot (1:6), where he addresses a situation of a person who swears to abrogate a mitzva.  He gives a number of examples: "If a person swore not to wear tzitzit or put on tefillin, not to sit in a sukka on Sukkot, not to eat matza on Pesach… "  This list includes mitzvot which are incumbent upon every person – as well as the mitzva of tzitzit.  Seemingly, then, the Rambam viewed this mitzva as an absolute obligation which one must perform.

            On the other hand, the Rambam writes in Hilkhot Tzitzit (3:11): "Even though it is not obligatory to buy a tallit and wear it in order to fulfill the mitzva of tzitzit, it is not appropriate for a pious person to exempt himself from this mitzva.  He should try to wear a garment obligated in tzitzit, in order to fulfill the mitzva.  During the time of prayer, one should be especially meticulous (to wear tzitzit).  It is a terrible disgrace for a talmid chakham to pray while not wearing tzitzit."  The Rambam then concludes this section by commenting, "Everyone should be careful to perform this mitzva, since the Torah said that all mitzvot are equal to and dependant upon it."


            This section seemingly contradicts the thesis that the Rambam elucidated in Sefer Ha-mitzvot and Hilkhot Shevuot.  In fact, Rav Yosef Kapach felt that the Rambam changed his mind about this issue, as these conflicting passages cannot be reconciled at all.


            The Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 8:1) writes that one must stand while reciting the berakha over tzitzit.  The Magen Avraham asked why Halakha requires standing for this berakha but allows one to sit while reciting the berakha over hafrashat challa (removing some dough from the batter while baking).  He suggests that taking challa is a less important mitzva since one takes challa only so that he may eat the bread.  The Gaon of Vilna refuted this opinion, arguing that challa is of no less importance than any other mitzva.  The Yeshuot Yaakov also disagreed with the Magen Avraham and argued that challa is certainly similar to tzitzit.  Just as a person who bakes with a certain quantity of dough, and wishes to eat, must give challa, similarly, one who wears a four-cornered garment must wear tzitzit.  There is an obligation neither to give challa nor to wear tzitzit; both are required once a person chooses to place himself in a certain situation.  The Yeshuot Yaakov therefore resorted to other answers to explain why the berakha on tzitzit must be recited while standing.


            Apparently, the Magen Avraham understood that there indeed exists an absolute obligation to wear tzitzit, perhaps by force of rabbinic enactment, as suggested by the Or Zarua.


            Although the precise nature of the tzitzit obligation, as we have seen, is subject to debate, it is nevertheless considered equivalent to all other mitzvot. One who wears tzitzit reminds himself of all the mitzvot (see Bamidbar 15:39 and Rashi, Ramban and Seforno).  In fact, Ibn Ezra commented that although men wear a tallit specifically while praying, it would seem more appropriate to wear a tallit outside of shul.  A person praying in shul is automatically involved in the spiritual world.  It is specifically outside the context of prayer where a person needs tzitzit to remind him of the entire gamut of Torah and mitzvot.