Parashat Shelach concludes with the mitzva of tzitzit, which requires affixing strings to the corners of a four-cornered garment which one wears. The Gemara in Masekhet Menachot (39b) cites a debate among the Amoraim as to whether the Torah obligation of tzitzit applies to garments made from all materials, or only to specific materials. According to one view, which is based on a berayta, the Torah obligation applies only to garments made from wool or flax. The basis for this view is the fact that in the context of the laws regarding tzara’at infections that appear on garments, the Torah specifies that this law applies only to wool and flax garments (Vayikra 13:47). According to this view, the specification of wool and fax in the context of tzara’at establishes the definition of the generic word “beged” (“garment”) throughout the Torah, as referring only to wool or flax garments. Therefore, when the Torah commands affixing tzitzit to one’s “beged” (Bamidbar 15:38), it requires affixing tzitzit only to wool and flax garments. Affixing tzitzit to garments made from other materials, according to this opinion, is required only by force of Rabbinic enactment.
Rava, however, disagrees. In his view, four-cornered garments made from any material require tzitzit on the level of Torah obligation. Rava notes the phrase in Parashat Shelach (15:38) which describes the tzitzit strings with the phrase “tzitzit ha-kanaf” – “the string of the corner,” and he suggests that this phrase implies a resemblance between the string and the garment. Specifically, the tzitzit strings must be made from the same material as the garment. However, in Sefer Devarim (22:11-12), the Torah juxtaposes the mitzva of tzitzit with the prohibition of wearing wool and flax together (sha’atnez), and Rava understood this pair of verses as indicating that the tzitzit strings should be made specifically from wool or flax. To reconcile these verses, Rava explains that wool and flax tzitzit strings may be used for a garment of any material, whereas tzitzit strings made from another material may be used only for a garment made from that material. Underlying Rava’s position is the assumption that the Biblical obligation of tzitzit applies to garments of all materials, and not just to wool and flax garments.
The Rishonim debate the question of which view is to be accepted as normative Halakha. Tosefot, commenting on the Gemara’s discussion there in Masekhet Menachot, write that Rashi and Rabbenu Tam both accepted Rava’s position, that the Torah obligation of tzitzit applies to garments of all materials. By contrast, the Rif (there in Menachot) and the Rambam (Hilkhot Tzitzit 2:3) accepted Rav Nachman’s position, limiting the Torah obligation to wool and flax garments.
This debate continues in the Shulchan Arukh (O.C. 9:1), as well, as the Mechaber (Rav Yosef Karo, author of the Shulchan Arukh) accepts the view of the Sephardic Rishonim, that the Biblical obligation does not apply to materials other than wool and flax. The Rama, representing the Ashkenazic tradition, follows the view of Rashi and Rabbenu Tam, that the Torah obligation of tzitzit applies equally to garments of all materials.
In light of this controversy, several halakhic authorities maintained that it is preferable to wear specifically a wool garment for fulfilling the mitzva of tzitzit. In their view, not only should one wear a woolen tallit for prayer, but one’s tallit katan – the garment worn under one’s shirt – should also be made of wool, so that one fulfills the mitzva on the level of Torah law according to all opinions. This is the view of the Chafetz Chaim, in his Mishna Berura (9:5).
Interestingly, however, it is reported that the Vilna Gaon would wear a tallit katan made from cotton, and not from wool (Ma’aseh Rav, 17). Seemingly, this reflects the view of the Rama, that no difference exists between different materials with regard to the Torah obligation of tzitzit.
We will iy”H continue our discussion of this topic tomorrow.