The Relationship Between Tzitzit and the Garment
The Torah describes the mitzva of tzitzit in Parashat Shelach and again in Parashat Ki Tetzei. There are several discrepancies in these descriptions, but one of the most intriguing ones is the manner of referring to the positioning of the tzitzit. Parashat Shelach describes affixing tzitzit to the “corners of their garments” (“kanfei bigdeichem”), whereas Ki Tetzei instructs to place them “on the four corners of your kesut (garment).” This difference leads to an interesting question about the relationship between the fringes and the garment. Are tzitzit meant to be affixed to the CORNERS of a piece of clothing (as implied by Shelach) or attached to garments on their surrounding corners (as implied by Ki Tetzei)? Said otherwise are tzitzit meant to surround and adorn a garment? Or are tzitzit independent items meant to be worn. They cannot be worn on their own and therefore are affixed to corners. Keep in mind that Shelach does not mention the number four, whereas Ki Tetzei does. By mentioning the number four, Ki Tetzei may be instructing a complete COVERAGE of garments with tzitzit. The tzitzit are placed upon the four corners in order to circumscribe the garment. We ENCOMPASS a garment with tzitzit by placing them on the garment itself. Essentially though tzitzit are meant to encompass the garment.
The most direct application of this question is an interesting machloket Amoraim in Menachot (40b) between Rava and R. Acha. Only garments made from woven fabrics are obligated in tzitzit; leather is not. If a garment is leather and the corners are wool, Rava excludes the item from the obligation of tzitzit. Conversely, if the garment is wool and the corners are made from leather, Rava obligates tzitzit. As the gemara explains, we determine the mitzva based on the constituency of the GARMENT, not the CORNERS. R. Acha claims the exact opposite; the mitzva is determined by the texture of the corners, and not the garment itself. Presumably, these Amoraim are debating the aforementioned issue: is the primary mitzva defined as attaching tzitzit to CORNERS or to encircle GARMENTS by placing tzitzit upon the corner? R. Acha holds the former, Rava the latter.
A further question relates to the issue of a five-cornered garment. The gemara in Menachot (41b) confirms that such a garment is also obligated in tzitzit, but the gemara in Zevachim (18b) cites an opinion that only four-cornered garments are obligated in tzitzit, based upon the simple reading of the text in Ki Tetzei. In fact, there is a version of the Sifri on Ki Tetzei which supports the exclusion of a five-cornered garment from tzitzit.
This machloket may reflect the question of whether tzitzit are affixed to corners or are intended to surround garments. Assuming the Torah intends “four corners” as a way to encompass garments, there would be little difference between whether there are four corners or five. When the Torah delineates four corners (in Ki Tetzei), it basically refers to a conventional garment; an additional corner does not impact the base obligation of the mitzva. In fact, the gemara in Menachot (41b) which obligates a five-cornered garment derives this from the extra clause in Ki Tetzei: “asher tichase ba,” loosely translated as, “[place tzitzit] upon the garment which you wear.” If tzitzit are intended as coverage for a GARMENT, the obligation should not be impacted by the extra corner.
If, however, tzitzit is a mitzva to affix four strands to corners, we might only be able to obligate a four-cornered garment and not a five-cornered one. The Torah specified a precise number of corners. Hence, only a garment which enables the placement of specifically four would be obligated in tzitzit.
Interestingly, most Rishonim rule in accordance with the gemara in Menachot which obligates a five-cornered garment in tzitzit. However, even according to these Rishonim, there may be a sub-machloket that is impacted by this question. According to Rashi’s reading of Menachot (37b), the Rabbanan and R. Yishmael debate how many tzitzit should be added to a five-cornered garment. Assuming that the garment is obligated in tzitzit, should EACH corner receive a tzitzit or should four be applied, as in standard tzitzit? Perhaps this question is impacted by the original issue. If tzitzit are meant to cover a garment, perhaps four would be sufficient to grant coverage, especially if they were placed apart form each other. By specifying the number four, the Torah does not designate a magic number; it rather speaks of coverage, which typically entails four corners. Even a five or more cornered garment is covered by tzitzit with the inclusion of four tzitzit. However, if the Torah designates tzitzit for each corner (and an extra limud stretches this mitzva to a five-cornered garment as well), we may require tzitzit for EACH corner. The mitzva of tzitzit requires each corner’s receiving a strand; a five-cornered garment would require five tzitzit.
This final machloket is connected to a larger question about the nature of the four tzitzit as a group. If the tzitzit are meant to merely cover the garment, they should be viewed as one “group” performing a unified function. Alternatively, tzitzit are not intended to cover the garment, but rather are viewed as standing alone, autonomous elements whose location happen to be the corners of a garment. Each tzitzit would then be viewed independent of the other tzitzit, since they perform no joint function. In fact, the question as to whether the four tzitzit comprise one group or multiple units is also part of the machloket between the Rabbanan and R. Yishmael in Menachot (37b).
Another fascinating issue surrounds a situation of wearing a four-cornered garment without affixing tzizit. Obviously the person has missed an opportunity to fulfill a mitzva. Has he also violated an ‘aveira.’ Typically non-performance of a mitzvat asei is just that – omission. Sometimes however omission can also be interpreted as commission and violation of an asei. The most well known examples surrounds the position of the Minchat Chinukh regarding someone who eats outside of a Sukka. In addition to forgoing the mitzva he has also violated the mitzva by performing the ‘defiant‘ act of eating outside a Sukka. Would wearing a four-cornered garment be similar to eating outside a Sukka (at least according to the Minchat Chinukh)? This issue is debated by the Rishonim (cited by the Mordechai in his comments to the end of the fourth perek of Menachot) as well as the Acharonim (see the Shaagat Aryeh in siman 32 and the Minchat Chinukh 386).
Presumably if the mitzva entails wearing four tzitzit (which happen to be strategically affixed to four corners) a person who doesn’t wear four corners has merely neglected an asei. The mitzva is defined as wearing four tzitzit and he has declined the opportunity. He hasn’t violated the mitzva by performing a contrary act. It would be the equivalent of not wearing tefilin- no defiant act without the mitzva has been executed.
If, however, the mitzva of tzitzit is defined as wearing a certain TYPE OF GARMENT (embellished by tzitzit), wearing a non-embellished garment would be an act of defying the mitzva and might actually be prohibited. From this perspective it would be similar to the Minchat Chinukh’s view of Sukka. Just as someone who EATS without Sukka has violated the mitzva, similarly someone who wears GARMENTS without tzitzit would be considered in active and defiant violation of the mitzva.