Tzitzit as a Symbol

In this lesson, the symbolism of the mitzvah of Tzitzit will be examined, through looking at the biblical source for the mitzvah, and then exploring different approaches through talmudic and modern voices.

Resource Ages: 15-18


Devarim 15:37-41

The LORD said to Moses as follows:

Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves tzitzit on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the tzitzit at each corner.

That shall be your tzitzit; look at it and recall all the commandments of the LORD and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge.

Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.

I the LORD am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the LORD your God.

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃

דַּבֵּ֞ר אֶל־בְּנֵ֤י יִשְׂרָאֵל֙ וְאָמַרְתָּ֣ אֲלֵהֶ֔ם וְעָשׂ֨וּ לָהֶ֥ם צִיצִ֛ת עַל־כַּנְפֵ֥י בִגְדֵיהֶ֖ם לְדֹרֹתָ֑ם וְנָֽתְנ֛וּ עַל־צִיצִ֥ת הַכָּנָ֖ף פְּתִ֥יל תְּכֵֽלֶת׃

וְהָיָ֣ה לָכֶם֮ לְצִיצִת֒ וּרְאִיתֶ֣ם אֹת֗וֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם֙ אֶת־כָּל־מִצְות יְהוָ֔ה וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֹתָ֑ם וְלֹֽא־תָתֻ֜רוּ אַחֲרֵ֤י לְבַבְכֶם֙ וְאַחֲרֵ֣י עֵֽינֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־אַתֶּ֥ם זֹנִ֖ים אַחֲרֵיהֶֽם׃

לְמַ֣עַן תִּזְכְּר֔וּ וַעֲשִׂיתֶ֖ם אֶת־כָּל־מִצְותָ֑י וִהְיִיתֶ֥ם קְדֹשִׁ֖ים לֵֽאלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

אֲנִ֞י ה’ אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר הוֹצֵ֤אתִי אֶתְכֶם֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לִהְי֥וֹת לָכֶ֖ם לֵאלֹהִ֑ים אֲנִ֖י ה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

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Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • Why are holidays, rituals, customs, important to me, my family, and my community?
  • How do Jewish practices reflect Jewish values?
  • How do Jewish rituals and practices enrich the way I experience my life and the world?
  • Why/how might Jewish practices be meaningful for me even if I don’t define myself as “religious”?
  • How can I experience moments of connection to God?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • How can mitzvot that function as “symbols” impact the way I am a Jew?
  • How can the mitzvah of tzitzit help me develop a relationship with God and Judaism? 
  • What Jewish ideas/values are contained in the symbolism of the ritual object tzitzit?
  • How can clothes encourage ritual observance?
  • What do you do, wear or say to remind you of your Jewishness?
  • How can material objects encourage spirituality?
  • Which purpose for this mitzvah can you relate to the most

Background for Teacher

Devarim 15:37-41 Main ideas in the biblical source for the mitzvah: This text is a biblical source for the mitzvah of tzitzit ( צִציִּת ). Jews are instructed to attach fringes to the four “corners” of their garments. A cord of blue is also...

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Devarim 15:37-41

Main ideas in the biblical source for the mitzvah: This text is a biblical source for the mitzvah of tzitzit ( צִציִּת ). Jews are instructed to attach fringes to the four “corners” of their garments. A cord of blue is also to be attached to the fringes. The purpose of this ritual is to remind the Jews of “all the commandments of the Lord,” so that they will observe them, and not follow “your heart and eyes in your lustful urge.” 

Some laws pertaining to the mitzvah of Tzitzit: How do fringes serve to remind a person of the mitzvot? What meaning is there in attaching a set of fringes or strings to the corners of clothing? Before an attempt is made to answer these questions, the lesson will first clarify a few important halakhic aspects of this mitzvah.

  • The obligation is to wear tzitzit on the corners of the garments. 
  • The rabbis elucidated that this is specifically required on a four-cornered garment. Such a four-cornered garment with tzitzit on the corners is referred to as a tallit – literally a “gown” or “cloak.” 
  • The obligation of tzitzit was limited to garments with four corners, which were customarily worn as outer garments in ancient times. But after exile and dispersion from Israel, Jews chose not to wear garments that distinguished themselves from the majority. Around the 13th century, the rabbis, therefore, encouraged the wearing of specially made four-cornered undergarments called a tallit katan (a small tallit), or arba kenafot (four corners), or simply tzitzit. 
  • It became customary in some circles to wear tzitzit both on the tallit katan, which is worn throughout the day, and on the tallit worn exclusively during morning prayers (commonly known in English as a “prayer-shawl”).
  • Tzitzit consist of eight white threads (there are actually four threads folded in two) larger than four thumb lengths, tied in five double knots on each corner of the tallit.
  • The Torah prescribes the entwining of a blue cord – tekhelet – into the tzitzit. However, difficulties in obtaining the dyeing material led to an ultimate discontinuation of the use of the coveted blue dye sometime between 570 and 750 CE. 
  • Today there is somewhat of a revival of tekhelet following the discovery of a certain snail source (the Chilazon) that seems to fit the description of the biblical dye as described in the Talmud.

Purpose of the mitzvah: Having clarified some of the halakhic aspects of this mitzvah, it is time to focus on its meaning and significance. How do fringes attached to one’s garments remind one of the obligation to observe the mitzvot?

Rashi (on BaMidbar 15:39) tries to explain the relationship between tzitzit and an awareness of the mitzvot through the use of gematriya, a calculation of the numeric value of the Hebrew letters. The word tzitzit adds up to 600 (twice tzaddik=180, twice yod=20, tav=400). (Rashi’s text of the Torah may have had two yodim in the word tzitzit. Ramban attacked Rashi’s commentary on this point.) The eight threads together with the five knots amount to 13. All totaled, you have 600+13= 613, corresponding to the 613 mitzvot.

Etymology of the word Tzizit: It is suggested that the Hebrew word tzitzit ( צִיצִית ) is related to the word hatzatzah, (הצֲָצָה) meaning “peeking” or “glancing.” Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895–1986) suggested that the mitzvah of tzitizit was designed to impress upon a Jew the importance of being cognizant at all times of the obligation to fulfill God’s commandments. One should be so in tune with their responsibilities that the mere glancing at a thread on the corner of the garment would be enough to remind a person of their duties.

The mitzvot designed to “remind”: The Rabbis seemed to believe that if a Jew observes this mitzvah, as well as the mitzvot of Tefillin and mezuzah, all three of which which serve as constant reminders of God’s presence and of a Jew’s responsibility to adhere to God’s Torah, they are unlikely to succumb to the temptations of sin. Just as a person is more likely to succeed at school or at work if they have reminders, reinforcements, and encouragement, the same is true regarding the difficult task of succeeding in a Jew’s spiritual and religious endeavors. 

Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Menachot 44a

This text is a provocative talmudic narrative with the impact of keeping the mitzvah of tzitzit as the main focus. However, there are other themes in the story that may distract your students from the main message. While you could take this opportunity to deal with the questions that may arise from these themes, you may instead wish to  tell the story without these elements, or avoid the text completely. In this latter case, see the optional text of Rashi on BaMidbar 15:39 (referenced above) that follows this text.

A story about the impact of wearing Tzitzit: Writing in a way that would certainly catch the audiences’ attention, this is a bold text that portrays a yeshivah student in a light that challenges the perception of them being untainted by impure thoughts and temptations. The talmudic Rabbis link the observance of the mitzvah of tzitzit with a person being prevented from sinning. The mere glancing at the tzitzit was not enough (as suggested above by R. Feinstein). It was necessary for the tzitzit to slap the young student on his face for him to realize he should not proceed with inappropriate behavior.

The point the Rabbis wanted to get across is that when one is carrying a reminder of God’s commandments literally on one’s body, sin is less likely to happen. The symbol, then, serves as a reminder; the reminder sets one on the right path, ultimately creating a stronger connection to God.

Notes about the text:

  • It is possible that when the narrative states that the man was “meticulous in the observance of the mitzvah of tzitzit,” the intent is to say he was very careful about the technical aspects of the commandment, but failed to keep in mind the meaning behind the commandment until it hit him in the face.
  • The money the woman paid to the government was either a payoff to allow her to go and convert or was to pay off a tax imposed upon her. 
  • It is likely that when the woman handed the paper to the rabbi the narrator intended to impart that she also shared the story of what happened with him. 
  • The woman starts out in the story being a harlot, becomes a woman during the course of the story (as she is not referred to as a harlot after the beginning), and ends up being called “my daughter” by Rabbi Chiyya at the end of the story, despite knowing about her profession. In this way, the story seems to mark the woman’s personal spiritual journey.

Optional Text: Rashi on Bamidbar 15:39

וזכרתם את כל מצות ה’. שֶׁמִּנְיַן גִּימַטְרִיָּא שֶׁל צִיצִית שֵׁשׁ מֵאוֹת, וּשְׁמוֹנָה חוּטִין וַחֲמִשָּׁה קְשָׁרִים הֲרֵי תרי”ג (תנחומא):

AND YE SHALL REMEMBER ALL THE COMMANDMENTS OF THE LORD — The Tzitzit will remind one of all the commandments because the numerical value of the letters of the word Tzitzit is six hundred, and there are eight threads and five knots in the fringes, so that you have six hundred and thirteen, which is also the number of the commandments of the Torah.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Ruth Gan Kagan, Tallit

Enveloped in the tallit and feeling God’s protection: The focus of the mitzvah in the Torah and in some of the other texts seen in this lesson thus far is on the attached fringes. Schachter-Shalomi wishes to suggest that the garment itself can serve a purpose – in drawing a Jew closer to God during the time of prayer, and in offering an opportunity to feel comfort and protection.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities
  • Sociology and Uniforms in the lives of teenagers: All teenagers have items of clothes that can be considered a “uniform” of some sort. Examples could be school uniform, youth movement shirts (or other youth clubs/movements such as scouts), sports shirts (either professional teams or teams in which the students compete, including martial arts). Examining and sharing these between the class will give the students and an opportunity to consider how clothes can express values and ideas, both to the outside world, and to the wearer.
    • Ask your students to bring in three examples of shirts they wear that could be considered a “uniform”. or, as them to share photographs of them wearing these (if necessary from their social media feeds).
    • With each example, give the other students an opportunity to say what they think the uniform expresses and what we can learn about the wearer from looking at the article of clothing.
    • Then give the owner a chance to explain:
      • Some background as to what the article of clothing represents
      • What values and ideas it expresses
      • What they feel when they wear the article
    • Then have a general discussion with the class about how clothes (even non-uniform clothes) can and do express values and ideas (even when the wearer is unaware or this is not their intention).
    • Explain that this is a good intro into understanding more about the mitzvah of tzitzit, which is an article of clothing that represents all the other mitzvot (and therefore values) of the Torah.
  • If possible, a great way to introduce the mitzvah of tzitzit would be to have your students make their own tzitzit (assuming you can purchase the strings and begged/garment locally). The following resources would help you to do this:

(Check out for a great Edtech platform to incorporate videos into your lessons)

  • Math race to 613: Tzitzit represent all the other mitzvot in the Torah (there are 613), and one way is that the numeral value of the letters of the word צִציִּת  which comes to 600, together with the 8 strings and 5 double knots = 613 (see Rashi on BaMidbar 15:39 above). Give your students the following images and get them to race, the first to arrive at 613 wins!

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

This biblical text is what we know as the third paragraph of the shema (in previous lessons we have explored the mitzvot of Tefillin and Mezuzah from the other paragraphs of the shema). It is no coincidence that these three mitzvot are centrally located in the passages that the rabbis chose to become the center point of our prayers. What do they have in common, and what are they designed to achieve (which may help us understand why they are contained in the text that became the “shema”. The following questions can be used to discuss this:

  • From these verses, what can we conclude is the meaning and goal behind the mitzah?
  • What is your understanding of the word וּרְאִיתֶ֣ם (look at/see them) in the context of this mitzvah, and what can that tell us about what tzitzit are to achieve for us?
  • What do tzitzit help us “remember”? How does it do this?
  • Do you think tzitzit sends us a message or those who see us wearing them?
  • Do you think clothes are a good place to place a “reminder”? Why?
  • What does tzitzit, tefillin, and Mezuzah have in common with each other?
  • Why do you think the rabbis chose these texts that mention these mitzvot  to become the “shema”, for us to say everyday in our prayer services?

The story from the Talmud (Menachot 44a) is a practical example of how tzitzit can “remind” us of the mitzvot, God, and Judaism. The talmud chooses a story where the yeshiva student is struggling with his own personal morality, and has tzitzit play a role in “waking him up” to do the right thing (by reminding him about his commitment to Torah, Mitzvot, and God). These questions could help explore this with your students:

  • Why does the talmud go out of its way to state that the man was meticulous in the mitzvah of tzitzit?
  • How can you reconcile his behaviour in this story if he took this mitzvah so seriously?
  • What does the tzitzit “slapping him in the face” represent?
  • In the biblical verses we are told just looking at the tzitzit is enough. Why do you think they had to slap him in this story?
  • Why can we say in this case tzitzit was a more effective reminder/protection than the mitzvot of tefillin and mezuzah, which would not have had the same impact?
  • Can you see a connection between the mitzvah of tzitzit (taking clothes and sanctifying them) and the conclusion of the story?

There is something very powerful about wrapping yourself in a mitzvah, and the spiritual experience of what that feels like. There are few other mitzvot that have such an impact in the same way (perhaps sukkot, or shabbat which conceptually surrounds you in holiness). These questions encourage your students to consider the spiritual impact of surrounding yourself in a “dvar mitzvah” – an object of a mitzvah.

  • How does it feel to be enveloped in a warm blanket on a cold winter’s day? Is this at all similar to what is described here?
  • What is unique about the mitzvah of tzitzit as described in this source compared to other mitzvot?
  • Can you think of any other mitzvot that are in any way similar to this?
  • Does this description of being enveloped in this mitzvah resonate with you?
  • Some people have the custom to wrap their tallit around their children during the priestly blessings which are said on Yom Tov (or every day in Israel). How do you imagine this must feel? Is this in any way similar to what is described in this source?
  • Some people have the custom to place their tallit over their head during prayer. Why do you think they do this?
  • Divide your students into small groups and have them collaborate on a T-shirt/sweatshirt design for their school (or year-group, or class). They can use images and/or words to do this. They should consider:
    • What will capture the essence of the school
    • What are the school values and how can they be expressed on a shirt
    • What other aspects of the shirt can express the values of the school community apart from what is printed on it.
  • Creative writing: Have your students write a story where the protagonist has a “wake up call” from something s/he sees (and image or reminder of something) in much the same way as tzitzit gave the yeshiva student in the story a wake-up call.
  • Creative writing: Have your students write a poem about the emotions experienced when wearing an old sweatshirt that belongs to a loved one (a friend, sibling, parent or grandparent). Then discuss with them how this connects to Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi’s approach to tallit.

You may wish to use some EdTech platforms for the sharing/collaboration activities such as these. For examples check out is an online collaborative whiteboard, and an online presentation platform.