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The Torah and Garments Part Two: Tzitzit (Tassels)

Even though Yeshua never told His priesthood to wear a uniform, Yahweh still tells us to wear tassels (Hebrew: tzitzit) on the four corners of the garments with which we cover ourselves. The command is to wear the tzitzit so that we may look upon them, and remember all the commandments of Yahweh, to do them, and not to follow after the harlotry to which our own hearts and eyes are inclined, and to be set-apart for our Elohim.

Bemidbar (Numbers) 15:38-40
38 “Speak to the children of Israel: Tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a blue thread in the tassels of the corners.
39 And you shall have the tassel, that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of Yahweh and do them, and that you may not follow the harlotry to which your own heart and your own eyes are inclined,
40 and that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be set-apart for your Elohim.”

However, there are many questions about how to fulfill this commandment today. For one thing, some garments had four literal corners back when Yahweh gave Israel the Torah. However, as we will see, the word used in this passage does not refer specifically to a garment with four corners, but to any garment (whether it has four corners or not). Since most people’s daily garments no longer have four corners, this raises questions about what we should do.

It seems intuitive to look at brother Judah’s use of the tallit (prayer shawl), and the tallit is a reasonable way to fulfill this command. However, Judah also makes some rulings that are not supported either by history, or by Scripture. For one example, Orthodox Judaism rules that only men should wear the tallit, which we will see conflicts with the Hebrew. Further, Orthodox Judaism rules that the blue in this passage is a very specific blue, and that since the source of this blue was lost, that we should not put a blue thread in our tzitzit today, since they say it may be the wrong shade of blue. Only, to make matters more complex, a certain popular theory tells us that this blue came from a certain sea snail, yet it seems impossible for Israel to have accessed this dye in the wilderness (where there were no sea snails). We will also see some theories about this shade of blue which match the Hebrew much better.

Beyond this, brother Judah has added certain traditions and rules regarding the tallit and tzitzit. Among his many rulings are the specifications that all tzitzit must be tied in exactly the same way, and to a certain length. They also require certain prayers before donning the tallit. However, we will see that these rules are rabbinic in origin, and did not exist in ancient times. So how was the commandment of tzitzit fulfilled in ancient Israel, and in Yeshua’s time?

The Simlah: The Ancient Four-Cornered Garment

In ancient Israel, clothing was comparatively much more expensive. Most clothing was made either of wool or linen, which was gathered and spun by hand. Stitching was also done by hand (with cruder needles and thread). This made fabric and sewing comparatively much more expensive. Because of this there was also a tendency to want to wear all the fabric one had paid for. This meant that most garments tended to be fuller, and less tailored (and therefore more rectangular-shaped), at least in earlier years.

One of the most basic garments in ancient Israel was the simlah (שִׂמְלָה). This garment first appears in Genesis 9:23, where Shem and Yapheth used a simlah to cover their father Noach’s (Noah’s) nakedness.

B’reisheet (Genesis) 9:23
23 But Shem and Yapheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.

The word simlah (garment) is Strong’s Hebrew Concordance OT:8071. It refers to a covering, but especially a mantle (a body wrap).

OT:8071 simlah (sim-law’); perhaps by permutation for the feminine of OT:5566 (through the idea of a cover assuming the shape of the object beneath); a dress, especially a mantle:
KJV – apparel, cloth (-es, -ing), garment, raiment. Compare OT:8008.

Originally, the simlah was a large full-size blanket that was big enough to drape or wrap the whole body. It was much larger than the modern tallit. It was usually made of white wool, on a loom. It could be used as a blanket at night, or to wrap or cloak the body during the day (although if it was cold outside, you might want to wear more than one). It could also be used as a burial shroud. However, unlike the tallit, it was not treated formally. It was simply a multi-purpose blanket that could be used to drape or wrap the body, or to gather food or firewood (or for any other purpose). However, such wraps were not normally worn while working (perhaps because they would get in the way).

Below is a Yemenite simlah being used as a cloak. It is not white, but notice how the ends of the wool are tied in knots, forming tassels.

If we ignore the rabbinic rules, all that is needed to fulfill Numbers 15:38 is to add a thread of blue to the tassel. This can be done by using blue threads on the sides of the garment when weaving the fabric on the loom. That way, when the ends of the fabric are tied into knots, the tassels will already have a thread of blue. One could also manually add a thread of blue to the tassel. One might even add rabbinic style tzitzit, although ironically there is a question as to whether this fulfills Yahweh’s original intent.

Because Hebrew is a function-oriented language, the word simlah can refer to different garment styles that fulfill the same function of covering the body (while assuming the shape of the object beneath). Accordingly, the simlah was worn in different ways over time. The simlah could be wrapped around the body, or it could be looped over one shoulder and then wrapped around the body. Further, while I have not yet found any historical sources, two rabbinic Jewish garment “experts” told me that a neck hole was also made so that it could be worn as a poncho, usually with a sash for the larger sizes, and without a sash for the smaller sizes. They called this larger poncho-style simlah a biblical tallit. Even if this is a rabbinic myth, it seems widely believed, and also seems intuitive. (And even if it was not worn historically, such a garment still has four corners, and can therefore still be used to fulfill the commandment.)

(For what it is worth, Judaism teaches that four-cornered garments can be tacked together under the armpits, and can even have a sleeve. However, at least according to the rabbis, the sides of such a four-cornered garment must also be open to almost to the armpit, or they say it no longer qualifies as a four-cornered garment.)

The Himation: A Greek Name for the Simlah

The simlah was still used in Yeshua’s time, although in Greek it was called a himation (ἱμάτια). The himation (simlah) was not worn while working in the first century either, because in Matthew 24:18, Yeshua says that when we see the Abomination of Desolation set up, he who is working in the field should not go back to get his clothes. The Greek word for clothes is himation (simlah).

Mattityahu (Matthew) 24:18
18 “And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes.”

But if the simlah continued to be worn in Yeshua’s time, then from where does the modern Jewish tallit come?

From Simlah/Himation to Tallit

Brother Judah wore the simlah (with few variations) as long as he lived in the land of Israel. However, after the destruction of the Second Temple and the Bar Kochba Revolt, Judah was sent into the Roman Exile, where he had to wear other styles of clothing. My rabbinic garment “experts” said that it was decided to make a smaller version of the biblical tallit, which they called a tallit katan (small tallit). This was to be worn all day long by adult males. It is also given to children to wear (presumably because it does not fall off). It is also called the arba kanafot (four corners).

The simlah was then reimagined as the tallit gadol (big tallit), and it was no longer a multipurpose garment. Now it was only used as a ritual prayer shawl, and the rabbis created mandatory rote prayers to say before donning it. However, these prayers were not said in Yeshua’s time, and it seems Yeshua would likely have disagreed with these prayers, since He was not generally in favor of rote prayer, or fancy anything.

Yeshua Disliked Fancy Tzitzit

The simlah was originally used to conceal and warm the body. It was also used as a utility blanket, or for carrying things. Because of this, long tzitzit were undesirable, as they might snag on things, and tear the garment. There was also no need for them to be long, as their purpose was to remind us to keep all of Yahweh’s commands, to do them, and not to follow the harlotry of our own hearts and minds, so that we might remember to be set-apart unto our Elohim. It does not take a long tassel to do that. Further, while they hypothetically could be worn all day long, they did not need to be worn all day long, as the simlah was not typically worn while working in the fields.

Archaeology tells us that ancient tzitzit were only a few centimeters long. Whether they were a simple tassel formed by typing the loomed threads, or whether they were later sewn on or tied into the garment, they did not need to be long, or fancy. Yet Yeshua tells us that in the first century, the scribes and the Pharisees enlarged (or lengthened) the borders of their garments (just as they do today).

Mattityahu (Matthew) 23:5
5 “But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments.”

The word borders is Strong’s Greek Concordance NT:2899, meaning a fringe (of a loomed garment), or a tassel (i.e., tzitzit).

NT:2899 kraspedon (kras’-ped-on); of uncertain derivation; a margin, i.e. (specifically) a fringe or tassel:

Rather than wear a short, practical blue tassel as a reminder to do what Yahweh wants (rather than what we want), Yeshua said that the scribes and the Pharisees (the Karaites and the Orthodox) turned it into something fancy and impractical, for show. This exactly describes the rabbinic tzitzit of today.

Windings? Or a Simple Overhand Knot?

The word tzitzit (צִיצִת) is Strong’s Hebrew Concordance OT:6734, and it refers to a tassel, or a forelock of hair.

OT:6734 tsiytsith (tsee-tseeth’); feminine of OT:6731; a floral or wing-like projection, i.e. a forelock of hair, a tassel…

Ezekiel was lifted up by a tzitzit (lock) of hair.

Yehezqel (Ezekiel) 8:3
3 He stretched out the form of a hand, and took me by a lock of my hair; and the Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven, and brought me in visions of Elohim to Jerusalem, to the door of the north gate of the inner court, where the seat of the image of jealousy was, which provokes to jealousy.

A lock of hair is exactly what a loomed tassel looks like when it is tied with an overhand knot. However, in contrast, the rabbis tell us we must tie our tzitzit with long winding patterns that have kabbalistic numerical values. The Sephardic Jews rule one tying pattern (10-5-6-5, in honor of Yahweh’s name), while the Orthodox Jews rule another tying pattern (7-8-11-13, in honor of the title Adonai, which they use as a substitute for His name). The Yemenite Jews have an altogether different pattern, and in fact there are many other tying patterns as well. However, all of them are much longer than is practical for a working garment, and all of them add rules to Yahweh’s commandment, which Yahweh strictly prohibits.

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 12:32
32 “Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.”

What Would Yeshua Wear?

What shall we say, then? Yeshua is our example, and He wore a simple thin white wool simlah (himation). We do not know if His threads of blue were woven right into the tassels on the sides of the garment, or if he tied a blue thread into those tassels, or if he put a separate tzitzit in the corners. However, no matter which one it was, it was probably very short, and it was probably a simple overhand knot, so as to form a tassel like a lock of hair. Further, because His simlah was probably woolen, the tassel should also be wool, as Yahweh is generally against mixing, and He prohibits all but the high priest from mixing threads.

Vayiqra (Leviticus) 19:19
19 “You shall keep My statutes. You shall not let your livestock breed with another kind. You shall not sow your field with mixed seed. Nor shall a garment of mixed linen and wool come upon you.”

To be clear, there is no uniform requirement, and people can make whatever style of tassel they want. However, if a tzitzit looks like a lock of hair, and a tassel tied with an overhand knot looks like a lock of hair, and if Yeshua spoke against long tzitzit, then our tzitzit should be short.

Tzitzit on Other Clothing

Now, to make things more complex, we should point out that the word for garments in Numbers 15:38-40 is not the four-cornered simlah. Rather, it is the beged (בגד), which is a much more general term for clothing. This word is Strong’s Hebrew Concordance OT:899, referring simply to clothing which covers.

OT:899 beged (behg’-ed); from OT:898; a covering, i.e. clothing; also treachery or pillage:
KJV – apparel, cloth (-esing,), garment, lap, rag, raiment, robe, very [treacherously], vesture, wardrobe.

However, Numbers 15:38 does specify four corners, and Deuteronomy 22:12 gives us a second commandment to put tassels in the four corners of our clothing.

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 22:12
12 You shall make tassels on the four corners of the clothing with which you cover yourself.”

The term for a garment here is also not simlah. Rather, it is kecuwth (כְּסוּת), and it is another general term for clothing that conceals, whether or not it has four corners.

OT:3682 kecuwth (kes-ooth’); from OT:3680; a cover (garment); figuratively, a veiling:
KJV – covering, raiment, vesture.

However, Deuteronomy 22:12 also says to put the tassels on the four corners, or four wings. In Hebrew, the term corners is kanafot (כַּנְפוֹת), which is plural for kanaph (כנף). This is Strong’s Hebrew Concordance OT:3671, meaning a wing (i.e., a corner) of a garment or of a blanket or bed clothing, or a flap (i.e., a placket).

OT:3671 kanaph (kaw-nawf’); from OT:3670; an edge or extremity; specifically (of a bird or army) a wing, (of a garment or bed-clothing) a flap, (of the earth) a quarter, (of a building) a pinnacle:

Deuteronomy 22:12 uses a different word for tassels, which is g’dilim (גְּדִלִים). This is the plural of g’dil. It is Strong’s Hebrew Concordance OT:1434, meaning a tassel (or a festoon), but in the sense of twisting. This perhaps refers to twisted wool or linen thread.

OT:1434 gedil (ghed-eel’); from OT:1431 (in the sense of twisting); thread, i.e. a tassel or festoon:

The reason this makes a difference is that there are historical records of Israelites putting tzitzit or g’dilim on garments that do not have four corners. For example, consider the above illustrations from the Egyptian Book of Gates. The Hebrew men have what appear to be tassels on their aprons, or loin wraps (which have no corners). Further, the tassels themselves look nothing like rabbinical or Karaite tzitzit. Rather, they look more like a lock of hair. The colors are also red and blue (not blue and white). This is very different from the rabbinical interpretation.

To be clear, just because it is a historical fulfillment does not necessarily mean it is a correct fulfillment. However, it is still of interest because it is reminiscent of how Messianic Israelites place tzitzit on their belt loops. Yet it is problematic, because while the words beged and kecuwth do not require four corners, both Numbers 15:38 and Deuteronomy 22:12 specify four corners (or wings). So how can we understand this? If our garments have four corners, we should put the tassels on the four corners. Yet if our garments do not have four corners, then we can still put the tassels on our garments, to the four directions. It might not be the fullest fulfillment, but one might argue that it is better than not putting them on at all.

Women Should Also Wear Tassels

The rabbis say that only men should wear the tassels. However, Yahweh gives the commandment to all of the children of Israel.

Bemidbar (Numbers) 15:38
38 “Speak to the children of Israel: Tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a blue thread in the tassels of the corners.”

In Hebrew, this word children is b’nei (בְּנֵי), which is the plural of Strong’s Hebrew Concordance OT:1121, ben. Technically this refers to a son.

OT:1121 ben (bane); from OT:1129; a son (as a builder of the family name), in the widest sense (of literal and figurative relationship, including grandson, subject, nation, quality or condition, etc., [like OT:1, OT:251, etc.]):

However, the term b’nei is plural, and when it is plural it means children (both male and female). Further, when Yahweh wants to specify males, He uses a different word.

B’reisheet (Genesis) 34:25
25 Now it came to pass on the third day, when they were in pain, that two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, Dinah’s brothers, each took his sword and came boldly upon the city and killed all the males.

The word in Hebrew for males is zacharim, which is the plural for males, zachar (זכר). This is Strong’s Hebrew Concordance OT:2142.

OT:2145 zakar (zaw-kawr’); from OT:2142; properly, remembered, i.e. a male (of man or animals…

If the women are raising the next generation of Israel, then why do they not also need reminders to look on the tassels, and remember to do all the commandments of Yahweh, not to walk after the harlotry of their own hearts and minds, so that they might remember to be set-apart unto Yahweh Elohim? It does not make sense. The women need this reminder just as much as the men.

What Shade of Blue is Tekhelet?

Most translations tell us to put a blue thread in the tassels on the corners of the garment with which we cover ourselves.

Bemidbar (Numbers) 15:38
38 “Speak to the children of Israel: Tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a blue thread in the tassels of the corners.”

We could easily conclude that any shade of blue will do, except that the generic Hebrew word for blue is cakhol (כָּחוֹל), and the word for blue in this verse is techelet (תְּכֵלֶת). It is Strong’s Hebrew Concordance OT:8504, which Strong’s suggests may be a cerulean mussel, or the color of blue obtained from its dye. This is probably based on a certain Talmud and Tosefta references identifying the dye as coming from the Khilazon sea snail (Babylonian Talmud Menachot 44a, Tosefta Menachot 9:6).

OT:8504 tekeleth (tek-ay’-leth); probably for OT:7827; the cerulean mussel, i.e. the color (violet) obtained therefrom or stuff dyed therewith:
KJV – blue.

However, as we have seen, the Talmud is a collection of rabbinic opinions and arguments which was redacted (censored) after the destruction of the Second Temple. It claims to be more authoritative than Scripture, but from our point of view it is completely unreliable. Therefore, when we look up the reference to OT:7827, we see that it refers to OT:7826 through “some obscure idea,” as of the sound of blowing an aromatic mussel’s shell.

OT:7827 shecheleth (shekh-ay’-leth); apparently from the same as OT:7826 through some obscure idea, perhaps that of peeling off by concussion of sound; a scale or shell, i.e. the aromatic mussel.:
KJV – onycha.

When we look up the reference to OT:7826, it refers to the roar of a lion, presumably a sound made by blowing through the sea snail’s shell.

OT:7826 shachal (shakh’-al); from an unused root probably meaning to roar; a lion (from his characteristic roar):
KJV – (fierce) lion.

It seems easy to connect the idea of blowing a sea snail’s shell and the roar of a lion, and a recent theory is that the sea snail in question is the Murex Trunculus sea snail. However, the shell does not make a loud sound when blown. Also, the idea of using sea snail shells seems impossible because Leviticus 11:10-12 tells us that all that lives in the sea which does not have fins or scales is an abomination to us, and that even their carcasses are an abomination.

Vayiqra (Leviticus) 11:10-12
10 But all in the seas or in the rivers that do not have fins and scales, all that move in the water or any living thing which is in the water, they are an abomination to you.
11 They shall be an abomination to you; you shall not eat their flesh, but you shall regard their carcasses as an abomination.
12 Whatever in the water does not have fins or scales — that shall be an abomination to you.

So, if we are not allowed to touch the Murex Trunculus sea snail, how are we supposed to use it to generate the blue dye for our techelet?

Now consider that even with modern day extraction methods, it takes approximately 29 Murex Trunculus sea snails to make enough blue dye for one set of tzitzit. However, when the children of Israel left Egypt they numbered some six hundred thousand men on foot, besides women and children.

Shemote (Exodus) 12:37
37 Then the children of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth, about six hundred thousand men on foot, besides children.

Even if we were hypothetically to grant the idea that only the men needed to wear tzitzit (which we do not), just one set of tassels for six hundred thousand men would have required seventeen million four hundred thousand (17,400,000) Murex Trunculus sea snails. This also does not account for the dye that would have been needed for the curtains of the Tabernacle, or the High Priest’s clothing.

Now consider that there is no archaeological record of Murex Trunculus dyed cloth in Egypt at the time of the Exodus. So then, how did the children of Israel find over seventeen million sea snails in the middle of the desert? And how did they process them since they were told to abominate sea snails?

And even if this dye could have been found in sufficient quantities, this dye was so rare that it was worth twenty times its weight in gold. How would poor people (such as a carpenter, or poor fishermen) be able to afford it? It seems no one is able to answer these objections.

There are many other theories about the source of the techelet dye. Blue cloth dyed from the indigo plant was very common in Egypt at the time of the Exodus, and it would have been readily available to the people as they were leaving Egypt. The Indians and the Chinese were experts with indigo dye in ancient times, and it is likely that the Hebrew word for blue used in Numbers 15:38-40 may itself be borrowed from Indian Sanskrit. The Hebrew word is techelet seems similar to the Indian name kala. (Techelet and te-kala sound similar.)

In support of the idea of Sanskrit loan words being taken into Hebrew, consider that the Hebrew word for purple (or reddish violet) is argaman or argevan. Some believe this is related to the Indian Sanskrit words ragamen and ragavan, both of which derive from the Indian word raga, meaning red.

Rabbinic Judaism believes that because we do not know for certain the source or the shade of the techelet dye, that we should wear only white tzitzit. We disagree. We believe that even if the exact shade of blue is not known it is better to wear some color of blue, rather than no blue at all. Only, it should not be from a sea snail, because it is from an unclean source.

In Conclusion:

Although Yeshua does not command a uniform for the Melchizedekian order, Yahweh commands us to wear tzitzit on our garments, even if they do not have four corners. However, if our garment has four corners, it is better. We do not need to wear this four cornered garment while we work, but it should be something we use to cover ourselves daily, to keep us warm. A poncho, a tallit, or any other shawl seems ideal for this kind of thing. This is applicable both for men and for women.

The tassels should be short, and have a thread of blue. If the garment we use to cover us is wool, then the tzitzit should be wool. If the garment we use to cover us is linen, the tzitzit should be linen. If the blue threads cannot be woven directly into the garment, then a tassel can be placed. It seems Yahweh’s ideal was that of a lock of hair. This can be produced by a simple overhand knot. (The rabbinic tzitzit are too long, and the kabalistic winding patterns seem dubious at best.)

When we look on this short tassel with blue, we should remember all the commandments of Yahweh, to do them, and not to follow after the harlotry to which our own hearts and eyes are inclined, and to be set-apart for our Elohim. Although the techelet blue that is commanded in Scripture is a very specific blue, we do not know exactly what color of blue that is, although indigo seems a likely candidate. Rather than follow the rabbinic ruling of wearing all white tzitzit we should put some color of blue, so long as it does not come from a sea snail (or other abominated creature).

We do not need to say special prayers before donning the simlah, tallit, or tzitzit. Rather, we should simply put it on for covering or warmth, and look upon the tassels, and remember to do all that Yahweh said to do.

In the next chapter we will discuss head coverings for men and women.

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