Friday, September 12, 2014

Tzitzis - wool, cashmere, cotton or silk?

As I wrote my Sefer Torah, I often look topically in a few commentaries to further understand the text and be more focused.

I'm now at Parshat Noach, and I had a chance to study the Ben Ish Chai commentary on the passage (Bereishit 9:7)

  ואתם, פרו ורבו; שרצו בארץ, ורבו-בה

While his kabalistic explanation to this passage is beyond the scope of this blog, the Ben Ish Chai does link this mitzva of having children to the mitzva of tzitzis. Both commandments provide a special protection to those who fulfill it and he goes on to detail the Halachot of tzitzis. By chance this mitzva is also to be found in this week's Parsha גדילים תעשה לך so although I usually only write about Safrut here, I will open an exception just this time. 

The Talmud says that only sheep wool and linen are considered "fabric" in regards to tzizis, and therefore one should only make tzizis from these two fabrics. Other garments are only rabinically required to have tzizis. The authoritative Shulchan Aruch rules this way, and the Sephardim generally are careful with this. 

However the Rema, followed by Ashkenazim, rules like another opinion of the Talmud that fabrics other than wool and linen are also biblically required to have tzizis. That's why Ashkenazim use cotton tzitzis, although many try to be machmir like the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch. 

The catch - written in big letters Mehadrin
but on the left side "hashgacha only for
the threads".
Mesh tzitzit

However some fabrics seen today in the market are not required to have tzitzis even Rabinically; polyester is the best example. A square polyester garment does not need tzitzis, even though you can see many judaica stores (and even on Amazon) selling mesh polyester tzitzis as a solution for hot summer days. That's rather ironic - according to Halacha it's totally unnecessary to wear mesh tzitzis and the person might as well wear no tzitzis. If you want to perform the mitzva you should do it right and mesh tzitzis has no Halacha significance according to all (this is the widely accepted ruling of Iggrot Moshe 2:1). 

So we have established that wool and linen are undisputedly the best option for tzizis, as far as the Biblical miztva of tzitzis is concerned. 

Actually, that's imprecise. The wool that is undisputedly subject to tzizis is sheep's wool but other woolen fabrics such as cashmere, which is wool from goats, are not undisputed for Biblical miztva of tzitzis and therefore less optimal specially for Sephardim. Goat and sheep are two completely different animals, and while sheep wool is white, goats wool is more beige.

Cashmere goat wool
Sheep and goat

That's very relevant when buying a Tallit. Since we only wear Tallit briefly every day for shacharit, there's an unofficial consensus of wearing only woolen Tallit to make sure that at least once a day you will be wearing the optimal tzizis fabric - Ashkenazim and Sephardim alike. For this reason, virtually every Tallit sold in Judaica stores is made from sheep wool. 

However lately I've seen some specialty stores selling cashmere Tallit, which would go against the consensus I mentioned. Always make sure you buy Tallit from sheep wool.

Now let's turn to the second undisputedly good tzizis fabric - linen. I personally love everything made of linen for summer use, since it's a strong and breathable fabric - in fact, throughout history linen was regarded as the most superior and fine fabric (see here for more on that). But let's get back to Halacha:

Alongside sheep wool, linen is also a "Biblical fabric" and ideal for tzitzis use according to the Shulchan Aruch I quoted before, but an external factor is a threat to using linen tzitzis - Shaatnez, the Biblical prohibition of mixing linen and wool. I will quote a very good piece delineating this issue I found in YUTorah:

    The Gemara, Menachot 40a, states that the rabbis placed certain limitations on the use of linen garments for the mitzvah of tzitzit.  According to Rashi, ad loc., the rabbis prohibited placing techelet on a linen garment.  The reason is because techelet is not only unique in its color, but it must also be made of wool.  While the Torah does allow a wool techelet string to be placed on a linen garment, this leniency only applies if there is a fulfillment of the mitzvah of tzitzit.  However, if for whatever reason, there is no fulfillment of the mitzvah of tzitzit, one violates the prohibition of sha'atnez by wearing such a garment.  Out of concern that one might wear such a garment without adhering to the many laws of tzitzit and techelet, the rabbis banned placing techelet on linen garments.  Rabbeinu Tam, Shabbat 25b s.v. Sadin, disputes the opinion of Rashi and claims that the ban is not limited to techelet.  The ban extends to the use of any linen garment, even if no techelet is placed on the garment.
    Teshuvot HaRosh 2:8, claims that the common practice is to follow the opinion of Rabbeinu Tam and to disallow the use of all linen garments for the mitzvah of tzitzit.  However, he notes that upon arriving in Spain he noticed that many people used linen to fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit.  He suggests that they might have been relying on the fact that there is no techelet, and perhaps even Rabbeinu Tam would agree that there is less of a concern.
      Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 9:6, cites the opinion of Rabbeinu Tam as normative.  However, Rama ad loc., mentions the leniency of Teshuvot HaRosh that if only linen is available one may use it for tzitzit, as there is no techelet available.  It should be noted, that nowadays there are many people who place techelet on their garments, and Teshuvot HaRosh's leniency may not be applicable.  This would apply even to those who question the authenticity of modern day techelet, as the concern exists that by allowing linen garments, it may lead to someone who does use modern day techelet to violate the prohibition of sha'atnez. 
It's also interesting to add that the influential Chaye Adam (Hil. Tzitzis 11:12) writes:
כלל י״א סי׳ י״ב ״וכבר
 נתפשט המנהג בקהלתינו לעשות טלית של פשתים
 וציצית של פשתים, ע״פ הגר״א ז״ל״
He is saying the custom of his community, in Poland, was to wear linen tzitzis like the ruling of the Gr"a, the Vilna Gaon. In other words, he is giving the same testimony teh Teshuvat HaRosh gave when he arrived in Spain. So it seems clear that it wasn't uncommon to wear linen tzitzit in both Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities.

Linen tzitsis with Techelet
It seems to me to be a case of Halacha VeEin Morim Kein i.e. it's permissible and optimal to wear linen tzitzit but this should not be a publicized practice because of the concern than less knowledgeable people will eventually transgress Shaatnez as a result. 

And I will also add that this concern for other people is not farfetched - the vast majority of people, even among the observant communities, don't know Hilchot Tzitzis in depth and as you have seen, these Halachot are rather complex and often times a little confusing (I did try my best to keep this post as organized and short as possible..). Click here to see a website selling linen tzizis with techelet, which questionable according to what we have seen.

SO, Tzitzis - wool, cashmere, cotton or silk? Answer: Tallit surely should be made of sheep wool and tzizis you wear all day can be from cotton too.


Ben (of Ben's Tallit Shop) said...

I enjoyed this well-researched post a lot, especially the quote from the Chayei Adam.
Regarding your conclusion, I don't see why, from a halachic standpoint, cotton would be any better than silk or any other natural fabric, e.g. hemp.
Another point: I think a linen garment (whether a tallis gadol or a tallis katan) would probably be permitted for someone who is severely allergic to wool and cotton. Not many people fit that description, but there are some people out there who do.

YK said...


It is brought down that silk can be permissible, I mentioned cotton because that's the most common fabric sold in judaica shops. About hemp, I don't know this fabric...
I agree about what you said about linen being permissible without any problem for people with allergies. I'm quite certain that would be true but it doesn't hurt to ask a knowledgeable rabbi.
I actually really want to buy a linen tzitzis, as a study piece. I've seen Kitel made from linen - very expensive and exclusive item - but that's a whole different thing.