Observant Women Make Tzitzit — and Stir Controversy

Princeton Group Pushes Envelop on Ritual Fringes

Fringe Festival: Making tzitzit involves pushing three short strings and one long one through a tiny eyehole.
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Fringe Festival: Making tzitzit involves pushing three short strings and one long one through a tiny eyehole.

By Lauren Davidson

Published April 09, 2014, issue of April 18, 2014.
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Since biblical times, male authorities have been debating the issue of whether women should sport tzitzit. Now, thanks to a freshman from Princeton University, a group of young women are — quite literally — taking this fiddly law into their own hands.

Maya Rosen, 19, has been wearing tzitzit for three years, making her own for two, and last week launched Netztitzot, a not-for-profit organization that will sew and sell tzitzit for women.

“At first, I felt very isolated when I started wearing tzitzit,” she said, noting that while women have conquered ground in terms of Jewish learning, becoming rabbis and wearing yarmulkes, donning tzitzit hasn’t yet made the jump. She believes the reason is predominantly practical: Men’s tzitzit don’t comfortably fit most women, and ladies’ tzitzit don’t exist.

“There must be a better way,” she thought.

Some 50 people gathered in an apartment in New York’s Morningside Heights to help Rosen tie strings onto Netzitzot’s first batch of tzitzit. She had prepared 60 white H&M ladies’ vests with the help of two seamstresses, by separating the front and back of the garment via the side seams and attaching reinforcements to each of the four corners.

Making tzitzit is a tricky business: It involves pushing three short strings and one long one through a tiny eyehole in the corner of the vest, and wrapping the longer string around the others numerous times, each coil separated by two knots. Accomplish that, and you’ve done just one corner out of four.

One woman at the event said that there’s something quite feminine about tying tzitzit; it’s a bit like making a friendship bracelet.

In fact, the action of disentangling long threads and firmly pushing them into small, unwelcoming spaces seems to be somewhat metaphoric of the very plight of women who want to wear tzitzit and of the wider battle for gender equality in traditional Judaism.

The obligation to wear tzitzit is first seen in Numbers 15, which states: “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them, ‘They shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments… and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of God and perform them.’” Accordingly, many see tzitzit as a physical expression of the very idea of observing commandments, because the wearer has two fringed corners in front of them and two fringed corners behind them.


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