Tzitzit: A Look at Life on the Fringe

By Leah Hochbaum

Published May 27, 2005, issue of May 27, 2005.
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Though you’d be hard pressed to find a rabbi who’d admit it, the only way to truly get to know a man is by getting into his pants and taking a peek.

At his tzitzit.

Yup, super-religious or almost agnostic, Zionistic, athletic or just plain sloppy — you can tell a lot about a guy from the many-stringed piece of clothing he opts to wear beneath his shirt.

In the Torah (Numbers 15:37-40), God commands males to wear fringes on the corners of their garments — rabbis interpreted it to mean four tassels made of eight folded strings each — as a visual reminder to obey His commandments. The four groups of strings are knotted five times, once for each of the five Books of Moses.

Some men choose to wear their visual reminders tucked in, away from prying eyes, a personal prompt to keep as many of the 613 mitzvahs as they can.

Others wear them untucked, strings swaying in the wind as they rush to synagogue or yeshiva or who-knows-where, putting on a show of their supposedly God-fearing ways for the world at large.

“It’s looky looky at how religious I am. Woo, I am so observant,” said Solomon Nadaf, 25, a Modern Orthodox personal trainer who teaches martial arts classes at Manhattan’s Yeshiva University and who rarely dons tzitzit.

“It’s a flagrant and blatant flaunting of one’s observance of the mitzvahs. It’s a gravely arrogant sin,” Nadaf said.

But one man’s arrogance is another man’s pride in his religion, so a girl shouldn’t be too quick to judge a guy based solely on whether he’s tucked or untucked. It’s like toilet paper stuck to a shoe — maybe he just doesn’t know about it.

And anyway, size is really what matters.

Some tzitzit are relatively short, slipping easily into a guy’s freshly pressed chinos. But many ultra-Orthodox men go for elongated strings that “literally go down their legs,” as Nadaf put it.

“My dorm counselor at my yeshiva in Israel wore those bad boys,” he said, adding that the counselor felt it was simply a nicer way to do the mitzvah.

“But all it did really was lead to some interesting bunch-uppage in the leg area,” said Nadaf.

There seems to be no real biblical reason for wearing the longer-stringed tzit- zit — and frankly, according to Marcia Masri, 23, a graduate student from Brooklyn, “when mad-long tzitzit are flailing, a guy comes off as a slob” — but they seem to have caught on among the black-hat-and-beard set.

When it comes to color, the long and short of it is that there aren’t really a lot of options. Walk into any Judaica store and there are usually white ones and, well, other white ones.

But look hard enough and you’ll see that there are also some that have a single sky-blue thread among all the snow-white wool.

Called t’chelet tzitzit (t’chelet being the Hebrew word for blue), this is the rarest breed of tzitzit. In ancient times, this color dye came from the chilazon, a creature that, according to the Talmud, only came around once every 70 years. As time went on, the chilazon’s identity was forgotten, it became impossible to make the dye and Jewish males grew accustomed to their bland, pasty tzitzit.

Nowadays, however, two separate groups claim that they’ve rediscovered the dye — one from a snail and one from a squid. And many members of the tribe — usually the ones who hold Israel closest to their hearts — are jumping on the blue-fringe bandwagon.

Raffi Cohn, 21, an engineering major at the University of Pennsylvania, started wearing t’chelet tzitzit when he spent a year in Israel after graduating high school.

“It carries certain Zionistic ideas with it,” he said. “It’s symbolic of rediscovering the land and rediscovering the process of making the dye.”

They’re expensive, though — a single pair can go for as much as $75 — so many lovers of Zion are grudgingly forced to stick with the boring ol’ monochromatic ones.

There are other kinds of tzitzit, of course — athletic types can even buy T-shirts with the strings already attached so that they don’t have to put on an extra layer while running around in the heat — but it seems that while you can tell a lot about a guy from the fringes that fall from his pants, groping your way to the goods might not always be an option.

So it might just be better to say hi.

Leah Hochbaum has spent an extraordinarily large chunk of her life doing grunt work for the higher-ups at Rolling Stone, Jane and US Weekly. Her work has appeared in Time Out New York, The Blueprint and Video Age International.

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