Tzitzit – Cotton or Wool?

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By: Rabbi Ari Enkin

Although wearing a Tallit Katan is always a commendable act, it is not always clear however whether doing so is a mitzva on a Torah level or rather a rabbinic one. The Gemara[1] discusses the topic of which materials may be used in the manufacture of clothing to qualify as “garments”[2] for the mitzva of Tzitzit according to Torah law. One approach in the Gemara argues that only wool and linen garments qualify for the mitzva of Tzitzit according to Torah law. According to another view, one may use any material to produce a Tallit garment.

It seems that throughout the Torah, whenever “clothing” is discussed, it is typically a wool or linen garment that is implied.[3] Therefore, it may just be that garments made from other materials may not actually be truly considered “garments” from a Torah perspective. As such, when the Torah tells us to place Tzitzit on the four corners of our “garments”[4] it may just be that the Torah is only requiring Tzitzit to be tied on those garments made from wool or linen. Wearing Tzitzit on “garments” made from materials not recognized by Torah law would deprive one of the opportunity to fulfill the mitzva on a Torah level.

Click here to read moreIndeed, the Shulchan Aruch[5] rules that it is only when one wears wool or linen garments that one truly fulfills the mitzva of Tzitzit on a Torah level. This is why many individuals are particular that the Tallit Katan which is worn under one’s clothes, or on top of them as is the practice of many Chassidim[6], is made from wool. Similarly, it is in deference to this view that the Tallit Gadol which is worn during the morning prayers is always made from wool. This ensures that those who wear a cotton Tallit Katan throughout the day will have at least fulfilled the mitzva of Tzitzit on a Torah level, according to all views, when having worn the Tallit Gadol for the morning prayers.

The Rema however disagrees and rules that all types of materials and garments are included in the mitzva of Tzitzit, even according to Torah law.[7] Nevertheless, as mentioned, it is in order to comply with the stricter view of the Shulchan Aruch that many individuals are careful to wear only a Tallit Katan made from wool, even in the hot summer.[8]

One who is uncomfortable wearing a wool Tallit Katan in the summer due to the heat should certainly consider wearing a cotton one. This is because it is vital that the Tzitzit garment be one that serves a clothing-type function and is a garment that one enjoys wearing.[9]Indeed, there have been eminent rabbis throughout the ages who dismissed the view of the Shulchan Aruch in favor of the Rema and only wore Tzitzit made from cotton.

It seems however that Tzitzit would never be required on a four cornered leather or plastic garment. This is because plastic and leather are materials which all authorities rule are unfit for the use in clothing from the perspective of halacha.[10] The use of nylon and other synthetic materials for Tzitzit garments are also subject to considerable debate among contemporary halachic authorities and are therefore not recommended.[11]

The differences in opinion concerning the use of Tzitzit made from synthetic materials are especially relevant for those who wear the somewhat popular mesh-like Tzitzit. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein was quite opposed to the use of mesh Tzitzit. In fact, it is reported that within a week of his view having been made public there was not a store in America that had continued selling them for quite some time. It is also noted that the mesh Tzitzit should be disqualified because they are “parutz meruba al ha’omed” – there are more holes in it than material, and such “styles” of clothing are certainly not the norm.[12] One who has always worn only wool Tzitzit and now wishes to change to cotton ones will have to be “matir neder” before doing so.[13] One should only use Tzitzit strings that were hand made.[14]

Some authorities suggest that the issue of whether or not the mitzva of Tzitzit is fulfilled on a Torah level has nothing to do with which materials are used but rather the way in which the materials are manufactured into clothing. According to this approach, anything that is woven in the process of its manufacture would be considered as “wool or linen” for this purpose. As such, cotton, which is woven in the process of producing it into clothing, would be included in the Torah’s definition of “clothing”.[15]

Notwithstanding all that has been mentioned above, common custom is to put Tzitzit strings on all four-cornered garments regardless of what they are made from.[16] It is interesting to note that theoretically one could go an entire lifetime without ever fulfilling the mitzva of Tzitzit. This is because there is no actual requirement to ever wear Tzitzit, rather, the only requirement is to wear Tzitzit on four-cornered garments should one choose to wear one.[17] Nevertheless, common custom is to wear a Tallit Katan all day regardless of the lack of a formal requirement to do so. Such conduct has become the indication of one who is committed to Torah observance.[18] The Talmud[19] teaches that one who is scrupulous in wearing Tzitzit will merit seeing God’s Holy Presence and that the mitzva of Tzitzit is equal to all the other mitzvot of the Torah combined.[20]

NEXT WEEK: “Tying Tzitzit at Night”. Please send me your lesser-known and obscure sources as well as anecdotes for inclusion. I truly thank and appreciate all those who sent me tidbits in preparation for this article. [email protected]


[1] Menachot 39b
[2] This article is only discussing the materials relating to the manufacture of the garment on which Tzitzit are attached, regardless of whether the term “Tzitzit” or “Tallit Katan” is being used. Unless otherwise stated, we are not discussing the actual Tzitzit strings.
[3] Vayikra 13:47
[4] Numbers 15:37-41
[5] O.C. 9:1,6
[6] O.C. 8:11, 24:1
[7] Rema O.C. 9:1
[8] Mishna Berura 9:5, Igrot Moshe O.C. 2:1, Chayei Adam 11:5; Shulchan Aruch Harav 9:4
[9] Beit Yosef O.C. 10
[10] Menachot 40b, O.C. 10:4, Mishna Berura 10:11, Levush 10:4, Chayei Adam 11:6
[11] Igrot Moshe 2:1. It is noted that Rabbi Yosef Henkin permitted these types of garments.
[12] Rabbi Hershel Schachter
[13] Ruling of Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein
[14] Divrei Chaim 2:1
[15] Levush O.C. 10:14, Har Tzvi O.C. 9, Tzitz Eliezer, 12:3
[16] O.C. 9:1
[17] Rambam Tzitzit 3:11
[18] Igrot Moshe 4:4
[19] Menachot 43b, O.C. 24:6
[20] Nedarim 25a, The gematria, or numerical value, of the Hebrew word Tzitzit is 600, plus the five knots and eight strings equals 613, the number mitzvot in the Torah

About Ari Enkin

Rabbi Ari N. Enkin, a resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh, is a researcher and writer of contemporary halachic issues. He is the author of the “Dalet Amot of Halacha” series (8 volumes), Rabbinic Director of United with Israel and a RA"M at a number of yeshivot.

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