WHAT DID IT MEAN

TO WEAR FRINGES

IN ANCIENT CULTURES?

  • In many ancient cultures fringes were a well-known style of dress rich with meaning.
  • Assyrians and Babylonians believed that fringes assured the wearer of the protection of the gods.
  • The fringed hem was ornate in comparison with the rest of the outer robe and frequently had tassels along the edges. This ornate hem was a "symbolic extension of the owner and more specifically of the owner's rank and authority. "
  • Requests accompanied by grasping the fringes of the one from whom you wanted something could not be refused.
  • Exorcists used the hem of a patient's garment in their healing ceremonies.
  • A husband could divorce his wife by cutting off the hem of his wife's robe.
  • In Mari, an ancient city in what is now Syria, a professional prophet or diviner would enclose with his report to the King a lock of his hair and a piece of his hem....Sometimes the hem was impressed on a clay tablet as a kind of signature.
  • Fringes could also be pressed onto the clay instead of the hem. E.A.Speiser has suggested that when we press the corner fringe of the tallit to the Torah scroll we are reflecting this ancient custom.
  • The primary significance of the tassel in ancient times was that it was worn only by those who counted; it was the "I.D. of the nobility."

Royal Blue

     
  • Blue or purple-blue was always a special color. The dye referred to in the biblical text came from the murex snail which was native to the waters of the eastern Mediterranean. It made a blue and crimson dye which was scarce, expensive and reserved for royalty. The phrases: born to the purple and royal blue came from the wearing of this blue by the high-born.
  • The Torah only calls for a few blue threads, one for each fringe, perhaps because that meant that even the poorest Israelite could afford them.
  • This color was also used in Torah for the:
    • Curtains of the tabernacle.
      As for the Tabernacle, make it of ten strips of cloth; make these of fine twisted linen, of blue, purple and crimson yarns... (Exodus 26:1)
    • The veil of the ark.
      You shall make a curtain of blue, purple and crimson yarns...(Exodus 26:31)
    • The screen of the door of the Tent of Meeting . (Exodus 26:36)
    • The Ephod (Exodus 28:6), headdress(Exodus 28:37), and girdle (Exodus 39:29) of the priest.

Sha'atnez

As we can see, the fringe with the blue thread was not just worn by nobility, it was also representative of priestly dress. Most ancient Israeli garments were made of linen, both because of its easy availability and because linen garments were cooler to wear than wool. Ancient cultures had a great deal of difficulty dying linen, so scholars assume that all dyed cloth (or threads) are wool. Some feel that the prohibition against sha'atnez--the wearing by ordinary people cloth containing both wool and linen is because such garments would resemble priestly garments that were permitted and in some cases required to be made of both linen and wool. By mixing a wool tassel on a linen garment, "the ordinary Israelite was...in a small way, wearing a priestly garment."

"Weaving a ...[blue] thread into the tsitsit enhances its symbolism as a mark of nobility. Further, since all Jews are required to wear it, it is a sign that Jews are a people of nobility. Their sovereign, however, is not mortal: Jews are princes of God." Milgrom

Fringe as Identification

The many peoples and the multitude of nations
shall come to seek the Lord of Hosts in Jerusalem
and to entreat the favor of the Lord.
Thus says the Lord of Hosts: In those days, ten men
from nations of every tongue will take hold - -
they will take hold of every Jew by a corner (Kanapf)
of his cloak and say, 'Let us go with you,
for we have heard that God is with you.'(Zechariah 8:22-23)

What is taken hold of is the kanapf--corner or edge of the garment--thought to refer to the fringes of the cloak. This passage illustrates several ideas:

  • The confirmation of the custom that, having taken hold of the fringes of someone's garment, one could compel the wearer to obey one's request.
  • That the Jews of Zechariah's times-- 5th and 4th centuries B.C.E.-- were commonly wearing and being identified by fringes.
  • That Jews, in Zechariah's vision, were sought after and followed as moral guides, so the identification has a positive outcome.

Originally, fringes were commonly worn on everyday outer garments, but eventually Jews wished to dress more like those around them. This was in part a desire to assimilate and also to avoid identification that could lead to cruelty and persecution.

In Greek and Roman times a special purpose rectangular prayer shawl, the Tallit, was adopted and mostly used when reciting prayers in public or private. It seemed to satisfy the need to have four corners as stated in Deuteronomy 22:12. Some individuals wore the tallit when studying Torah or beneath their outer garments.

Eventually a special garment came to be worn beneath other clothes. The arba kanfot (or tallit katan today) was a rectangle of cloth with an opening for the head and with fringes at the four corners.

GENERAL REFERENCES

"Fringes," in: Hastings, J. DICTIONARY OF THE BIBLE. NY: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1902, pp. 68-70.

Milgrom, Jacob, "Of hems and tassels: Rank, authority and holiness were expressed in antiquity by fringes on garments," BIBLICAL ARCHAEOLOGY REVIEW, v. IX, # 3, May/June 1983, pp. 61-65.


Milgrom, THE JPS TORAH COMMENTARY, Volume 4 - NUMBERS, Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1989 - 1996, p. 410-412

Plaut, W. Gunther and others. THE TORAH, A MODERN COMMENTARY. N.Y., Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981, p. 1123


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11/29/97

© Rosemarie E. Falanga, Cy H. Silver