WHAT DID IT MEAN
TO WEAR FRINGES
- 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
- Requests accompanied by grasping the fringes of the
one from whom you wanted something could not be
- 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."
- 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...
- 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 .
- The Ephod (Exodus
28:6), headdress(Exodus 28:37), and girdle (Exodus
39:29) of the priest.
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
The many peoples and the multitude of
shall come to seek the Lord of Hosts in
and to entreat the favor of the Lord.
Thus says the Lord of Hosts: In those days, ten
from nations of every tongue will take hold - -
they will take hold of every Jew by a corner
of his cloak and say, 'Let us go with you,
for we have heard that God is with you.'(Zechariah
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
were commonly wearing and being identified by
- That Jews, in Zechariah's vision, were sought after
and followed as moral guides, so the identification has a
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
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
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.
"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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© Rosemarie E. Falanga, Cy H. Silver