1. And YHWH said to Moshe saying: Speak to the Children of Yisrael, and say to them, and they shall make for themselves sisith [fringe/tassel] on the extremities of their garments throughout their generations, and they shall place upon the sisith [fringe/tassel] of the extremity a twisted thread of blue. And it shall be to you for sisith [fringe/tassel], that you shall see it, and you shall remember all the commandments of YHWH, and you shall do them, and you shall not seek after your heart and after your eyes, that you go a whoring after them. In order that you remember, and do all my commandments, and you will be holy to your God. I am YHWH your God, who brought you out of the Land of Misrayim [Egypt], to be to you for a God, I am YHWH your God. (Num. 15:37-41)
2. Twisted cords you shall make for yourself on the four extremities of your covering garment with which you cover yourself. (Deut. 22:12)
When it comes to the wearing of tzitzit, Jews of all varieties have a tendency to focus on the garment, rather on the tzitzit themselves. The argument runs that, if one must wear four tassels on the corners of one’s garment, then one must wear a four-cornered garment to accommodated them. However, such an argument misses the point of the commandment.
First, a little textile history. While the Torah applies at all times throughout history, including the present day, it was written with an ancient people in mind. It had to make sense to the original Jews. As such, it makes certain assumptions anticipating the needs of its original audience. Ancient peoples generally approached clothing in a way that hasn’t been seen in Western Civilization for the better part of a millennium. Most ancient peoples were new to the concept of nudity-as-taboo. Clothing, in the ancient world, was a practical matter. It protected the body, especially certain parts of the body, from the elements. In some cases, it was also a convenient way to carry your bedding with you. And it had only just started to take on symbolism regarding status or profession.
Because fabric clothing was labor intensive to make, most people had only one garment, perhaps two. They also minimized the number of alterations made to the fabric when turning it into a garment. That is, historical clothing was largely defined by the loom on which it was made. Most people simply could not afford to waste fabric by cutting it into shapes. As a result, people wore rectangular garments or garments made from rectangles–garments with defined edges and corners.
Moreover, garments were made on an as-needed basis by a member of the family (usually a woman). When speaking to an ancient person about the characteristics of their clothing, the Torah is speaking to people who will assume they are receiving instructions as to the construction of their clothes. This is in contrast to modern peoples who assume we are receiving instruction as to ornamentation. [For more information on textile history, I highly recommend Cut My Cote]
For the ancient Israelite, “fringes on the extremities of your garment” tells you about a weaving technique (I render tzitzit as fringes, not tassels, because the majority of translations use that rendering and it is the more practical ornamentation). Rather than simply weaving fabric with the same thread, row after row, from beginning to end, the ancient Israelite would have woven across the loom and cut the thread, leaving a long end at either end of each row for the first few rows of fabric. Those threads (fringes) could then be tied together, either incorporating an unattached blue thread, or including stripes of blue thread in the fabric. The result would have been four sets of fringe spread around the extremities of the garment.
I believe “tassels” is an unlikely rendering of tzitzit, both because it is more labor intensive to produce and because it is less practical. Attaching tassels as a separate ornament puts something inherently delicate on garments worn by people who engaged in hard physical labor six days a week for the vast majority of their lives. They also cleaned their garments (something required with relative frequency in the Torah) by wetting them and beating them against rocks. Attaching four delicate tassels to one’s only garment would have been a thoroughly impractical use of perfectly good thread!
All that said, the garment to which the tzitzit are attached is not the point of this commandment. The point is to wear the tzitzit, so that we will see them and remember G-d’s Commandments. We are to have four fringes/tassels attached to the edge of any one outer garment we wear (the edge of a shirt, shawl, scarf, or the waistline of one’s skirt or pants–they could even go on your cuffs or collar if that’s where you will see them). These fringes/tassels should include at least two threads of blue (and, by tradition, at least two threads of white). And when we look at them, we are to remember G-d and his Law.
Moving back to historical context, this commandment conveys a remarkable example of the Jewish concept of faith. In addition to serving as mnemonics for the wearer, tzitzit are highly visible symbols of faith to anyone within view of the wearer. They announce to the world one’s religious allegiance. But they stand very much apart from similar symbols in other ancient belief systems.
Tzitzit are a symbol that is attached to a garment–something one chooses to wear (especially in ancient times when nudity was commonplace). The tzitzit are a daily, conscious, voluntary affirmation of one’s allegiance to G-d and his Torah. Most ancient faiths used tattooing, scarification, piercing, or other mutilation to indicate faithfulness. Those are all permanent–you can’t change your mind later–but the Israelite chooses every day to wear his tzitzit.
Likewise, those permanent announcements of faith are explicitly forbidden. While Jews do practice circumcision, it is only done to males on the eighth day after birth, in preparation for conversion, or for indenturement to a Jew. The latter two circumstances are the exception, not the rule. When circumcision occurs on the eighth day of life, it is not an announcement of the child’s faith, but rather, of the faith of the child’s father. When the infant is grown, that circumcision will serve as a reminder of the traditions he is supposed to honor under the Fifth Commandment. Moreover, by the time the Torah was handed down, circumcision was a common practice in the Middle East and North Africa, making it a poor symbol of allegiance to any specific belief system.
The commandment to wear tzitzit is indicative of a uniquely Jewish mentality. It involves a frequent, voluntary, and impermanent mechanism for showing personal (not familial) adherence to G-d. It is also an extremely public mechanism, as they are to be worn where they may be seen. Most importantly, though, it is intensely personal, as it creates a tangible means of ensuring a constant and deliberate psychological relationship with one’s Maker.