So you’ve finished making the main body of your tallit —or tallis, prayer shawl— and you’re ready to add the corner pieces, the square pieces of fabric that decorate the corners of the tallit and help reinforce the holes for the tzitzit strings. Does it matter how close to the edges of the tallit you put the corner pieces? More specifically, does it matter where the holes for the tzitzit strings end up? Strictly speaking, yes, although there is a bit of wiggle room.
Keep in mind that the purpose of making a tallit is to fulfill the biblical commandment –the mitzvah— of putting strings on the corners of your four-cornered garments. The rabbis of the ancient Talmudic period wrote down the specifics of how to add the tzitzit strings —project instructions, so to speak— to fulfill the commandment.
I find that knowing the teachings behind these details increases my sense of intentionality when I make a tallit, and I thought you’d appreciate the details as well, so I thought I’d do a deep dive into the Talmudic teachings behind the placement of the holes for the tzitzit strings.
If you’ve got your tallit cued up on your sewing table and need a quick answer, here it is:
Ideally, place the hole for the tzitzit strings between 2” and 2¼” (5.08cm x 5.72cm) from the edges of the tallit.
Note that this means 2”-2¼” as measured from each of the two adjoining edges of the tallit, not as measured diagonally from the corner.
When I design corner piece patterns, I design them so that if you place the corner piece reasonably close to the edge of the tallit, the tzitzit hole will be in the right place. If you’re designing your own corner piece or otherwise have a few minutes for some Jewish law nerdiness, here’s a breakdown on how that placement rule came about. The explanation involves what literally can be called an ancient rule of thumb.
Breaking down the mitzvah
Here are the two Torah passages with the commandment about attaching the tzitzit:
Speak to the Israelites and have them make tassels on the corners of their garments for all generations… (Numbers 15:38)
Make yourself bound tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself. (Deuteronomy 22:12)
So looking closely at the wording of the verses, the placement of the holes for the tzitzit strings needs to fulfill two basic requirements:
- It needs to be close enough to the edges of the tallit to be considered on the corner of the garment rather than the main body of the garment.
- It needs to be far enough away from the edges of the tallit so that when the strings are added a significant length of the strings lie on the corner, as opposed to hanging off the edge of the tallit.
A quick aside: My understanding of this topic comes primarily from the book Tzitzith by Aryeh Kaplan. The book is out of print but well worth tracking down if you want to understand more about the details that make up the tallit and tzitzit.
The nerdiness begins: An important point about units of measure
The units of measure that the Talmudic rabbis used weren’t inches, yards, or centimeters, of course. In the case of tallit corners and tzitzit strings, the relevant unit of measurement is a “finger length.” A finger length was defined as the width of a thumb.
There are varying opinions about how to translate a finger length into modern measurements. Most rabbinical opinions sit in the range of ¾” to one inch. Our calculations will take both of ends of that range into account.
First question: How far away from the edges of the tallit can the tzitzit hole be?
The issue here is: What’s the farthest away from the edges the tzitzit hole can be and still be considered on the corner of the tallit as opposed to the main body of the garment?
Generally, a piece of cloth is considered relevant under Jewish law only if it’s at least three finger lengths square (There are a number of Jewish laws that can end up impacting cloth, but that’s a whole other set of blog posts.) The point here is that three finger lengths makes a cloth a cloth. From this idea, the rabbis derived that on any significantly sized piece of cloth, once we move a distance of more than three finger lengths away from any of the edges, we are in the main body of the cloth. And if we’re in the main body of the cloth, we’re no longer at the corner.
Therefore, to be on the corner, a tzitzit hole can’t be more than three finger lengths away from either of the two adjoining edges of the tallit.
Taking into account that the modern-day opinions on the size of a finger length ranges from ¾” to 1”, the farthest away from the edges of a tallit a tzitzit hole can be is either 2¼” or 3”.
Second question: How close to the edges of the tallit can the hole be?
The issue here is: What is the closest the hole can be to the edge of the tallit so that a significant length of the string lies “on” the corner rather than just hanging off the edge of the garment.
Generally, a thread or string that is part of a garment is relevant under Jewish law if it is at least two finger lengths long. Therefore, the hole must be at least two finger lengths away from the edge of the tallit.
So if one finger length is the modern-day equivalent of ¾” or 1”, the closest the hole can be to the edge of the tallit is either 1½” or 2”.
Putting it all together
So if we consider the Talmudic rabbis’ teachings about the farthest and the closest the holes can be to the edges of the tallit and take into account the range of opinions on how long a finger length is, we come up with the sweet spot for placing the hole for the tzitzit strings: 2” to 2¼” away from the edges of the tallit. And again, we’re measuring from each of the adjoining edges of the tallit, not diagonally from the corner.
One more point: Aryeh Kaplan makes the point that a tallit whose tzitzit holes are less than 2” from the edges but at least 1½” from the edges still can be worn, since 1½” conforms with the distance derived from the smaller finger length of ¾”.
You’ll likely find that the holes on a tallit may vary slightly from this, but they are almost always pretty close to 2”-2¼” from the edges. In my corner piece designs, whether in the Sew Jewish book or an individual pattern, I place the center of the hole 2″ away from the edges of the corner piece, so that when the piece is placed reasonably close to the edge of the tallit the hole will fall within or close to the ideal position, with some wiggle room for the inexactness that sewing can involve.
Phew. That’s a lot. But I hope that knowing this bit of Talmud nerdiness will add to your enjoyment of making a tallit.