Question: How long must the fringes be to start with?
Answer: That is a good basic question. Let us first introduce two terms, which refer to the two main parts of a tzitzis fringe: 1) the ‘g’dil’ (lit. braided part) – the part closest to the garment that has the knots and winds around it; and 2) the ‘p’sil’ (lit. the thread, as in the phrase in the third paragraph of Shema – ‘p’sil techeiles’). To our question, the rabbis give two instructions about the dimensions of the fringe:
1) The total length of the fringe should be the equivalent of twelve thumb-widths (at its middle knuckle). (Note: There is another opinion which holds much shorter than that, but we follow the stricter 12–thumbs opinion. Furthermore, if even one of the strings did not measure that length at the outset, that entire fringe is invalid!)
2) It is preferable that the ‘p’sil’ be at least twice as long as the ‘g’dil’. Thus, in a perfect fringe, the ‘g’dil’ would measure four thumbs and the ‘p’sil’ would measure eight thumbs.
Now, here are some things to keep in mind:
a) The 12-thumbs do not include the part of the fringe that is above the highest knot, which overlaps the corner of the garment;
b) They also do not account for the length of string which is “eaten-up” by the knot-tying. Practically speaking, then, the strings should be at least twenty-eight thumbs long: (Did you see how I got that?) Twelve plus two (for the knots and the part over the corner), and all of that multiplied by two, because the strings are doubled after they are inserted into the hole.
c) All we have mentioned is a minimum. Typically, the fringes are much longer than 12 thumbs-width, and typically, the p’sil’ is much longer than twice the length of the ‘g’dil’. (But hey, it’s no Bi-g’dil!)
d) It is permissible to shorten the strings if they exceed the minimum length, although it is not necessary. In fact, the advantage to having them a bit longer is that if they tear, there will more likely be a valid remnant. (Ed: I have heard people say that they do not cut their tzitzis strings with metal; some use their teeth. I did not see this mentioned in the Mishnah Berura, so I am not sure of the source for this practice.)
e) Again, our current discussion relates to the initial length of the strings. If a string gets torn or cut, there is a different measure for what is considered a valid remnant, which is the topic of the next siman.
The ‘Shamash’: Not just for Chanukah anymore!
When you hear the word ‘shamash’, do you think of Chanukah? The word literally means “servant”. The ‘shamash’ candle serves the others by lighting them. A tzitzis fringe has a ‘shamash’ too: a very long string which wraps around the other strings to make the winds and knots on the ‘g’dil’. However, unlike the Chanukah ‘shamash’, which is not counted as one of the mitzvah candles, the tzitzis ‘shamash’ is counted as one of the eight strings on a fringe. In light of our previous discussion, the ‘shamash’ would have to be long enough so that it remains at least 12-thumbs after doing all of its wrapping! Good news: If it looks like the ‘shamash’ is getting too short, one can actually pick up a different string half-way down the ‘g’dil’ to be a pinch-hitter-‘shamash’. The point is: it does not have to be only one ‘shamash’ the whole way!)
Only the best for “ewe”!
The wool that is used to make the strings should be of good and select quality. For example, if one gathered wool that had been caught on barbed wire fences and torn off the sheep, that wool is invalid for tzitzis. Similarly, wool that was left on the loom or on the edge of a garment after weaving is invalid for tzitzis. This is based on the principle of ‘bizui mitzvah’ (disgracing a mitzvah).