Today’s daf (Menachot 39b) presented a debate as to whether a non-wool and non-linen garment, such as one made of silk or cotton, is considered a “garment” according to the Torah. If so, then it would be Biblically obligated in tzitzit; if not, the obligation would only be Rabbinic. The Gemara does not rule in this debate, and the matter remains a debate. The Shulkhan Arukh, and thus Sephardim, rule that such garments are only Rabbinically obligated, whereas Rema, and thus Ashkenazim, rule that they are Biblically obligated:
אין חייב בציצית מן התורה, אלא בגד פשתים או של צמר רחלים, אבל בגדי שאר מינים אין חייבים בציצית (אלא מדרבנן.)
הג”ה: וי”א דכולהו חייבין מדאורייתא (והכי הלכתא) (תוס’ דף ל”ט והרא”ש וסמ”ג ומרדכי)
The only garments which are Biblically obligated in tzitzit are garments of linen or of sheep’s wool, but garments of other materials are not obligated in tzitzit (save Rabbinically).
Rema: And there are those who say that they are all obligated Biblically (and such is the halakha).
Shulkhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 9:1
This question is mostly an academic one, as whether the obligation is Rabbinic or Biblical, one is still obligated, and would make a brakha. However, given that we go out of our way to fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit, and make sure to put on a four-cornered garment so that we can do the mitzvah, it would stand to reason that we should try to do the highest fulfillment of the mitzvah, and to make sure that we are wearing a Biblically obligated garment.
Now, as Ashkenazim it would seem that there is no preference for wool garments, as we rule that all garments are Biblically obligated. Nevertheless, Mishne Brurah (ad. loc., note 5) rules that ideally even Ashkenazim should be strict and wear wool tzitzit garment, to fulfill the mitzvah according to all opinions. He states that one should do this not only for the talit gadol, worn over one’s clothes, but even for the talit katan worn underneath one’s shirt.
There are many – this author included – who follow the Mishne Brurah and play it safe, and always wear a wool tallit katan. One should be careful, however, that this does not become a chumrah ha’ati li’dai kula, a stringency that brings about a leniency, as the need to wear wool tzitzit can often lead to not wearing any tzitzit in the hot Summer months. Rav Moshe Feinstein (OH 2:1) also states that according to Ashkenazim it is acceptable to wear cotton tzitzit in the summer, and one need not discomfort oneself through the wearing of wool tzitzit. He still ends that it is ideal to be strict even in the Summer and wear wool. As we said above, those who wear cotton tzitzit certainly fulfill the obligation at least Rabbinically, and can make a brakha, so it would seem that this is a very reasonable position to take for the Summer months (although, of course, I wear wool even then…).
Until now we have been talking about cotton and silk and the like, materials which are neither wool nor linen, but are still natural materials. But what about purely artificial fibers, such as polyester and nylon? Would garments made out of these materials be obligated at all? Perhaps they would be totally exempt, and no brakha can be made on them. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein addresses this question in his first responsum in his second volume on Orah Hayyim. Here is what he writes:
בבגדים של ניילאן ורייען וכדומה אם חייבין בציצת
… והשבתי כי מסתבר לע”ד כי מינים אלו פטורין מציצית אף להסוברים דכל הבגדים חייבין בציצית אף משאר מינים שאינם של צמר ופשתים, והטעם דהא מודו שיש בגד שפטור מציצית כמו בגד של עור … והוא משום דלא מרבינן מהכנף אלא מינים שנעשים מחוטים כמו בגדים מצמר ופשתים ולא בגדים מעורות שאינם בדומה להם.
ופשוט שאף אם עשה מהעור רצועות דקות כחוטין וארגם ועשה בגד הוא בדין בגד עור שפטור מציצית…
וא”כ גם בגדים דמינים אלו דניילאן ורייען וכדומה שג”כ אין צורך לעשותן חוטין ולארוג מהן בגד דאפשר לעשות מהן בגד בלא חוטין ואריגה לכן אף כשעשאן חוטין וארגן לבגד אין להם חשיבות אריג ואין לרבותן מהכנף כמו שלא מרבינן בגד מעור ויש לפוטרן מציצית אף כשעשאן באריגה וכ”ש כשעשאן בגדים בלא אריגה שפטורין מציצית.
וכ”ש להסוברין דשאר מינים הוא רק מדרבנן שלא חייבו אלא בהמינים שדומין לצמר ופשתים שמוכרחים לטויה ואריגה.
… לא נראה כלל לחלק מאחר דעכ”פ לא דמו לבגדים דצמר ופשתים…
Regarding garments of rayon and nylon and similar materials, whether they are obligated in tzitzit.
… And I responded that it makes sense in my humble opinion that these materials are exempt from tzitzit even according to those opinions that all garments (garments of all materials) are obligated in tzitzit, even those not of wool or linen. The reason [that nylon, etc. is different] is because even these opinions admit that there are some garments that are fully exempt, such as those of leather… and the reason is because we do not include on the basis of the principle “‘the corner’ – of the same material as the garment,” except those garments that are made from threads, such as wool and linen, and not garments made of leather which is not at all similar to such garments.
And it is obvious that even a person makes from leather thin threads and weaves them into a garment that such a garment would be in the category of a leather garment and would be exempt from tzitzit…
Thus, even garments made of these materials of nylon and rayon – since there is no need to make threads out of them and to weave a garment from them, since a garment can also be made from their unwoven material [for example, Spandex – ed.], thus even if one makes threads and weaves them into a garment, it does not have the significance of a woven garment, and we cannot include them based on the phrase “the corner,” just like we do not include leather garments, and therefore we should exempt them from tzitzit even if they are made through being woven, and how much more so when garments are made from this material when it is not woven, that they are exempt from tzitzit.
This is certainly true according to the opinions that other materials are Rabbinic, that they Rabbis did not obligate other materials except for those that are similar to wool and linen, i.e., those made from materials that need to be woven.
… [Although one can draw distinctions between leather – which starts off as a usable, unwoven material – and rayon and nylon, which can be originally made as threads,] nevertheless, it does not make sense to distinguish between the two, since at the end of the day [even if they are not similar to leather,] they are not similar to wool and linen, and thus there is no basis to obligate them.
The practical upshot of this ruling, is that even in the Summer, parents should not buy polyester tzitzit for their kids, and if a person is wearing such tzitzit, he should not be making a brakha on it.
From the point of view of halakhic methodology, it is interesting to point out that Rav Moshe does not argue to exclude rayon, nylon and the like purely on the basis that they are non-natural fibers, and never existed in the time of the Torah or the Rabbis. Perhaps this reflects his general openness to considering new phenomena, and not rejecting the phenomenon out of hand. What is also interesting is his emphasis on being formally similar to wool and linen. While this makes sense on a Biblical level, one could have argued that on a Rabbanic level the key question is the type of garments that most people wear, or the type of garments that are put by people in the same category as other woven garments. The formalist argument – that they didn’t need to be woven – is a little surprising in the context of a rabbinic category. This does, however, reflect Rav Moshe’s general tendency for formal categories even on the Rabbinic level.
Finally, we may end on a humorous note, as the issue with leather garments not being true garments because they are not woven, was given beautiful comic artistic expression by Joe Pesci and Fred Gwynne in the following scene from My Cousin Vinny.
At least we know that if his jacket had four corners, there would be no need to put tzitzit on it!