Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Fringes (in Scripture)

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Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 6
Fringes (in Scripture)

by Charles Léon Souvay


This word is used to denote a special kind of trimming, consisting of loose threads of wool, silk, etc., or strips of other suitable material, along the edge of a piece of cloth. The English Bible uses it to designate a particular appendage of the Jewish costume. In the Mosaic legislation which is embodied in the Pentateuch, mention is made of a peculiar ordinance. "The Lord also said to Moses: Speak to the children of Israel, and thou shalt tell them to make to themselves fringes in the corners of their garments, putting in them ribands of blue: that when they shall see them, they may remember all the commandments of the Lord" (Num., xv, 37-39). "Thou shalt make strings [A.V. and R.V.: fringes] in the hem at the four corners of thy cloak" (Deut., xxii, 12). The description contained in these two passages is anything but clear, at least in the English Bibles; but it may be supplemented by a close reading of the original text, a knowledge of Eastern customs, and the details to be found in the rabbinical literature.

The word "fringes" is here an inaccurate rendering of the Hebrew; "strings" is slightly more exact. The Hebrew word gedîlîm means literally "twisted cords"; çîçîth would be best translated by "tassel". It is indeed an ornament of this description, fastened to the four corners of the upper garment, which is the object of the above regulations. This upper garment, the "cloak" of Deut., xxii, 12, seems to have been a large square piece of cloth, resembling the aba of the modern bedouin, and worn like the pallium or imátion of the Greeks, the four corners sometimes hanging in front ('epíblema), and sometimes one of the corners cast over the left shoulder (períblema). It was very likely the tassel of the corner thus thrown over Our Lord's shoulder that the woman with the issue of blood touched ("behind him"), in the circumstance recorded in Matt., ix, 20, and Luke, viii, 44. We should perhaps go back to a very ancient custom, the significance of which was lost sight of, to account for the wearing of these ornaments. At any rate, a new meaning was attached to them by the lawgiver of Israel.

Of these "fringes", or tassels, nothing more is said in the O. T., than that they should contain "ribands of blue"; more exactly, "a cord, or thread of purple". But the rabbinical literature contains most minute prescriptions with regard to these ornaments. Owing to the difficulty of procuring the purple dye, the custom prevailed of using only white threads of wool. They should be four in number, one being considerably longer than the others, spun expressly for the purpose, passed through an eyelet at the corner of the cloak, twisted a certain number of times, and tied by five knots. According to Deut., the çîçîth were intended to remind the people of the commandments of the Law. We may easily understand, therefore, why the Pharisees were wont to "enlarge their fringes" (Matt., xxiii, 5). This connexion led people to attach to the çîçîth and its various parts mystic significations, and to the statement that the wearing of it is the most important precept of the Law; nay more, is of equal merit with the observance of the whole Law.

The practice of wearing the çîçîth is still scrupulously followed by the Jews. The tassels are a part of the large tálîth, or prayer-shawl, used universally during religious services: this garment is worn in such a way that the çîçîth are visible in front. Pious Jews, moreover, devised, since the Dispersion, an article of clothing, the small tálîth, that would enable them to observe the Law at all times. This tálîth is similar in shape to a large scapular, with the tassels fastened to the four corners, and is worn as an undergarment. Men only are to wear the tálîth and the çîçîth.

Talmud of Jerusalem, Treat. Çîçîth (Venice, 1522-1523); French transl. by Schwab, Paris, 1871-1890; MAIMONIDES, Yad Ha-hazakah (1st ed. wtihout place or date; 3d ed., Constantinople, 1509); BUXTORF, Lexicon Talmudicum, s. v. Cîcîth (Basle, 1639; Leipzig, 1869-1875); IDEM, Synagoga Judaica, 160-170 (Basle, 1603); HILLER, Dissertatio de vestibus fimbriatis Hebræorum in UGOLINI, Thesaurus Antiquitatum Sacrarum, XXI (Venice, 1744-1769).

CHARLES L. SOUVAY