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Operation Tzitzit

As Israeli soldiers are called into service, informal groups of Israelis are creating religious garments to send to the front lines

David Spinrad
November 17, 2023

Tablet Magazine

Tablet Magazine

This article is part of Hamas’ War on Israel.
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The day after the Hamas attacks of Oct. 7, Malki—she asked to use a pseudonym out of concern for her privacy—was in a communal kitchen in Jerusalem along with 50 volunteers, cooking meals for soldiers, when she got a WhatsApp message with an urgent request: “Can you find tzitzit?”

Religious Jews fulfill the biblical commandments in Numbers 15:37-41 and Deuteronomy 22:12 by wearing tzitzit, knotted strings that are tied to four-cornered garments worn under shirts. By tying the strings and knotting them in a specific way, one connects to God and His commandments—and brings heavenly protection. The Zohar—the book of Jewish Kabbalah—says that tzitzit guard against harm from forces of destruction; the Gaon of Vilna, a great sage from the 18th century, said that in the merit of tzitzit, many enemies will fall. Many stories abound from this war and throughout Jewish history of people being saved through the merit of tzitzit. One may even say that it’s a fringe benefit.

While some people like to make their tzitzit by hand, one can typically buy a standard white garment with the tzitzit already tied on from almost any Judaica store. The Israeli military, however, requires the garment to be olive green, as white would be too visible to the enemy. So Israeli soldiers have to wear special tzitzit that meet IDF standards for color, as well as material.

When hundreds of thousands of reservists were called into service following the Hamas attacks, the IDF’s usual tzitzit stock was depleted. What was now needed was Army-compliant tzitzit—not normally worn by civilians—from non-Army sources.

Malki—an Orthodox mother and businesswoman—wanted to help but did not know where to turn. She needed to find green shirts that would fit IDF regulations, and then find people to cut them in a certain way and tie fringes on the garments.

While Malki was pondering where to find these green shirts, she was absent-mindedly doing laundry and noticed that one of her son’s shirts was the shade required for soldiers. Taking the shirt out of the wash, Malki recalled that they had gotten the shirt from visiting the Fauda base (associated with the hit Netflix show) the previous Sukkot. Tracing that supplier netted Malki thousands more green shirts—as well as blue shirts that could be dyed with yellow to turn them green. Once word got out via WhatsApp that she was working on getting tzitzit tied onto these green shirts, requests kept piling up.

The demand was insatiable.

Malki realized that she could not do this alone. An ad hoc grassroots organization sprung up, committed to making “Operation Tzitzit” a reality. But this operation, one of a few that popped up overnight, had gone into 400,000 shekels worth of debt just ordering the shirts.

They didn’t know exactly how it would be paid back but they were confident that they were making a good investment on behalf of their nation, and God would pay them back. By Wednesday night of the first week of the war, enough people joined on to assist the operation and to find donors from within Israel and from the diaspora. The supplier dug up all he could and provided nearly 20,000 shirts to this new “tzitzit factory.”

This being the first week of the war, pressure was on to make and deliver tzitzit to soldiers who could be heading into Gaza at any moment. Hundreds of seminary girls were recruited to take these shirts, cut out the necessary holes, and then send them to yeshivot and other groups that would tie on the strings.

Fifteen seminaries and over 75 tying centers were needed to produce kosher pairs of tzitzit out of the raw garments. In the course of a week or two, over 16,000 tzitzit were processed in a makeshift distribution center through hundreds of volunteers coordinating the drive to send them to bases around the country, in order to get them into the hands of the soldiers who needed them. In total, there were tens of thousands of volunteers devoting their time, money, and energy to this massive undertaking.

Before long, “tying parties” were being organized all over Jerusalem. From school halls to rooms in synagogues, men, women, and children got together to show their support for the troops by lovingly tying and knotting the tzitzit that were to be sent to those in the field. Little children wrote notes of encouragement and love to be included in the care packages. Mostly advertised by WhatsApp groups or word of mouth, these activities are bringing the community together in a time where those who aren’t actively serving in the IDF are craving a way to contribute and assist the war effort. Some even take the project “to go,” by taking a few hundred to a few thousand to their own school or group and pledging to bring them back shortly, ready for distribution.

“I work closely with the army,” said Jeff Seidel, who does kiruv (Jewish outreach) in Jerusalem. “It was vital in this case that the Misrad Harabbanut [Ministry of Religious Affairs] worked to make up this ‘tzitzit deficit.’ They knew that they were lacking in workers and were now asking everyone to help them make tzitzit. They need those tzitzit, and they needed them yesterday. So, they sent me boxes and boxes and said go find students, young men, their girlfriends, their wives: Let them make tzitzit. They also gave me ready-made tzitzit to give out for those who truly wanted to put on. I have done this for them in the past and they know that I am not just jumping on the bandwagon. I do my utmost to ensure these tzitzit are ending up in the right hands.”

The demand, whether from religious soldiers who are without their own tzitzit or from the secular surge to put on the “Jewish Kevlar,” has been overwhelming.

“It’s truly a wonderful gesture, it’s awesome,” said Motti, a 26-year-old soldier from Ranaana who is serving in the reserves. “I myself am religious but I look around in my unit and see my fellow soldiers from all backgrounds who are excited to receive tzitzit and tefillin and have the chance to put them on in the battlefield. Everyone in Israel—even the secular—know about these things, and to get them from volunteers driving up to the base is a little breath of home; of security and comfort. In stark contrast to only a couple of weeks ago, the times we are in now blur so many lines that anything that is clear is held on to. So, things that bring us unity, such as religious articles that tie us together as Jews or Israelis are beacons of certainty in a period that is very unstable. It’s incredibly important and we feel that these things keep us sane.”

Seeking to be personally involved, I looked for a group where I could help make tzitzit for our brave chayalim. In Nekudah Tovah, I found a gathering of eclectic Jews united by the teachings of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, in the middle of the Meah Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem.

JJ Feig, who brought in 240 unmade pairs, stood in the middle of the small room looking at the proceedings with a small smile. He constantly moved around, alternating between making pairs himself to separating the strings to make the process easier for the volunteers. “Tying the knots in the tzitzit requires special concentration,” said Feig. “One must of course have in mind that he is fulfilling the commandment to tie on the tzitzit [without which the whole garment is not kosher]. But we also bear in mind our friends and family, and even the soldiers we don’t know. It doesn’t matter what they think, what they do, or what they look like. They are out there protecting us. So, tonight we are making them vests of spiritual protection.”

To contribute to efforts to make tzitzit for soldiers, please visit this link.

David Spinrad is a wondering and wandering Jew who uses writing and photography to bring out the stories of the world.