– Author: Rav Avichai Goodman

An integral part of the mitzva of tzitzit is preparing the strings. The proper formation of the strings is subject to a series of requirements, including the material they are made of, the method of their preparation, and the number of times they are wound and tied.

The preparation of each one of the strings consists of three parts. The first is carding the wool, the second is spinning the carded wool into fine strings, and the third is taking the eight fine strings and weaving them into the tzitzit string with which we are familiar.

In this article we will discuss the halacha that one should have kavana (intent) when spinning the tzitzit strings that it is being done for the sake of the mitzva of tzitzit, and we will explore the option of spinning the strings by machine.

Proper Intent for Spinning

The Gemara[1] brings a dispute between Rav and Shmuel whether making tzitzit strings from sisin is acceptable or not. The sisin is a ball of twine that was spun beforehand with no intent of doing so for the mitzva of tzitzit. Rav holds that the tzitzit are kosher because there is no need for the spinning to be done for the sake of the mitzva of tzitzit. Shmuel, on the other hand, believes that the spinning must be done for the sake of the mitzva. Therefore, this string is pasul (invalid) for tzitzit, because the original intent of the spinning was not for that purpose.

Most Rishonim rule in accordance with the opinion of Shmuel that spinning tzitzit strings must be done for the sake of tzitzit, and this is the ruling given by the Shulchan Aruch.[2] This condition is an absolute necessity, hence the Shulchan Aruch concludes that even bedi’eved (post facto), tzitzit strings that are not spun with proper intent are pasul.

Is Koach Gavra Required When Spinning the Tzitzit Strings?

Aside from the need for proper kavana when spinning the strings, another requirement is debated by the poskim. Is there a need for “koach gavra” – spinning performed directly by a person, or is the tzitzit kosher if spun by other forces as well?

The most famous sugya in this regard is found in the Gemara[3] regarding the laws of shechita, where it is stated that when one slaughters an animal using a machine, the animal is kosher. The “machine” being referred to is a wheel, whereby the slaughtering knife is positioned and rolls over the animal’s neck. A baraita states that even though the person is not the direct shochet, but only turning the wheel, the slaughter is nevertheless kosher.

The Gemara also brings a contradictory baraita that such shechita is pasul, and resolves the contradiction by distinguishing between a wheel that is made of clay, where the person rolls it over, rendering a kosher shechita, and a wheel that is powered by the river water, where the shechita is pasul, because it was not done through the force of a person.[4]

The Gemara then offers another possible answer. The Gemara suggests that both baraitot refer to a wheel that operates on river water, but there is a distinction between koach rishon, or “first thrust power,” and koach sheni, or a “secondary thrust of power.” If the shechita took place immediately after the wheel was spun by the person, the shechita is kosher, because it is still considered a result of the person spinning it. But if the shechita is performed after several rounds of the wheel turning, it is no longer  considered to be operated by a person, and the shechita is pasul.

The Responsa Imrei Eish[5] cites the above sugya in the context of the question of spinning tzitzit by machine. He rules based on it that spinning strings with a machine is pasul, as there is no koach gavra present of any sort – no koach sheni, and certainly not koach rishon. The Imrei Eish therefore reaches the conclusion that one should not purchase tzitzit strings unless they were spun by a God-fearing Jew.

The Responsa Divrei Chaim[6] also holds that strings spun by a machine are not considered to have been spun by a person, and he therefore believes that they are pasul. As he writes, “בטוח אני לראות מהרה במפלת המאשין,” “I am certain that I will soon see the downfall of the machine.” However, he concludes his responsum by stating that since other authorities of his time permitted these tzitzit, he is not publishing his opinion in public. (At the end of the responsum, the editor adds that several days after the Divrei Chaim wrote the abovementioned letter, the workshop was burnt down and all the spinning machines went up in flames.)

On the other hand, the Responsa Chesed L’avraham[7] claims that “we have never heard” from any sugya in the Gemara that koach gavra is a requirement for spinning the tzitzit strings, and hence there is no comparison to the laws of shechita. In fact, the Imrei Eish did not explain why he deemed it appropriate to compare the laws of shechita and tzitzit and require koach gavra.

Kavana in Spinning Tzitzit Strings by Machine

We have learned so far that the strings must be spun for the sake of tzitzit according to all, and that two approaches exist regarding the need for koach gavra.

Even if we take the approach that koach gavra is not critical, we must still determine whether a person operating a machine with intent for tzitzit can be considered valid intent. Is there a time limit on intent? does intent of a Jew for tzitzit when starting the machine’s operation remain valid for as long as the machine works?

In order to resolve this question, we must first address a more basic question. Does the process of spinning the strings require intent throughout the entire process, or only at the beginning of the spinning?  If a God-fearing Jew operates the spinning machine and turns the wheel with intent for the mitzva of tzitzit, and after a few minutes gives over the responsibility of turning the wheel to a gentile without stopping the motion of the wheel, would this disqualify the intention?

This question, regarding the participation of a gentile in an action that the halacha requires to be done with intent, is debated by the Rishonim regarding the tanning of leather for a sefer torah. The Rosh[8] holds that having proper intent at the beginning of the tanning process is sufficient; After a person places the leather on the tanning surface with kavana, a gentile may complete the remaining actions. On the other hand, the Rambam[9] holds that all actions must be done for the sake of the mitzva, and if it is done by a gentile, it is pasul.

Rav Yosef Karo records this dispute within the laws of tefillin and quotes[10] both opinions by name. In Hilchot Tzitzit concerning proper intent for spinning the strings, the Beit Yosef[11] also refers to the abovementioned dispute between the Rosh and the Rambam. Rav Karo apparently holds that the same dispute that exists regarding the tanning of leather applies as well to the spinning of strings for tzitzit. In fact, the Shulchan Aruch[12] presents both the Rambam and Rosh’s opinion by name, just as he did in the original dispute.

Based on this, one can argue that according to the Rosh, just as a Jew may start the spinning process with proper intent and then have a gentile continue, so too a Jew may start the machine with proper intent and the machine may then continue the process.

However, not all agree with Rav Karo’s comparison between the laws of sefer Torah and tzitzit. The Noda B’Yehuda[13] expresses surprise at the Shulchan Aruch’s understanding, since a major distinction exists between the two cases: The action that starts the tanning process, i.e., placing the leather on the tanning surface, is followed by the rest of the tanning process on the same piece of leather. However, spinning the tzitzit strings is different, as at every moment a different part of the twine is being spun. Hence, the spinning of strings for tzitzit is more akin to writing a get, which all agree requires proper intent throughout the process. The Noda B’Yehuda cites the Ba’al Ha’Ittur, who also does not draw the same comparison as the Shulchan Aruch, in support of his position. Thus, according to the Noda B’Yehuda, even the Rosh would agree that using a machine to spin the tzitzit strings is problematic, as proper intent is lacking during the process.

Is Kavana Required During the Entire Process?

This issue raised by the Noda B’Yehuda is discussed at length by the Acharonim, who present three main approaches.

The Bi’ur Halacha[14] quotes the discussion above and infers from the Rosh that one must distinguish between a case where the spinning takes a long period of time and one where it is completed quickly. According to the Bi’ur Halacha, the Rosh claims that the tzitzit are kosher only when the spinning is done quickly, similar to circumcision and the tanning process of the leather of a sefer torah, which are short actions. If it takes a long time, even the Rosh would agree that if it is done by a gentile, the tzitzit are pasul.

Another approach to the issue of the Noda B’Yehuda is suggested by the Chazon Ish.[15] The Chazon Ish claims that some actions require kavana only at the start of the process because there is no point of return in the middle, such as the process of tanning leather for a sefer torah or spinning strings for tzitzit. In these cases, proper kavana at the beginning of the process is sufficient, and this kavana is considered to extend throughout the entire process. On the other hand, writing a get is different because even if one started with the correct intent, the couple may reconcile during the writing process and render the get useless. Therefore, the condition of intent must be extant during the entire process.

Accordingly, the Chazon Ish, like the Noda B’Yehuda before him, rejects the comparison of the Beit Yosef between tanning the leather and spinning the strings. They differ, though, in that while according to the Noda B’Yehuda, the Rosh would agree with the Rambam that the entire process of spinning strings must be done by a Jew with kavana for the mitzva, the Chazon Ish holds the reverse. In his opinion, even the Rambam would agree that in the case of spinning the tzitzit strings[16] it is sufficient to have intent at the beginning of the process. Once the spinning has been begun by a Jew with kavana for the mitzva, the kavana extends throughout the entire process, regardless of its length. It should be noted that Rav Tzvi Pesach Frank rejects the Chazon Ish’s opinion due to its novelty.[17]

A third approach to the question raised by the Noda B’Yehuda is mentioned by Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach,[18] who distinguishes between intent for an action that confers a legal status and intent for an action that only focuses on thought.

Rav Shlomo Zalman claims that when intent is necessary to confer a legal status, such as when writing a get, the intent must continue throughout the entire process. Consequently, if a gentile completes the writing of the get, the get is pasul. But regarding the tanning of leather and spinning of tzitzit strings, where the intent does not create any legal status, proper intent at the start of the process is sufficient, after which a gentile may continue the tanning or spinning.

According to both the Chazon Ish’s explanation and that of Rav Shlomo Zalman, it would seem that we can permit spinning the tzitzit strings by machine if a Jew begins the process with intent for the mitzva of tzitzit. The Chazon Ish would hold that kavana for the mitzva extends until the end of the action, so the Jew having proper kavana when beginning to operate the machine suffices. Rav Shlomo Zalman would hold that since the intent does not create any legal status in this case, it need not continue until the end of the process. On the other hand, according to the Bi’ur Halacha, it would be permitted to spin the strings by machine only if the process is short.­­

Rulings of Contemporary Poskim

This discussion regarding spinning tzitzit strings by machine has been discussed by numerous prominent poskim in recent generations.

  • Rav Avraham Yitzchak Hakohen Kook[19] claims that one should not use a machine lechatchila, but he ultimately condones those who do so.
  • Rav Shmuel Wosner[20] permits the use of a machine on condition that it is operated by a God-fearing Jew at the start of the process who has kavana to perform the mitzva. He writes, though, that it is preferable to avoid the use of a machine and spin the strings by hand.
  • The Tzitz Eliezer[21] claims that there is no reason to question spinning by machine and many opinions approve relying on this approach. He does recommend shutting down the machine periodically and restarting it with intent for the mitzva of tzitzit.
  • The Piskei Teshuvot[22] concludes that it is better to avoid using tzitzit where the strings were spun by machine, but one should not shun those who do use machine-made strings. One should also ensure that the machine is operated with intent for the mitzva of tzitzit.

It seems from here that most poskim rule that it is preferable to purchase tzitzit where the strings were spun by God-fearing Jews and not by a machine, even if such tzitzit are more expensive. Practically, the vast majority of tzitzit strings in the market (at least in Israel) are in fact spun by hand. But it is clear that one who wears machine-made tzitzit has a basis upon which to rely.

[1] Menachot 42b.

[2] Shulchan Aruch, O.C. 11:1.

[3]Chullin 15b.

[4] Rashi, Chullin 16a, s.v. “דמיא”.

[5] Responsa Imrei Eish, O.C. siman 1.

[6] 2:1.

[7] Tinyana, O.C. siman 3.

[8] Halachot Ketanot of the Rosh, Hilchot Sefer Torah, siman 3.

[9] Hilchot Tefillin Mezuza V’sefer Torah 1:11.

[10] Beit Yosef, O.C. 32:9, s.v. “ואם עבדו”; Shulchan Aruch, O.C. 32:9.

[11] Beit Yosef, O.C. 11:2(1), s.v.” “וכתוב בנימוק”י.

[12] O.C. 11:2.

[13] Responsa Noda B’Yehuda, Tinyana, siman 175.

[14] 11:2, s.v. “וישראל עומד”.

[15] Hilchot Tefillin, siman 6.

[16] According to the Chazon Ish, the Rambam may even agree with the Rosh in the case of tanning the leather if the process was started by a Jew and continued by a gentile. The disagreement between the Rishonim is only when the entire process was done by a gentile and the Jew merely instructs him.

[17] Responsa Har Tzvi, O.C., siman 10.

[18] Responsa Minchat Shlomo, Tinyana, siman 4.

[19] Responsa Orach Mishpat, O.C. siman 122.

[20] Responsa Shevet HaLevi 1:6.

[21] Responsa Tzitz Eliezer 6:15.

[22] Piskei Teshuvot, O.C. 11:2.

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