What Israeli soldiers are wearing as their “spiritual body armor” – thanks to a civilian-run initiative that’ll leave you inspired!
Since the October 7th massacre in southern Israel, the entire country has been mobilized to defeat Hamas, free the hostages, and defend our homeland. One unique way that civilians have been helping the war effort has been by hand-tying tzitzit – intricate, Jewish prayer fringes – onto military undershirts for tens of thousands of enlisted soldiers and reservists who have requested them as their “spiritual body armor.”
Learn more about this unique project as well as the special significance of tzitzit below!
What Are Tzitzit & Why Are IDF Soldiers Wearing Them
Tzitzitare specially-tied, ritual fringes or tassels that Jews are commanded to wear on four-cornered garments as a reminder of the mitzvot (commandments) and our relationship with the Divine. They adorn any traditional tallit or prayer shawl, as well as special undershirts worn by some religious Jews under their everyday clothing known as tallit katan (literally, "small tallit"), with the strings either tucked in or hanging out. These shirts are themselves often simply called "tzitzit," and usually when Jews talk about "wearing tzitzit" this is what they're referring to.
The strings of the tzitzit are normally made of white or off-white wool, and may or may not have a special blue string woven in known as tekhelet. There are a few different, specific ways to tie them, with variations among the Ashkenazi and Sephardi traditions - but all need to be hand-tied, by a trained person who has the skill as well as a specific intention in mind related to the fulfillment of the obligation of tzitzit.
It's not unusual for religious IDF soldiers to want to wear tzitzit or a tallit katan at all times under their uniforms, and the Israeli Army has special dri-fit, four-cornered undershirts for this purpose that meet uniform requirements (in olive green for ground troops and white for the navy and air force).
However, the current Israel-Hamas war has seen both an unprecedented call-up of almost the entire IDF reserve force, as well as a unique rise in religious interest among even secular Jewish soldiers, who are looking to Jewish traditions and commandments for comfort and protection. As a result, large numbers of soldiers have requested the army-compliant tzitzit as part of their uniform, and have been referring to them as their "spiritual body armor" that they believe will help them defeat Hamas.
Israeli Civilian Volunteers Stepping Up by the Thousands
Many Israelis who haven't been called up for war as part of the IDF reserve forces have instead turned to volunteering to assist the war effort. And one unique, important initiative that has attracted thousands of civilian volunteers since the start of the war is a Jerusalem-based project to prepare the tzitzit shirts that Israeli soldiers are requesting for their spiritual protection!
The project was spearheaded by Kehillat Eretz Chemda, a Modern Orthodox Jewish community made up of largely English-speaking immigrants in southern Jerusalem. Advertising through word of mouth and social media, the community has enlisted the assistance of a number of other synagogues, yeshivot, schools, and groups around Jerusalem and the rest of Israel, in addition to the many volunteers from all walks of life who come to Eretz Chemda's study hall every day to help.
The volunteers go through a lesson on tying tzitzit in their chosen Ashkenazi or Sephardi style, and then meticulously tie the ritual fringes onto the four corners of the mesh undershirts, which are then packed up and delivered to army bases to be worn by soldiers going into battle.
Volunteer leader Baruch Toledano got the idea for the project after vising army bases at the start of the war. "While I was on the army base I asked soldiers what they need, and they said they need tzitzit," he said."This is the one thing they are asking for."
The IDF usually only has a small supply of tzitzit for enlisted soldiers, and doesn't normally provide them for reservists. The new, massive demand in the tens of thousands for tzitzit shirts was a surprise that the military wasn't prepared for, and didn't have the manpower to fulfill given the urgent needs of the war - particularly since every single tzitzit tassel needs to be carefully hand-tied. So, Eretz Chemda stepped in to solve the issue, in coordination with the Israel Defense Forces as well as the Chief Rabbinate.
Volunteers have been able to procure some of the army-approved undershirts and wool strings from military warehouses, and to purchase the rest of the needed materials with funds from donors. Meanwhile, students at Israel's art and fashion academies have been helping to sew the shirts, along with other military uniforms and equipment.
Tens of thousands of tzitzit have been tied to date and sent out to soldiers who are already wearing them, and the demand keeps growing - and the volunteers are determined to keep going. There is a need for about 60,000 tzitzit shirts, and later, replacements for dirty and damaged shirts and help with laundering.
Many of the project's volunteers have cited a communal sense of unity and purpose, and a satisfaction with being able to help the war effort. They have also received periodic updates and thank-you videos from some of the army units who are now wearing their hard work.
The increased interest in wearing tzitzit for Divine protection and a reminder of Jewish tradition, among even previously non-religious soldiers, is also inspiring. As one volunteer told the Israeli media, "There is something to it on a religious level, there’s something to it on a spiritual level. As a religious person, I think it’s phenomenal."
As Toledano says of the soldiers wearing his organization's tzitzit, "They are not scared; they are warriors. But they know this will protect them."