As you stand up in shul you suddenly feel a tugging at your tallit, and just as you turn around to see what’s going on – snap-twang! – a string breaks. What now? After all, the essence of a tallit is the tzitzit, and a tallit must have kosher tzitzit on all four corners.
Don’t be fast to fret. It may be that your tallit is still kosher and can be used until you get a chance to fix it. Although some people in this situation immediately search for a tallit store that does repairs, those may not be easy to find, and tying tzitzit may not be as hard as you might imagine. Also, if you do spend the time learning how to tie and sit down to actually do it, you’ll learn a lot about the mechanics of tzitzits and engage in a mitzvah while you’re at it.
First, the basics. Any four-cornered garment must have four kosher tzitzit strings attached to each corner. When they are attached the tzitzits dangle down on both sides of the corner, giving the appearance of eight strings. If only one of the eight strings is broken, the tallit is still kosher. And if your tzitzits were tied properly to begin with, even if two strings on the same side are broken below the knots, the tallit remains kosher.
In the event the tallit is rendered unfit to use because too many strings are broken, in most situations you can continue to wear it until you come home, because the Sages decreed that a rabbinical mitzvah can be abrogated to avoid personal embarrassment. If you would feel chagrined to sit in shul without a tallit, you would not have to take it off, regardless of the condition of the tzitzits.
Even if your tallit is still kosher, there is a Talmudic precept of fulfilling mitzvahs in an aesthetic manner, so you should try to have new tzitzits tied on as soon as possible.
Replacing broken tzitzit strings
Obviously you’ll need to buy kosher tzitzit strings. Although you may only need four, they are always sold in packages of 16 – enough for a tallit. If you buy tzitzit online, expect to pay $5-$10 for machine-spun tzitzit strings and $10-$20 for hand-spun, which are preferred for halachic reasons.
Tying tzitzit on one corner should take 15-20 minutes, or less if you have nimble fingers. Detailed tzitzit tying guides, including videos, are readily available online.
If you wear a tallit katan, learning how to tie tzitzit is a valuable skill, because they are more susceptible to snapping, and even if the strings remain intact, they eventually fray or get dirty, and should be replaced. And if you have a young boy at home who wears tzitzits, wear and tear (and bicycle chain accidents!) require frequent replacement.