The skullcap, chapel cap and tallit are some of the garments Jewish rituals sometime call for. I chose to devote this passage to the garment I consider to be the most creative of the lot– the talit. This ancient prayer shawl embodies several unique ideas. Let’s begin to explore…
If I were to describe the tallit in simple words, I would say it’s a rectangular shaped garment with stripes going across parallel to each end. There are fringes attached to each of its four corners and it has a neckband which is usually decorated with biblical text. The garment is composed of linen, wool, silk or synthetics. Now I’ll let you in on a secret… The main significance of the talit does not lie in the garment itself.
Although the garment may be made of high quality, it is not the garment itself that makes the talit special. Its significance is found in the tzitzit – the fringes on the four corners. Meaning, the talit’s main purpose is simply to hold the tzitzit together! In ancient times, Jews were commanded to wear the fringes as a visual reminder to strengthen the holiness in their lives by remembering and practicing God’s commandments.
The passage commanding us to wear the tzitzit is located in the book of Numbers. God said to Moses: “Speak to the Israelites and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge. Thus you shall be reminded to observe all my commandments and to be holy to your God”.
Of course not! Here is a refreshing insight regarding the prayer shawl – the Hebrew word tallith is a combination of two words: tal and ith. Tal can be interpreted as tent and Ith can be interpreted as little. Combine the two together and you’ve got the essence of it’s meaning – a little tent. When you wrap yourself in the prayer shawl during prayer you create this “small tent” around yourself and obtain a sense of personal space.
The reason you create this private space is to isolate yourself from the environment and to keep focused. By doing this you symbolically strengthen your commitment to the prayers.
There is another reason for wearing the prayer shawl, relevant mainly when praying with a congregation. Wearing identical shawls creates a unified coverage which neutralizes the exterior differences between us (such as financial status and ethnic background). It helps us keep focused on the prayer and emphasizes the idea that all men are created equal in the eyes of God.
You learned by now that the tzitzis were originally meant to have a cord of blue in each tassel. This blue color, called techelet-blue, is similar to the color of the sky. It is symbolic of God’s purity. It is believed that in ancient times the dye used for this exact shade of blue came from a kind of snail called a chilazone. It is also believed that this chilazone appeared only once every seventy years, a time span causing its identity to become forgotten over the centuries.
This exact dye can’t be found. Thus, the commandment of the blue thread is unable to be fulfilled, according to most authorities. In memory of it some add a blue stripe on the tallit’s garment. Others add a black stripe of mourning symbolizing the lost element of the commandment and the destruction of the Temple.
A tallit is normally worn only at morning services. According to Jewish tradition, the act of putting it on has religious value only if it is done during daylight.
There are three additional occasions when Jews wear the tallit during prayer: The evening Kol Nidre service of Yom Kippur, the evening service of Simchat Torah and special Friday evening services that include a Torah reading.
The prayer shawl is also used at all major Jewish occasions such as circumcisions, bar mitsvahs, weddings and burials.
In addition to the Tallit which is used during prayer, a Jewish person should wear a “tallit kattan” under their clothes throughout the day. This is a small four
fringed garment with tzitzit threaded on each corner.
It is most common for a Jewish male to begin wearing the tallit at the age of 13 when celebrating his Bar-mitzvah. At this age, the Jewish boy becomes a man and is now considered responsible for his actions. Another less common belief is that the talit can only be worn by a man once he gets married. During the past years, it has gradually become more common for women to wear the prayer shawl as well. Women begin wearing it at the age of 12, the year they celebrate their Bat-Mitzvah.
You may have seen tallitot in a variety of colors. There is no rule for choosing a correct one – choose the one you prefer. Most orthodox Jews wear black for mourning (as I mentioned earlier). Another traditional color is blue that may be associated with the Israeli flag. Other colors may be associated with different things and different groups. The garment itself may be composed of linen, wool, silk or synthetics. They are all acceptable. I prefer wool, I find wool more durable and easy to keep clean. On the other hand, silk is beautiful but more expensive and harder to clean. Synthetic tallitot may be composed of acrylic (acrylon). They are usually very light and inexpensive. I recommend this fabric for your first tallit, until you make up your mind about the one you want to own permanently.
Want to see some pictures of tallit? Click here to learn more about the women’s prayer shawl or