Why a Prayer Shawl?

Image: Air Force Jewish Chaplain (Capt.) Sarah Schechter leads Jewish Services, wearing traditional Jewish prayer shawl at 332 AEW Jt. Base Balad, Iraq. Public Domain.

If you read the Torah all the way through, nowhere will you see mention of a tallit, or prayer shawl. And yet that is one of the most ubiquitous symbols of Judaism, so much so that it was the basis for the design of the Israeli flag! What’s the story?

Tzitzit fringe. Public domain.

The first thing to know about the tallit is that it is primarily a holder for a mitzvah. The “business end” of a prayer shawl are the long fringes hanging from its corners. They are called tzitzit (tzeet-TZEET). There may be other, smaller fringes, but those don’t count; only the multi-knotted fringes affixed to the corners of the garment are important. Those fringes are commanded in two places in the Torah:

Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them that they make for themselves throughout their generations fringes for the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of blue.  And it will be to you a fringe, that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Eternal, and do them; and that you will not go about after your own heart and your own eyes, which may lead you astray. [Do this so] that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy unto your God.– Numbers 15:38-40


Make yourself twisted cords upon the four corners of your clothing, [the clothing] that you [use to] cover yourself.– Deuteronomy 22:12

There was a time, in the distant past, when all Jewish men wore tzitzit on any four-cornered item of clothing. Nowadays our clothing is more complex, so it is necessary to fashion clothing that has just four corners.

Man wearing tallit-katan (see fringes.) Photo by Gilabrand at English Wikipedia.

Most Jews fulfill this commandment by wearing a special four-cornered garment, the tallit, for morning prayers. Some Jews choose additionally to observe the mitzvah at all times by wearing a four-cornered undergarment, a tallit-katan, with fringes that they may choose to leave hanging out or may choose to tuck in privately. A tallit-katan is usually made of knitted or woven cotton fabric, much like a tee shirt. It looks like a little poncho, with the fringes falling from the four corners. (See photo to the right; alternatively, search for “tallit-katan” and you can see photos of the garment alone for sale.)

Historically both the tallit and the tallit-katan have been garments worn by men. In the latter half of the 20th century, more and more women have adopted the tallit, since they, too, understand themselves to be obligated to remember all the commandments. Very few women (so far) have adopted the practice of wearing tallit-katan.

The tallit itself may be made of any fabric, provided it is not shatnez (a mixture of wool and linen.) The tzitzit may be made of wool, or of the same material as the tallit.  Most people use specially-spun woolen yarn for the tzitzit.

To sum up:

  1. A tallit [prayer shawl] is a holder for its ritual fringes [tzitzit.]
  2. We are commanded to wear tzitzit to remind us of all 613 commandments.
  3. The commandment to wear tzitzit appears twice in the Torah.
  4. Historically the tallit was seen as a male garment.
  5. Today many Jewish women express their understanding of commandedness by wearing a tallit with tzitzit.
  6. A tallit may be made of any permitted fabric, and the tzitzit must be wool, or the same fiber as the tallit.

Do you wear a tallit? A tallit-katan? What are your reasons for wearing or not wearing it? Do you identify as male, female, or other?

Do you have any other practice that reminds you of the commandments?

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi based in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, mom, poodle groomer, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at as the Coffee Shop Rabbi.

3 thoughts on “Why a Prayer Shawl?”

  1. A timely article since the parsha this week is Tetzaveh, which is all about the clothing of the High Priest. We all know the expression, “Clothes make the man.” Is this about creating an external reality via the perceptions of others? Or do the garments we wear affect us on an internal level, which then creates a new external reality?


    1. If you want to use the strictest definition, only the blue made using “tchelet,” a particular blue dye, is kosher for that purpose. There are firms online that sell tzitzit kits with the kosher blue threads.

      I should caution you that if you use one, you MUST follow their directions for presoaking, because otherwise that dye fades all over everything it touches.


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