Image: A young boy puts on a tallit. He is wearing tefillin as well. Image by 777jew.
One of my teachers, Rabbi Dr. Rachel Adler, wrote to me after I published the post Why a Prayer Shawl?, suggesting in her very gentle way that there is also a poetic side to the tradition of wearing a tallit, a prayer shawl, for morning prayers. A tallit is much more than a holder for the ritual fringes, the tzitzit.
I knew this, but I was so busy giving the basic facts that I forgot the poetic side, which is just as important, perhaps more important. So here I offer to you a poem I wrote and gave as a bar mitzvah gift some years back. For its imagery, it draws upon the psalms and prayers one traditionally says before donning the garment. If you are curious about those connections, click the links within the poem.
Meditation on a tallit
In honor of Jesse Benjamin Snyder, Bar Mitzvah, 20 Cheshvan, 5764
The psalmist tells us that before God made the world
God wrapped Godself in a robe of light, a bright tallit:
Light before the dawn of the world, light before the making
Of the first day, the first ray to split the darkness forever.
Like a mother wrapping a newborn, the wings of Shechinah
Envelop us: soft as silk, warm as wool,
All colors, all together, white light. We will wrap the mitzvot
Around our frail shoulders, against the winds of the world.
Touch the tzitzit: Notice the cord
that winds around, binding the fringe together.
Finger the knots. So may we wrap ourselves and our lives
Together in wholeness, together in holiness, strengthened in covenant:
Touch the tzitzit.
Arrayed in the majesty of the Holy, we are robed like royalty:
Tasseled front and back, in folds of rich fabric. We are commanded
To wear tzitzit, so that we will remember and we will act:
We are a nation of priests, working to mend the world.
The psalmist tells us that before God made the world
God wrapped Godself in a robe of light, a bright tallit.
God has woven me a tallit, to match:
I will wrap myself in mitzvot, to do God’s work.
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?
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.
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:
A tallit [prayer shawl] is a holder for its ritual fringes [tzitzit.]
We are commanded to wear tzitzit to remind us of all 613 commandments.
The commandment to wear tzitzit appears twice in the Torah.
Historically the tallit was seen as a male garment.
Today many Jewish women express their understanding of commandedness by wearing a tallit with tzitzit.
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?
I’ve been looking at the Google search strings again, the words that people use to get to this blog. Yesterday one set caught my eye: “Jewish Rabbi Vestments.”
I’m going to take that to mean, “What special clothing does a rabbi wear?”
The most accurate answer to that is that a rabbi does not wear any special clothing. Rabbis are ordinary people with specialized knowledge. Unlike a priest, we do not have special powers. A rabbi is a person who has studied Torah, Jewish law and tradition. Someone, either an institution or another rabbi, has declared that they can call themselves “rabbi.” Rabbinical study involves multiple languages (Hebrew and Aramaic, at least) and it generally takes five or more years.
Rabbis wear what other people in their community wear. A rabbi from a Hasidic group will dress like other adult men in his group. I dress like a 60 year old woman from the Bay Area of California. If I lived in New York City, I’d dress up a bit more (because, New York!) but otherwise I would look very much like one of my congregants or students.
I imagine this person was thinking about worship. To lead a service at any time of day, most rabbis will wear a tallit, a prayer shawl, and they will wear a head covering, called either a kippa or a yarmulke. But any service leader will wear the same things; those are not reserved for rabbis. And in theory, any adult Jew should be able to lead a service. (In Orthodoxy, men only can lead the service, unless only women are present.)
In a morning service, adults may wear a tallit (in a Reform service, some will wear one, in a Conservative service, most adult men and women will wear them, and in an Orthodox service, you will see the tallit on adult males only.) Alternatively, some men wear the fringes you see on the prayer shawl on a sort of undershirt, so you don’t see the tallit but the essential part, the fringes, are there. In addition, in the morning service, in Conservative and Orthodox synagogues you will see people wearing tefillin, also known as phylacteries. Those are the black boxes attached to head and arm with leather straps.
Here is a photo, showing a boy and two men dressed for morning prayers. Notice that they are not all dressed alike. We cannot assume from the dress that any of them are rabbis.
In an afternoon or evening service, you will not see the tallit except on the leader (it shows who is leading) and you will not see tefillin at all. Head coverings will still be in place. For an example, look at the first photo on this page, of U.S. Air Force Rabbi Chaplain Captain Sarah Schechter leading an evening service. Notice that except for the tallit, she is wearing her uniform.
Now, there are some Reform congregations that have a custom for the rabbi to wear a pulpit robe (like a judge’s robe) with or without a tallit. They are increasingly rare, though. Also, I anticipate (and welcome) comments about the customs at local synagogues, or in various communities: there is a great variety of Jewish practice, and my statements here about what Jews wear for worship are meant only to be general.
Rabbis and cantors are primarily teachers: the rabbi teaches Torah, and the cantor or chazzan, is a specialist in the language of the service and in liturgical music. Both also officiate at lifccycle services, like baby namings, funerals, and weddings, and if they went to accredited schools, they have training in things like premarital counseling, grief support, and in navigating the gray areas and complexities of Jewish custom.
But we really don’t have special outfits. My “vestments” for prayer are exactly the same as you would see on any other observant Jew in my community. Gender can make a difference, depending on the tradition of Judaism in question.
We all stand before the Holy One as members of our community. We each bring different gifts and different skills, but our clothing is basically the same.
Often we walk into services, look for a seat, settle in, chat with friends, and wait for the service to begin. The rabbi or cantor says, “Shabbat shalom!” once, then again, louder, and the group replies, “Shabbat shalom!” Half of us are still mentally looking for a parking spot, and the rest are not sure where we are. A skillful service leader will settle us in with a hymn, but too often we’re looking to them for the “warmup” we need to give ourselves.
What’s the spiritual equivalent of stretching and a little cardio?
The classical answer is to pray that we will be ready to pray. And certainly, for some people that’s the way to begin. It’s like saying “hello” to God, before the service starts.
Others quiet their minds. They sit silently and breathe. They calm themselves from the road or the argument with the kids.
Others check in with friends. I knew one old gentleman who would give a little wave to people across the congregation as he saw them come in. For him, being in the service was about being with other Jews, in Jewish space, and greeting friends was a way to “warm up” to pray.
I like to get to services a bit early and sit for a while. I like to be in the physical space as people arrive. It takes time for all of me to truly arrive in the room. If it’s morning, putting on my tallit [prayer shawl] is a sign to my body that it is time to pray.
For a very restless person, a brisk walk might be a good way to start, something to consume the wiggles for a while.
How do you prepare to pray? What activity might put you in the perfect mindset for prayer?
A tallit is a prayer shawl. It may be pronounced “ta-LEET” or “TA-lis” depending on the kind of Hebrew spoken. (The plurals, respectively, are “ta-lee-TOTE” and “ta-LAY-seem.”) The shawl itself is just a shawl; the important parts of the tallit are the long knotted fringes or tzitzit (tzeet-TZEET). We wear them to remind us of the 613 mitzvot [commandments].
Jews wear a tallit for morning prayers. The person who leads prayers often wears a tallit no matter what time of day. We get the commandment to wear the tallit from two places in the Torah: Numbers 15:37-40 and Deuteronomy 22:12. You can learn more about the meaning and history of the tallit from this article by Rabbi Louis Jacobs.
A tallit is one of those things reserved for people who were born Jewish or who have been through the process of conversion. The purpose of the tallit is to remind us of our 613 sacred duties (mitzvot). Only a person who is bound by those duties needs to be reminded of them.
Occasionally you may see a tallit with blue cords in the fringes. Blue is a difficult dye to find in nature. In ancient times, Jews fulfilled the direction for a blue cord by using something called techelet, a product from sea snails, knowledge of which was lost in the Middle Ages. Recently, scholars have come to believe that techelet is a dye made from the murex, a sea snail, so some Jews have begun wearing techelet fringes again.
Image: A Jewish man prays from a prayer book. Photo by 777jew.
Sometimes it may feel as if Judaism is full of secret codes and handshakes, and for a newcomer, it can be overwhelming. You may have seen someone gesture over Shabbat candles, or do a little bobbing thing during prayer, or hold a tallit [prayer shawl] in an unusual way, and wondered, “Why are they doing that?”
Judaism is full of small rituals, and sometimes those little rituals can make newcomers to the community feel like outsiders. If you are the one who doesn’t know why the person you are talking with suddenly breaks out with “Pooh, pooh, pooh!” it can be alienating.
The most important thing to know about most of these is that like the many mysterious rituals of the Passover table, a lot of these rituals exist to encourage questions and discussion. They get started somehow (some we know, some we don’t) and then various explanations attach to them, and we’re off and running with a tradition. Some of these are quite lovely, for instance:
If you watch me during the section of the daily service called the Shema and its Blessings, you will notice that during a certain prayer, I gather up the corners of my tallit [prayer shawl], wrap the fringes around the fingers of my left hand, and then use that hand to cover my eyes as I say “Shema Yisrael! Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad!” [Hear, O Israel! Adonai is our God, Adonai is One!]
I was taught to do that by Rabbi Ben Hollander, z”l, when I was a first year student in rabbinical school, in Jerusalem. He taught me that there are words in the prayer which refer to the gathering in of all the scattered Jews of the world, so I should gather up my fringes and hold them during the Shema, as if gathering up the Jews myself. As for covering my eyes, I do that because there is a story in the Talmud (Berakhot 13b) where Rabbi Judah the Prince covers his eyes to concentrate while he says the Shema prayer. Since then, we cover our eyes at that point – either to concentrate, or to emulate a great rabbinic soul.
Are any of these things necessary in order to be a good Jew? No.
However, when you are curious about something you see someone do, ask! If you find the practice meaningful, you may want to adopt it yourself. Learning is a mitzvah. Rabbi Hillel said in Pirkei Avot, “The shy will not learn.” So ASK!
At the same time, “monkey see monkey do” is not a good rule of thumb for learning Jewish ritual. For instance, there are certain places in the service where tradition dictates a bow, but it is forbidden to “multiply bowing” – so choose your role-models carefully. It’s better to do too little than too much.It is a good idea to learn why you are doing a particular piece of choreography in the service, not just to copy the person sitting in front of you. (If you are a newcomer, follow them for sitting and standing and that sort of thing. But if they suddenly start doing a lot of other stuff, just watch and ask them about it afterwards.)
If there’s a ritual you’ve seen and wanted to ask about, feel free to ask here! If I don’t know, I will have a good time looking it up or … asking someone!
P.S. – There may be things you wonder about in this article. I have tried to link each of them to a good explanation. Just click on the link to learn. If you still have questions, ask!