All about the Tallit

The tallit (often called a prayer shawl or tallis, with many spelling variations) is perhaps the most recognizable and universal Jewish ritual object, with a rich history going back millennia. But what is it really? Where does it come from? And why do Jews wear it?

The basic origins of the tallit go back to a commandment the Hebrew Bible:

And G-d spoke to Moses saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and they should place on the corner fringe a blue thread. And they should be your fringe, and you should see it and remember all of G-d’s commandments and do them and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes that you profane yourselves after. In order that you will remember and do all of My commandments and so you will be holy for your God. (Numbers 15:37-40).

It seems, therefore, that the presence of the ritual fringes on our garments is intended to act as a sort of mnemonic device to keep our thoughts pure and focused on obedience to our Eternal Creator. The significant detail here is that the mitzvah (commandment) applies to a four-cornered woven cloth garment.

Interestingly, the Scripture references tzitzit (fringes) rather than tallit (garment or shawl). This is because the garments already existed, and G-d was commanding the addition of the ritual fringes to them. The style of dress in those olden times was for people to wrap themselves in rectangular garments, but over the centuries styles changed, and in many parts of the Jewish world, this commandment and ritual was faced with extinction.

The Rabbis decided, therefore, to make it a special duty for us to go out of our way to continue wearing four-cornered garments in order to obligate ourselves in this time-honored and deeply significant mitzvah. They instituted two different garments for this purpose:

1. The tallit katan (the small tallit, often referred to as the tzitzit or arba kanfot). It is a small rectangular garment with a neck hole in the center and the requisite ritual fringes on the corners. It is worn by observant Jews under their regular clothing all day every day.

2. The tallit gadol (the large tallit, often simply referred to as the “tallit”). The tallit is essentially a large rectangular piece of cloth with a ritual knotted woolen fringe added to each of its four corners. It is worn as a shawl, generally only in Synagogue during the morning worship services.

The classic material for a tallit is pure wool, and it remains the only choice for the most tradition-minded worshipper. Even here, of course the options are almost endless, with so many colors and color combinations to choose among, from the ever-popular black or blue stripes, to more contemporary colors, often combined with gold or silver highlights. It should be noted that according to some interpretations of Jewish law, wool is the only kosher option.

Tallitot are also very popular in acrylic and other synthetic materials. These can be made into very traditional-looking products at a fraction of the cost of wool, or into completely modern, updated, and unique styles, patterns, and designs. Other modern tallitot can be made from cotton and even pure raw silk. Some of Israel’s top artists, including Yair Emanuel, use tallitot as a sort of canvas to express a dizzying array of artistic visions onto a finished product that people will wear in Synagogue. Painting, embroidery, and appliqué are among the techniques used on these artistic tallitot.

Whatever tallit you finally choose, you can rest assured that with Judaica Webstore standing behind it, it is the very best choice you could have made! Enjoy!

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