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Tallit: The Jewish Prayer Shawl

Tallit: The Jewish Prayer Shawl


What Is a Tallit?

A tallit is a Jewish prayer shawl. As per the Bible’s instructions, the rectangular tallit has fringes attached to each of its four corners. These serve to remind the Jew of G‑d and His commandments.

The tallit, ideally made of wool (read why, here), is most often white, with black stripes running down two sides of the garment (read why, here). Called tzitzit (or tzitzis) in Hebrew, each fringe is made of four strands looped over to make eight strands in total.

The tallit is draped over the shoulders like a cape, with two corners at the front of the wearer, and two at the back.

Tallit: Who and When

Technically, the tallit should be worn all day, but that is not practical in today’s world. And so, another garment developed: the poncho-like garment that is worn under street clothing all day long. This garment is most commonly known as tzitzit, but is also referred to as arba kanfot (“four corners”), or tallit katan (“small tallit”).

The tallit is still worn during morning prayers (along with tefillin, which Jewish men wear on weekdays from the age of 13). The tallit is worn all day on Yom Kippur, and in many communities, the chazzan (prayer leader) wears the tallit during other services as well.

In Eastern European Ashkenazic communities, boys wear the tallit katan from as young as three years old but only begin wearing the tallit gadol, the “large tallit,” regularly after marriage. Sephardic and Western Europeans, however, begin wearing it much earlier. (Read more here.)

Only men are obligated to wear the tallit. (Read more here.)

Tekhelet: The Mystery of the Blue Thread

In ancient times, the tallit would have two kinds of threads attached to the corners, white wool (or whatever the garment was made of) and blue wool. This blue wool, known as tekhelet, was the hallmark of nobility, and in line with the tallit’s purpose of reminding the Jew that he is a member of G‑d’s “kingdom of priests.”

The unique blue dye was made from a byproduct of a sea creature known as the chilazon, which lives in the Mediterranean Sea. However, during the Talmudic era, as the center of Jewish life shifted away from the Mediterranean Sea, and tekhelet was heavily taxed or even outlawed, it became rarer and rarer, and eventually disappeared entirely from the tallit.

In recent years, there has been much speculation regarding the identity of the chilazon and the possibility of reintroducing tekhelet. Read more about that here.

Tallit in the Bible

The Torah commands us twice regarding affixing fringes to our garments.1

First G‑d tells Moses to command the children of Israel to

Make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and they shall affix a thread of tekhelet on the fringe of each corner.

G‑d then specifies the reason why we should wear the fringes:

This shall be fringes for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of the L‑rd to perform them, and you shall not wander after your hearts and after your eyes after which you are going astray. So that you shall remember and perform all My commandments and you shall be holy to your G‑d. I am the L‑rd, your G‑d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt to be your G‑d; I am the L‑rd, your G‑d.

Later, we read, “You shall make yourself twisted threads, on the four corners of your garment with which you cover yourself.”2

How the Tallit Serves as a Reminder

The strings and knots of the tallit are a physical representation of the Torah's 613 mitzvahs. It works like this: Each letter in the Hebrew alphabet has a corresponding numerical value (gematria). The numerical values of the five letters that comprise the Hebrew word tzitzit add up to 600. Add the eight strings and five knots of each tassel, and the total is 613.

Wearing tzitzit is a sign of Jewish pride. Jews always had a way of dress that distinguished them from the people of the lands in which they lived—even when that meant exposing themselves to danger and bigotry. By the grace of G‑d, today most of us live in lands where we are free to practice our religion without such fears. Today we wear our Jewish uniform with pride and with our heads held high.

Kabbalah teaches that the tallit garment, which wraps around us, is a metaphor for G‑d's infinite transcendent light. The fringes allude to the immanent Divine light, which extends into and permeates every element of creation. By wearing a tallit gadol or a tallit katan, a Jew synthesizes these two elements and makes them real in his life.

Purchasing a Tallit

"This is my G‑d and I will beautify Him."3 We "beautify" G‑d by performing His commandments in a beautiful fashion. This includes spending the extra dollar to purchase high-quality tallit and tzitzit. Some (not Chabad) also have the custom of adorning the tallit's headpiece with a silver atarah ("crown").

Today, there are plenty of artfully-decorated designer talittot, most of which are acceptable according to Jewish law. Because there are many laws involved in the making of a tallit and tzitzit, they should always be purchased from a G‑d-fearing and trustworthy vendor.

Be sure the tallit is made of wool and is large enough to cover most of your body.

Click here to purchase a tallit.

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Ariel London June 5, 2017

Why there is this difference between Ashkenazim and Sephardim? Reply

Mendel Adelman June 6, 2017
in response to Ariel:

Well, the source if the difference is a quote from the Maharil (Sefer Hamaharil, Minhagim-Hilchos Nisuin Siman Yud).

He writes that there is a custom not to wear a tallit gadol until you get married.

The halacha itself would seem to suggest that one should wear a tallit gadol as soon as one turns thirteen (Mishna Berurah 18:10).

The Bnei Yissachar explains the minhag in Kabbalistic terms.

He says that the tallit gadol represents "ohr makkif", surrounding light. That level is the level of simcha. The Gemara (Yevamos 62b) says that unmarried men are not on the level of simcha. So unmarried men should not wear a tallit.

The custom to wait until marriage was adopted in areas where the Maharil was the main rabbi. In other Ashkenazic communities and all Sephardic communities, they stuck with the basic understanding of the halacha. Reply

Lyn Brooklyn June 5, 2017

What to do with tallit of deceased? I have a bar mitzvah tallit and wedding tallit of my father. His burial wish at the time was to just be buried in the shroud not his tallit. Reply Staff June 6, 2017
in response to Lyn:

My condolences on the loss of your father. If it's in fair condition you can keep the tallit and give it to a grandchild or relative, if that's not an option you can give it to a rabbi who can use it at synagogue or give it to someone who could use it. Reply

Vanessa Bridgeport February 9, 2017

Can you please tell me what is the words around the neck of the prayer shawl says Reply

Rabbi Shmary Brownstein For January 6, 2017

To Burton Jay Benenson This is really a question for the rabbi of your synagogue, but here is my take. Since you have adopted the custom of wearing the Tallit during prayer, you should not stop doing so without consulting your local orthodox rabbi to see if you would require an annulment of a vow, since performing a good practice three times may be considered a tacit vow. You should, in any case, wear Tzitzit during prayer, whether on a large Tallit or on a small garment. There are many communities where boys begin wearing a large Tallit at Bar Mitzvah, so one is not out of line to do so. Reply

marilyn myers toronto December 25, 2016

What should one do with a used/old tallis? Reply

Burton Jay Benenson Philadelphia December 25, 2016

Unmarried Men Wearing a Tallis I went to Hebrew school and was bar mitzvahed at a Conservative shul. Even though I've never married, I became accustomed to wearing a tallis during morning services. I now usually attend an Orthodox shul and see many men over 13 without a tallis. Is it wrong for me to continue wearing a tallis during morning services since I've never married, or may I still wear it since it has become a habit? I think I would feel very uncomfortable not wearing it. Thank you. Reply

Suze Greenbelt, MD January 9, 2015

Special Prayer Insert Into Prayer Shawl, Where?? The local rabbi said there is a special prayer contained inside prayer shawls. Can you tell me where to look in my brother's prayer shawl to find it? Reply

Larry F. JACKSONVILLE May 25, 2017
in response to Suze:

The prayer is usually embroidered into the tallis so it lays from shoulder to shoulder. I have always seen it embroidered in Hebrew letters. Never seen it in English. Reply

Cliff Christmas, FL April 4, 2012

Tallit and Passover... Being new to this I have many questions. One that has been on my mind as of late is: Being the head of the house (and married), do I wear my tallit during the Passover Seder? Reply

Mr. Alex Linares Klein via October 23, 2011

The Jewsh Prayer Shawl I really enjoy your articles. They are helping me for my studies and training. I have a question. Can a non-jewish person wear a tallit during services?
Thank you in advance. Reply

Anonymous Colorado August 22, 2017
in response to Mr. Alex Linares Klein:

No. The tzitzit represent OUR covenant with HaShem (613 mitzvot). This tradition stems from the Mitzvah given to us (read the third paragraph of the Shema), not the rest of the world. It is inappropriate for non Jews to done a tallis. Reply

This is no fringe mitzvah! The tallit and tzitzit serves as constant reminders of our obligations to G-d and our fellows.
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