Judi's Journal 10-19-2012

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Wrapped in Spirituality: The Tallit

By Judi Siegal

One of the most beautiful and meaningful ritual objects in Judaism, is, in my opinion, the tallit or prayer shawl. This biblically mandated item has for centuries characterized the Jew by its distinctive design and has served as a powerful spiritual symbol of God’s protection.

The idea for the tallit comes from the Book of Numbers (Num.15: 37-40) where Moses is instructed by God to bid the Israelites to put fringes on the corners of their garments so as to act as a reminder to follow God’s laws and not be tempted to engage in pagan practices like the nations around them. It was a custom in Bible times, to attach a talisman to one’s clothing but in the case of the Israelites, their purpose was for the pursuit of moral and ethical living. As time worn on and costumes changed, the fringes were worn on a portable garment, i.e. a shawl-like garment which could fit over one’s everyday outfit. When, during history and times of persecution it became dangerous to advertise that one was a Jew, a small garment worn under clothing, called a tallit katan, was worn. This garment is mainly used today by Orthodox Jewish men, where dangling from under their coats or peeking out from under shirts, the telltale fringes or tzizit can be seen. In times of persecution, these fringes could be hidden to avoid detection.

Today, the tallit is a proud symbol of Jewish spirituality. It is worn at all morning services and at Kol Nidre, the eve before Yom Kippur. Traditionally, it is worn during the day so that one may be able to see the fringes. The custom for wearing the prayer shawl on Kol Nidre originated with the idea that all Jews, rich or poor were equal before God on the eve of the Day of Atonement and when dressed with a tallit, all were uniform. The tallit is often kissed reverently during a portion of the service Jews call The Shema, the statement of Jewish faith that God is one. During the passage from Numbers that mention the fringes, they are gathered together and lightly kissed in devotion. The tallit and its fringes are also used when a person is called up to the Torah to make the blessing before the reading. This act is called an alliyah, from the Hebrew word meaning “to go up”. Here the worshipper takes a corner of the tallit, touches it to the portion being read, and then kisses the fringes. This shows devotion to the Torah and its precepts.

When the tallit is first put on, many Jews raise it over their heads as a kind of tent or shelter before beginning prayer. This beautiful act of spirituality symbolizes the Shekhinah, or presence of God. In this case, the tallit acts as a kind of tent of protection for the worshipper. Keeping this concept in mind, in my Reconstructionist congregation, we drape the tallit over our neighbors’ heads so that we are all under God’s tent of peace during a portion we call the Blessing of Peace. In more traditional synagogues, it is called the Priestly Blessing, when in the time of the Temple in Jerusalem; the priests would bless the people.

A tallit can also be used as a chuppah or wedding canopy. In this case, the shawl is held aloft by four poles attached to each of the sides. The bride and groom stand under this canopy while the wedding officiant makes the traditional seven wedding blessings. In keeping with this wedding concept, the same idea is applied when a new Torah is dedicated in a congregation. The community is symbolically “wedded” to the Torah in a commitment of love and devotion. In 2010, I stood under such a canopy when our congregation dedicated our Torah.

A tallit can be found in many lengths and sizes from one especially for the thirteen-year-old bar/bat mitzvah to oversized ones for taller men. The fabrics can range from silk, wool or permitted synthetics but cannot contain shatnetz, a forbidden mixture of wool and linen. (See “Wearing a Kosher Suit” in October 5 edition of the South Marion Citizen) The designs are varied but popular themes are cityscapes of Jerusalem, Jewish stars, Lions of Judah and the matriarchs and patriarchs. While the traditional colors consist of black or blue stripes along the bottom, modern tallitot come in a variety of hues, some mimicking Joseph’s coat of many colors. Many people design their own tallit reflecting their individual needs and symbolism. While traditionally worn only by men, in liberal branches of Judaism, women have taken on this mitzvah (commandment) and have used it as a vehicle for self-expression.

The important parts of the tallit are the fringes. This is what I call Jewish macramé. This series of proscribed knots is attached to all four corners of the tallit. There are eight strands of yarn or string used to make the fringes, called tzizit. The letters in Hebrew for this word add up to 600, since letters in Hebrew also stand for numbers such as in Roman notation. If you add the 600 and the 8 strands and 5 knots, which are made in each corner, we have 613, which are the number of commandments in the Torah.

Since the tallit is considered holy, worn tallitot are buried with respect in a Jewish cemetery. And at the end of life, some Jews elect to be buried in their tallit, thus wrapping the soul in spirituality on its way back to the creator.