The tallit (also spelled talit; Yiddish tallis; plural talitot) is a prayer shawl worn by Jews during weekday morning services, on the Sabbath, and on holidays. During Sabbath and holiday evening prayers, only the cantor (prayer leader) and Torah reader wear a tallit.
The tallit is normally made of wool and has special twined and knotted fringes (tzitziot) attached to each of its four corners. The tallit is thus sometimes called the arba kanfot, "four corners."
History of the Tallit
The basis for wearing the tallit is the biblical command in Numbers 15:37-41, in which God says to Moses:
Speak to the children of Israel and bid them to affix fringes (tzitziot) to the corners of their garments... that you may look upon them and remember all the commandments of the Lord. The tallit was developed as an outergarment on which the fringes could be worn in obedience of this command. The original tallit probably resembled the "'abayah," or blanket, worn by the Bedouins for protection from sun and rain, and which has black stripes at the ends.
The finer tallit was probably similar in quality to the Roman pallium, and was worn only by distinguished men, rabbis, and scholars. The tallit was sometimes worn partly doubled, and sometimes with the ends thrown over the shoulders.
The Kabbalists considered the tallit as a special garment for the service of God, intended, in connection with the tefillin, to inspire awe and reverence for God at prayer (Zohar, Exodus Toledot, p. 141a).
Form and Types of Talitot
The purpose of the tallit is to bear the fringes (tzitziot) commanded by God in Numbers 15. The tzitziot are therefore far more important than the tallit itself. The tzitziot at the four corners of the tallit are tied into knots using a complex procedure with number-related symbolic meaning. There are two kinds of tallit — tallit gadol and tallit katan. The tallit gadol or tallet gedola, meaning a "large tallit", is worn over ones clothing resting on the shoulders. This is the large prayer shawl that is worn during the morning services in synagogue.
The tallit gadol (the item usually meant by saying just "tallit") is traditionally woven of wool or silk, in white, with black, blue or white stripes at the ends. The silk talitot vary in size from about 36 × 54 inches to 72 × 96 inches. The woolen tallit is proportionately larger (sometimes reaching to the ankle) and is made of two lengths sewed together, the stitching being covered with a narrow silk ribbon.
Except that it must be long enough to be considered a garment (defined by the Code of Jewish Law as that which is large enough to cover "a small child able to walk") there are no religious specifications for the tallit itself and it can be made in a variety of sizes, materials (wool, silk or rayon) and decorated with a range of artistic patterns (see right for a unique example). The tallit is simply the garment that displays the divinely-ordained fringes and is not sacred in itself.
All talitot have a band sewn on the top called the atarah ("crown"). Because the tallit is rectangular, with identical fringes on each corner, the atara indicates "this side up." Some are elaborately decorated with silver squares or fancy metallic embroidery and most have the blessing one says before donning the tallit embroidered on it as well. The atarah is removed when the tallit is worn in burial.
The tallit katan or tallet ketannah, meaning "small tallit", is worn as an undergarment beneath the shirt preferably not touching the body, but worn between an undershirt and the outer shirt. This is preferably worn at all times by Orthodox men.
Blue is the most popular color for tallit embroidery. This is in part because of the general symbolic significance of blue in Judaism, but also because the biblical command of the fringes also specifies, "let them attach a cord of blue to each corner" (Numbers 15:38). A blue thread is no longer added because the blue dye specifically referenced in Numbers is no longer known; instead blue is incorporated into the stripes. However, some talitot have black stripes instead of blue because some rabbis have taught it would be improper to try to duplicate the unknown blue.
Women and the Tallit
The tallit is traditionally worn by Sephardi men from early childhood and by the majority of Ashkenazi men only after marriage. In some Ashkenazi communities, especially western European Ashkenazim, all men over 13 wear the tallit.
Historically, the tallit has mostly been permitted for use by women (Isaac ibn Ghiyyat (b. 1038), Rashi (1040-1105), Rabbenu Tam (ca 1100-1171), Zerachya ben Yitzhak Halevi of Lunel (ca 1125-1186), Rambam (1135−1204), R. Eliezer ben Yoel Halevi (ca 1140-ca 1225), Rashba (1235−1310), Aharon Halevi of Barcelona (b. ca 1235?), R. Yisrael Yaaqob Alghazi (1680-1761), R. Yomtob ben Yisrael Alghazi (1726-1802)), but with a gradual movement towards prohibition mainly initiated by the Medieval Ashkenazi Rabbi Meir von Rothenburg (the Maharam). Since the 1970s, in non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism it may be worn by women. Amongst Karaim, the mitzvah of tzitzit is viewed as equally binding for men and women, and both sexes therefore generally wear tallitot.
The reasons women have not generally worn the tallit and may not do so in Orthodox Judaism include the fact that four-cornered garments were originally considered men's garb, and the Bible prohibits women from wearing men's clothing (Deuteronomy 22:5) and it is a mitzvah that is performed at a specific time of the day (women are exempted from such mitzvot).
When and How the Tallit is Worn
The tallit is worn during weekday morning services, on the Sabbath, and on holidays. During Sabbath and holiday evening prayers, only the cantor (prayer leader) wears a tallit.
The tallit is generally worn only during the day because the biblical command on whch the tallit is based requires that the fringes be seen. One exception is Yom Kippur, on which tallit are worn in the evening because of the great holiness of the holiday. But even then, the tallit is donned before sundown.
For those who wear both tefillin and tallit, rabbinic law prescribes that the tallit should be donned first. This is because it is a general rabbinic principle that one should begin with the more commonly practices mitzvah first, and tefillin are not worn on the Sabbath and holidays.
As with all Jewish rituals, there is a prescribed blessing to say while donning the tallit:
Blessed are You, our God, Creator of time and space, who enriches our lives with holiness, commanding us to wrap ourselves in the tallit. As mentioned above, this blessing is usually embroidered in Hebrew on the atarah. Some Jews say this blessing with the tallit draped over their heads, a custom which is based on the Talmudic statement that "It is customary for scholars and their students not to pray without first wrapping themselves in their prayershawls" (Tosefta, Tohorot 4:1).
When one is called up to read from the Torah, it is customary to place a corner of the tallit on the first word to be read, then kiss the tallit corner.
As mentioned above, it is common for the atarah (neckband) to be printed with the tallit blessing. Because of this, it is improper to wear the tallit into the bathroom (sacred writings cannot be brought into the bathroom). Thus many synagogues have a tallit rack outside the bathroom.
At weddings in many Sephardic communities, the groom traditionally wears a tallit under the chuppah (wedding canopy). In Ashkenazi communities, a more widespread custom is that the groom wears a kittel, although many Ashkenazim have in recent years started to wear a tallit according to the Sephardic custom. A tallit is often used as a canopy at Jewish wedding ceremonies. This may be done either instead of or in addition to the regular chuppah.
Observant Jewish men are usually buried wrapped in their tallit. For this purpose, the atara (neckband) is removed and one of the fringes is cut off. This latter practice renders the tallit invalid and symbolizes the fact that legal obligations are no longer required of the deceased.
- Alfred J. Kolatch, The Jewish Book of Why (Penguin Compass, 2003), pp. 97-102.
- Tracey R. Rich, Signs and Symbols: Tzitzit and Tallit. Judaism 101 (2005).
- Tallit. Wikipedia (2005).
More Online Resources on Tallit
- Tallis/Tzitsis - Jewish Virtual Library
- Tallit Gadol: The Jewish Prayer Shawl - Hebrew for Christians
- Did you ever wonder why some tallitot have blue stripes, some have black, etc. - Rabbi David Rose