Tallit (The Prayer Shawl)

The corner fringes on this ritual garment remind the wearer of all the commandments in the Torah.

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The textual basis for the practice of wearing a tallit only during the daylight hours is a phrase in the passage from Numbers 15 that establishes this mitzvah: “…and you shall see it, and you shall remember all the commandments of the Lord and observe them…” The words “to see ” are traditionally interpreted here to imply a daytime obligation only–that is, during the time when one can “see” the fringes referred to, which are attached to the tallit.Reprinted from Louis Jacobs, The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

The tallit [or, in Ashkenazic pronunciation, tallis] is the robe with which the worshipper is wrapped during prayer and hence often referred to as a “prayer shawl,” though this is not the traditional Jewish name for the garment, which was not originally associated particularly with prayer.

In the book of Numbers (15:37-40), the Israelites are commanded to put tzitzit (“fringes”) [Ashkenazic pronunciation: tzitzis] on their garments in order to remind them of God’s laws. But in the book of Deuteronomy (22:12) it is stated that these fringes have to be placed on the four corners of the garment, from which the Rabbis conclude that only four-cornered garments have to have tzitzit affixed to them. In Talmudic times people wore four-cornered garments and to these tzitzit were attached. In fact, the word tallit, of uncertain etymology, simply means a robe or a cloak (some connect the word with the Latin “stola”). The sole significance of the tallit was in the tzitzit. The tallit itself had no religious significance.

The Ritual Tallit: Rescuing a Mitzvah from Being Forgotten

The result was that in Europe in the Middle Ages, where people did not wear four-cornered garments, the precept of tzitzit was in danger of being forgotten. To prevent this Jews took it upon themselves to wear a four-cornered garment to which they would be obliged to attach the tzitzit and thus restore a precept that was in danger of vanishing from Jewish life. This special four-cornered garment was given the name tallit on the analogy of the four-cornered garments worn in ancient times.

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Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.

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