Tallit (The Prayer Shawl)

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

Print this page Print this page

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.

Strictly speaking, the precept of tzitzit has to be carried out for the whole of the day but since Jews could hardly go about wearing such an unusual garment as the tallit all day, the wearing of the tallit was limited to the time of the morning prayers.

In the Rabbinic tradition the precept of tzitzit applies only during the day. Consequently, the tallit is only worn during the morning prayers except on Yom Kippur when it is worn, as a token of special reverence for the holy day, during the night service of Kol Nidrei.

Another device similar to the tallit has also been adopted by pious Jews. This is to wear under the outer garments a kind of vest with four comers to which the tzitzit are attached. This garment is worn all day and is known as the tallit katan ("small tallit") or the arba kanfot ("four comers").

Who Should Wear the Tallit?

According to the halakhah [Jewish law], women are exempt from the obligation to carry out those precepts that depend for their performance on a given time. Since the precept of tzitzit is binding only during the day and not during the night it follows that this is a precept from which they are exempt. Thus women have no obligation to wear the tallit, and until recent years it was extremely unusual for women to wear it for prayer. Nowadays, even among some Orthodox women there has been a strong desire to wear the tallit for prayer, and many women now do so, often having a Tallit, tallis, or Jewish prayer shawlspecial colored or decorated tallit in the latest fashion. Orthodox Rabbis generally disapprove of women wearing the tallit, chiefly because it is untraditional for women to do so, but others see no objection to it.

In some Ashkenazic communities unmarried men do not wear the tallit. The reason given is that the Deuteronomic verse about the wearing of a garment with fringes is followed by the verse (Deuteronomy 22: 13): "If a man marries a women," indicating that a tallit is not to be worn until one is married. It has been remarked that the real reason is to enable the young ladies in the women's section of the synagogue to observe which young men are eligible for marriage.

The tallit is usually of wool or silk and should ideally be long enough to cover most of the body. Although many Jews in modern times wear a silk tallit that is really little more than a scarf around the neck, in more recent years the older form of a woolen tallit covering most of the body has again become the norm.

Blessings Recited on Donning the Tallit

Before putting on the tallit the benediction is recited: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast hallowed us by Thy commandments, and hast commanded us to enwrap ourselves in the fringed garment." In the traditional prayerbook the following meditation before putting on the tallit is found, based on the Kabbalah: "I am here enwrapping myself in this fringed robe, in fulfillment of the command of my Creator, as it is written in the Torah, they shall make them a fringe upon the comers of their garments throughout their generations. And even as I cover myself with the tallit in this world, so may my soul deserve to be clothed with a beauteous spiritual robe in the World to Come, in the garden of Eden."

The ultra-Orthodox wear the tallit over the head when they recite the more important prayers. The earlier authorities are divided on the question of covering the head. Some are none too happy with a practice that might be seen as showing off, since the essential idea of covering the head in this way is for the worshipper to be lost in concentration, on his own before God, as it were. Religious one-upmanship is generally frowned upon. Some hold that only a talmid hakham, a man learned in the Torah, should cover his head with the tallit. The final ruling is that one should follow whatever is the local custom.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rabbi Louis Jacobs

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.