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About the tallit

January 31st, 2009

Though it is has been written “talit”, “talet”, “taleth”, “tallis”, but maybe most frequently, “tallit”, the origin of the Jewish prayer shawl by this name, is definitely a source of interest for many.

Derived from a word meaning “cloak” or “gown”, rectangular in shape, and white in color, it was only worn during ancient times by men and looked very similar to a blanket. Knotted tassels, in accordance with the bible, were attached to each corner.

Possibly the tallit originated with the Bedouin people, bearing a vague resemblance to the linen or woollen “abbayah”, which they wore to protect themselves from the weather. However, with its finer qualities nowadays, it is more likely to have been influenced by the Roman pallium, the prayer shawl of the rabbis and scholars that were both rich and famous.

Traditionally, the length of a tallit is a handbreadth shorter than whatever garment is worn beneath it, however it should be large enough to cover a small child that can walk. It can be made from wool, cotton, or silk. Ideally, a tallit should be made from coarse lamb’s wool that is half-bleached.

Following the Jews’ exile from Erez in Israel, and the gradual introduction of clothing that did not have four specific corners, the tallit was no longer worn as part of the daily wardrobe. Instead, it became an integral part of religious rituals, requiring a blessing to be said once put in place.

It is compulsory for men who are married to wear a tallit, though it’s usual for many bar mitzvah males to wear them too. It is worn during morning services and often bears the blessing, which, after translation, can read as or similar to: “Blessed are You, O Eternal our God, Ruler of the universe, Who has sanctified us with your commandments, and commanded us to wrap ourselves in the fringed garment”.

Previously, the only decoration on the tallit was a series of black stripes. More recently, these have also appeared on tallitot (the plural of tallit) in blue. Although this is the custom, there is no hard and fast rule to dictate this, so theoretically, it is possible to have a prayer shawl with stripes of a different color.

However, today, many different and beautiful designs appear on prayer shawls, so much so, that despite great disapproval and concern that the tallit may be shown disrespect, many non-Jews have also taken a fancy to wearing a tallit.

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