Encyclopedia Judaica - Tallit

TALLIT - Hebrew, pl. tallitot; Yiddish - tales, pl. talesim), prayer shawl. Originally the word meant "gown" or "cloak." This was a rectangular mantle that looked like a blanket and was worn by men in ancient times. At the four corners of the tallit tassels were attached in fulfillment of the biblical commandment of zizit (Num. 15:3841). The tallit was usually made either of wool or of linen (Men. 39b) and probably resembled the abbayah ("blanket") still worn by Bedouin for protection against the weather. The tallit made of finer quality was similar to the Roman pallium and was worn mostly by the wealthy and by distinguished rabbis and scholars (BB 98a). The length of the mantle was to be a handbreadth shorter than that of the garment under it (BB 57b). After the exile of the Jews from Erez Israel and their dispersion, they came to adopt the fashions of their gentile neighbors more readily. The tallit was discarded as a daily habit and it became a religious garment for prayer; hence its later meaning of prayer shawl.

The tallit is usually white and made either of wool, cotton, or silk, although Maimonides and Alfasi objected to the use of the latter. Strictly observant Jews prefer tallitot made of coarse half-bleached lamb's wool. In remembrance of the blue thread of the zizit (see tekhelet), most tallitot have several blue stripes woven into the white material (see Zohar, Num. 227a). Until recently, however, they only had black stripes.

Frequently the upper part of the tallit around the neck and on the shoulders has a special piece of cloth sewn with silver threads (called atarah, "diadem"), to mark the upper (i.e., the "collar") and the outer parts of the four-cornered prayer shawl. Some tallitot have the benediction, recited when putting on the tallit, woven into the atarah. Others, especially those made of silk, are often richly embroidered and some have the benediction woven into the entire cloth of the tallit. The minimum size of a tallit is that which would suffice to clothe a small child able to walk (Sh. Ar., OH 16:1).

The tallit is worn by males during the morning prayers (except on the Ninth of Av, when it is worn at the afternoon service), as well as during all Day of Atonement services. The hazzan, however, according to some rites, wears the tallit also during the afternoon and evening services (as does the reader from the Torah during the Minhah prayer on fast days). Before putting on the prayer shawl the following benediction is said: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the universe, Who hast sanctified us by Thy commandments, and hast commanded us to wrap ourselves in the fringed garment." When the tallit is put on, the head is first covered with it and the four corners thrown over the left shoulder (a movement called atifat Yishme'elim, "after the manner of the Arabs"). After a short pause, the four corners are allowed to fall back into their original position: two are suspended on each side. On weekdays, the tallit is donned before putting on the tefillin. Among strictly observant Jews, it was the custom to put on tallit and tefillin at home and to walk in them to the synagogue (Isserles, to Sh. Ar., OH 25:2). They also pray with the tallit covering their head; to be enfolded by the tallit is regarded as being enveloped by the holiness of the commandments of the Torah, denoting a symbolic subjection to the Divine Will (see also RH 17b). Generally, however, people pray with the tallit resting on their shoulders only. The kohanim, however, cover their heads with the tallit during their recital of the Priestly Blessing. It is customary in the morning service to press the fringes to the eyes and to kiss them three times during the recital of the last section of the Shema (Num. 15:3741) which deals with the commandment of zizit (Sh. Ar., OH 24:4).

The custom of wearing the tallit differs in many communities. In the Ashkenazi ritual, small children under bar mitzvah age dress in tallitot made according to their size, whereas in the Polish-Sephardi ritual only married men wear them (Kid. 29b). In most oriental rites, unmarried men wear tallitot.

In Reform synagogues, the tallit is part of the synagogue service garments of the rabbi and the cantor. For male congregants, the wearing of a small prayer shawl, resembling a scarf and worn around the neck, is optional. Those called to the reading from the Torah, however, always don a tallit. In some communities, it is customary for the bridegroom to dress in a tallit during the huppah ceremony. It is likewise customary to bury male Jews in their tallit from which the fringes have been removed or torn (see Burial).

The zizit worn by men with their daily dress is known as tallit katan ("small tallit").

[Editorial Staff Encyclopaedia Judaica]