In the fifteenth Chapter of Ba-Midbar, also known as Numbers, the third book of the Torah contains this commandment: “The Lord said to Moses - Instruct the people of Israel that in every generation they shall put fringes on the corners of their garments and bind a thread of blue to the fringe of each corner. Looking upon it you will be reminded of all the “mitzvoth” duties of the Lord and fulfill them and not be seduced by your heart or led astray by your eyes. Then you will remember and observe all my mitzvoth and be holy before your God. I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the Land of Egypt to be your God. I, the Lord am your God.”
This translation of the third paragraph of the “Shema” prayer repeated daily in all our synagogues refers to the Jewish custom of wearing a prayer shawl during religious services. As you can see, this is a Biblical commandment and not a recent invention.
Today, we can see Jews in Israel but also in American communities wearing a “Tallith” openly in the street. This is particularly visible on Shabbat in large orthodox Jewish communities. There, in the summer months, many Jews walk to their “Beth Haknesset” to attend morning services while wearing a Tallit. Here it is sometimes seen in the Amherst area as well.
The Tallit is of course a specific Jewish symbol in the same fashion as a plaid skirt is a symbol of Scottish ethnicity. More than that, however, the Tallit has religious significance since it is a Biblical commandment. The tallit is usually worn only by married Jewish men although that distinction is not mandatory. Among orthodox Jews a long Tallit is worn. The long Tallit permits some Jews to place the Tallit over their head during prayer so as to exclude all distraction. The tallit may be embroidered at the top and include a Hebrew sentence from the paragraph at the beginning of this essay.
In conservative synagogues the tallit is furnished the congregants by the congregation. It is generally located in a box in the lobby of the “Beth Hatiefillah” and returned after the service has concluded. These public “tallassim” are usually short and resemble a shawl.
Every tallit has fringes on the four corners of the cloth as required by the commandment cited in the first paragraph of this essay. Each of the four fringes is made up of four woolen threads. These fringes are tied into double knots and are so tied as to make four sections.
Because the tallit is a specifically Jewish form of dress the European Jews began to wear a “tallit katan” or small tallit under their garments during the centuries of anti-Jewish persecution. This evidently made the tallit less visible. There are a good number of orthodox (Torah true) Jews who still wear the “tallit katan” today in this country. Now some ladies also wear a tallit in our conservative synagogues, although that is by no means universal.
At one time, Reform temples had abolished the wearing of the tallit altogether. In the last few years however, the Reform clergy and some members have returned to the custom of wearing the tallit and the skull cap also known as a “kippa” or “yarmulka”. The use of a head covering as a sign of respect is common in many oriental cultures as may be seen by the wearing of the turban and other forms of head covering throughout the “Middle East” and India.
Much more may be said about the Tallit and the “kippa”. Why not look it up in your Jewish encyclopedia or , better yet, come to the Beth Haknesset of your choice on Saturday morning a wear a tallit. Why not give yourself a break and get away from the daily pressures for two hours?