The Tallit and Tzitzit

The Prayer shawl is a Tallit, pronounced “tah-LEET”. This is the modern Yisra’el pronunciation. (Plural tallitot, “tah-lee-TOHT”). The tasseled fringes on the corners are the the Tzitzit, pronounced “TSItsit” The most common Tallit in modern synagogues are white with black or blue stripes.

The origin and significance of the Tallit and the Tzitzit

Originally the tallit was a four-cornered outer garment that had fringes tzitzit attached to it. Wearing of the tallit has its origin in the Torah (Old Covenant), the word itself is not found in the Bible. The tzitzit (tassels), however are.

Num 15:37 The LORD spoke to Moshe, saying,
Num 15:38 Speak to the children of Yisra’el, and bid those who they make them tzitziyot in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put on the tzitzit of each border a cord of blue:
Num 15:39 and it shall be to you for a tzitzit, that you may look on it, and remember all the mitzvot of the LORD, and do them; and that you not follow after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you use to play the prostitute;
Num 15:40 that you may remember and do all my mitzvot, and be holy to your God.
Num 15:41 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the LORD your God.

Deu 22:12 You shall make you tzitziyot on the four borders of your cloak, with which you cover yourself.

The real significance of the tallit is not in the garment/shawl itself, but in the fringes. In modern terms, it might be likened to a sweatshirt or School Jacket which the item is not what is important but the symbols on them, i.e.; the slogans or School emblems. Now like many objects in the Old Covenant times, fringed garments were also found in many non-Hebrew cultures such as Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Midianite. The fringes of the other nations garments were probably worn as decorations or amulets to keep away evil spirits (possibly). But, as with many other Old Testament laws, G-d took the already known and gave it a new significance for Yisra’el. The tassels or fringes (tzitzit) were to remind Yisra’el of His commandments. The primary purpose of the tzitzit is based on the Pentateuch, we also find another. In ancient times, tassels were part of the hem of a garment, and the hem symbolized the wearers authority. When David spared Saul’s life in the cave at En Gedi, he cut off the corner of Saul’s robe, symbolically demonstrating that the king’s authority would be cut off. As we can see here in 1 Samuel 24:8-42.

1Sa 24:4 The men of David said to him, Behold, the day of which the LORD said to you, Behold, I will deliver your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it shall seem good to you. Then David arose, and cut off the skirt of Sha’ul’s robe secretly.
1Sa 24:5 It happened afterward, that David’s heart struck him, because he had cut off Sha’ul’s skirt.
1Sa 24:6 He said to his men, the LORD forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the LORD’s anointed, to put forth my hand against him, seeing he is the LORD’s anointed.
1Sa 24:7 So David checked his men with these words, and didn’t allow them to rise against Sha’ul. Sha’ul rose up out of the cave, and went on his way.
1Sa 24:8 David also arose afterward, and went out of the cave, and cried after Sha’ul, saying, My lord the king. When Sha’ul looked behind him, David bowed with his face to the earth, and did obeisance.
1Sa 24:9 David said to Sha’ul, Why listen you to men’s words, saying, Behold, David seeks your hurt?
1Sa 24:10 Behold, this day your eyes have seen how that the LORD had delivered you today into my hand in the cave: and some bade me kill you; but [my eye] spared you; and I said, I will not put forth my hand against my lord; for he is the LORD’s anointed.
1Sa 24:11 Moreover, my father, behold, yes, see the skirt of your robe in my hand; for in that I cut off the skirt of your robe, and didn’t kill you, know you and see that there is neither evil nor disobedience in my hand, and I have not sinned against you, though you hunt after my life to take it.
1Sa 24:12 The LORD judge between me and you, and the LORD avenge me of you; but my hand shall not be on you.
1Sa 24:13 As says the proverb of the ancients, Out of the wicked comes forth wickedness; but my hand shall not be on you.
1Sa 24:14 After whom is the king of Yisra’el come out? after whom do you pursue? after a dead dog, after a flea.
1Sa 24:15 The LORD therefore be judge, and give sentence between me and you, and see, and plead my cause, and deliver me out of your hand.
1Sa 24:16 It came to pass, when David had made an end of speaking these words to Sha’ul, that Sha’ul said, Is this your voice, my son David? Sha’ul lifted up his voice, and wept.
1Sa 24:17 He said to David, You are more righteous than I; for you have rendered to me good, whereas I have rendered to you evil.
1Sa 24:18 You have declared this day how that you have dealt well with me, because when the LORD had delivered me up into your hand, you didn’t kill me.
1Sa 24:19 For if a man finds his enemy, will he let him go away unharmed? Therefore may the LORD reward you good for that which you have done to me this day.
1Sa 24:20 Now, behold, I know that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Yisra’el shall be established in your hand.
1Sa 24:21 Swear now therefore to me by the LORD, that you will not cut off my seed after me, and that you will not destroy my name out of my father’s house.
1Sa 24:22 David swore to Sha’ul. Sha’ul went home; but David and his men got them up to the stronghold.

Tassels were added to the hem of the cloaks of nobility or royalty [1]. The second significance of the tzitzit, then is that they showed the wearer to be more than a commoner. He was a noble, or a royal personage. Now the presence of the tzitzit was not the only significance in meaning but also the colors also carried meaning. The color was white, but among the white cords on each tassel there was to be one blue strand. This color combination was part of the trappings of royalty, as were the colors blue and purple:

*1 Milgrom’s discussion on Numbers JPS Translation

Eze 23:6 who were clothed with blue, governors and rulers, all of them desirable young men, horsemen riding on horses.

Est 1:6 There were hangings of white, green, and blue material, fastened with cords of fine linen and purple to silver rings and marble pillars. The couches were of gold and silver, on a pavement of red, white, yellow, and black marble.

Esther 8:15a Mordekhai went out of the presence of the king in royal clothing of blue and white, and with a great crown of gold, and with a robe of fine linen and purple;

Blue was also used in settings where G-d’s kingship was proclaimed. Blue was to cover the ark (and other tabernacles objects) whenever they were moved, and blue was also used with the curtains for the tabernacle where G-d dwelt “enthroned” between the cherubim (1Sam 4:4; 2 Sam 2:2; 2 Kings 19:15: 1 Chron 13:6; Psalm 80:1;99:1; Isaiah 37:16).

Num 4:5 When the camp moves forward, Aharon shall go in, and his sons, and they shall take down the veil of the screen, and cover the ark of the Testimony with it,
Num 4:6 and shall put a covering of sealskin on it, and shall spread over it a cloth all of blue, and shall put in its poles.

Exo 26:31 “You shall make a veil of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen, with Keruvim. The work of the skillful workman shall it be made.
Exo 26:36 “You shall make a screen for the door of the Tent, of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen, the work of the embroiderer.

The next significance of the tzitzit, was in their colors. They spoke of royalty and kingship. Even today we talk of “royal blue” and “royal purple” from the custom of the Roman emperors who wore purple mantles. If the color symbolized royalty, the fabric of the fringed garment stood for priestly holiness. According to Deuteronomy 22:11 and Leviticus 19:19, the common Israelite was forbidden to wear a garment of mixed wool and linen, and combination called sha’atnez (SHAT-nez). The reason, not stated in text, is apparently because the priestly garments were made of that blend (the “thread” that is not designated as linen below is wool)

Exo 28:6 “They shall make the efod of gold, of blue, and purple, scarlet, and fine twined linen, the work of the skillful workman.
Exo 39:29and the sash of fine twined linen, and blue, and purple,

Ezekiel 44:17 does not contradict this, because many of the regulations described for Ezekiel’s temple are different than the laws found in the Five Books of Moses. The Mishnah (Kilayim 9:1) confirms that the priests who served in the Temple in the time around Messiah wore the linen-and-wool mixture and scarlet, the work of the embroiderer, as the LORD commanded Moshe. Although sha’atnez was a “holy” combination, that did not mean it had any special qualities or that the wearer became more spiritual. It simply marked the wearer as being separated for G-d’s service. Early rabbinic sources, perhaps reflecting the still earlier biblical practice, taught that the tzitzit were made of this very combination of wool and linen. The blue cord was wool, the other threads linen. In other words, for this purpose only, the common Israelite would wear a garment similar to that of the priests. The fourth significance of the tzitzit is that they stood for the priesthood and its holiness. The high priest’s garments had a blue thread, again a reminder of the color symbolism:

Exo 28:37 You shall put it on a lace of blue, and it shall be on the sash; on the front of the sash it shall be.

It is understandable that the tzitzit would be used to remind Yisra’el of G-d and His commandments. But why would a common Israelite wear garments of royalty, priesthood and holiness? G-d had said:

Exo 19:5 Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice, and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own possession from among all peoples; for all the earth is mine;
Exo 19:6 and you shall be to me a kingdom of Kohanim, and a holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Yisra’el.”

Just as Yisra’el had priests who mediated between G-d and the people, the people as a whole were to be a “kingdom of priests” to mediate between G-d and the nations (Goy). The continuation of this role, however, depended on Yisra’el’s obedience to G-d, her King. Therefore the tzitzit reminded the Israelites of who they were, who G-d was and what He required of them.

New Covenant mention of the Tallit and Tzitzit

In the New Covenant we find the tallit and tzitzit mentioned as an ordinary all-day garment. Condemning the ostentatious religious practices of some people, Y’shua referred to the extreme length of their tzitzit. They put large tzitzit as a form of bragging to show their piety.

Mat 23:5 But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their tefillin broad, enlarge the tzitziyot of their garments,

Sick people touched the hem of Y’shua’s garment, that is the tassels themselves.

Matthew 9:20 HNV Behold, a woman who had an issue of blood for twelve years came behind him, and touched the tzitziyot of his garment;
Luke 8:44 HNV came behind him, and touched the tzitzit of his cloak, and immediately the flow of her blood stopped.
Matthew 14:36 HNV and they begged him that they might just touch the tzitzit of his garment. As many as touched it were made whole.
Mark 6:56 HNV Wherever he entered, into villages, or into cities, or into the country, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch just the tzitzit of his garment; and as many as touched him were made well.

These verses support the earlier theory concerning the Old Covenant account of David and Saul, i.e. that the hem or edge of the garment stood for the wearer’s authority. The woman believed (faith) that if she could only touch the hem (tzitzit) of Y’shua’s/Jesus’ garment, she would be healed by the power and authority of His person. Her act was not a matter of superstition, but a silent cry for Y’shua to grant her His personal attention and healing power. [Note of LAW: It was Illegal for a woman to touch or be touched during menses. They were considered unclean. Because of the blood flow.] Or in todays terms, the account may be compared to a public appearance or a concert where the fans want to shake hands or just touch the speaker/performer. Now Y’shua allowed those who “connected/touched” Him to experience who and what He was; the Great Physician.

History of the Tallit and Tzitzit

Eventually the tallit was no longer worn as an outer garment but an inner one. The reasons for this are many, but the most accepted belief is that this change took place after Yisra’el was exiled from the land because the tallit wearer was clearly marked as a Jew, which would have brought persecution or discrimination. Now even today the very religious Jews or Ultra Orthodox Jews still wear the “innerwear” tallit with the fringes (tzitzit) visible. In this way they fulfill the commandment of Numbers 15:39, which requires the wearer to “look upon” the fringes. This inner tallit is called the tallit katan (tah-LEET ka-TAN) or small tallit. The common tallit or outer tallit ancient times developed in yet another way that is known today. It is not the all day inner garment described above, but a shawl to be worn only during certain times of prayer. (Still copied today by “christian” sects as a Stole, or robe. But only for the priest’s or ministers i.e. those of authority). In modern Jewry only males wear the tallit and tzitzit, (common in many messianic congregations also) but rabbinic sources tell us that in earlier times tzitzit were also worn by women. The tzitzit originally contained a cord Techelet or thread that was dyed blue. According to some, after the Roman wars (67-70 and 132135 A.D.), the dye industry suffered a recession. The community became poor, and the requirement of the blue cord Techelet was dropped. According to others, the color was changed to all white because a dispute arose as to what shade of blue the cord Techelet should be (My favorite theory).

Some Laws of the Tallit and Tzitzit

The rabbis have developed many laws pertaining to the tallit and tzitzit that are not found in the Bible. Among these are:

  • The minimum size for a tallit is that which can clothe a small child who is able to walk. [3]
  • The tallit is generally worn by men during morning prayers and all Yom Kipur services.
  • The following benediction is recited before donning the tallit:
    Blessed are Thou, O L-rd, our G-d,
    King of the Universe,
    Who has sanctified us by Thy commandments,
    and has commanded us to wrap ourselves in the fringed garment.
  • One should not recite this blessing if he has borrowed a tallit for a short period during the service, nor should the lender recite it upon donning the returned tallit. The tallit must be removed before using a rest room.

*3 Shulchan Aruch, OH 16:1 7

Customs of the Tallit and Tzitzit

The fabric of the modern tallit is either wool, cotton or silk. As a reminder that the tzitzit were to have blue cords, blue stripes are usually seen on modern tallitot . From the time of the final fall of ancient Yirushalaim until Yisra’el once again became a state in 1948, however, black stripes were prevalent on the tallit to symbolize mourning. In older tradition the usual way to put on the tallit was to cover the head first letting it fall naturally into position. More recently, the tallit has been handled like a scarf, i.e. First placed around the neck, then draped over the shoulders. Many pray with the tallit covering the head, symbolic of being surrounded by the holiness of G-d’s commandments and submitting to His will. However praying with the tallit only draped over the shoulders is also common. Ashkenazim-Jews of East European descent-allow the wearing of a child-sized tallesim for children who have not yet reached bar/bat mitzvah age (13). In some cultures only males past the age of 13 wear the tallit, while still others restrict its use to married men. In contemporary America, most boys begin to use the tallit after the bar mitzvah, but some parents and teachers encourage its use even prior to that as a way of educating the children in their Jewishness. (This is my personal opinion as well). It is customary to touch the tallit to the Torah Scroll as it is carried in procession around the synagogue, or to touch the tallit to the passage in the Law over which the benediction is recited. One then kisses the tallit to show reverence for the Law. Manny synagogues (including messianic) provide a tallit along with a yarmulke (skullcap pronounced YAR-mul-keh) and siddur (prayer book pronounced si-DUR), for worshipers who do not own these items. These must be returned after the service. In some cultures a Jewish bridegroom wears a tallit during the wedding ceremony (I did). When not worn it is customary to keep the tallit in a special bag, usually richly embroidered velvet. It is customary to bury a Jewish man (woman if she owns one) in his tallit with the tzitzit removed or torn, symbolizing that the deceased can no longer observe Torah.

Spiritual lessons from the Tallit and Tzitzit

One writer compares the tallit with its fringes to an “ethical string around-the-finger.”[4] Another compares it to a soldier’s uniform, which makes us “mindful to whom one owes one’s allegiance.”[5] What is seen affects what one does. The symbolism of the tallit can remind believers in Y’shua of who they are in Christ. Now not only Yisra’el, but all humanity has the opportunity through Messiah Y’shua to become a “kingdom of priests” interceding in prayer on behalf of the world. Of course, as in ancient times, such a privilege is only of effect as we have committed our lives in obedience to G-d. Today G-d’s New Covenant people are not called upon to wear the tallit or tzitzit. Many wear other “garments of identification” such as clothing with Christian slogans, jewelry that bears the name of Jesus/Y’shua or special head coverings for women during worship. Though none of these are the clothes of a 20 th century royalty, they can proclaim that Y’shua/Jesus is our King and remind us and others of Him and of the fact that, in the words of Revelation 1:6:

Revelation 1:6 HNV and he made us to be a Kingdom, Kohanim to his God and Father; to him be the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amein.

I have often worn the Tallit folded around my shoulders with the Atarah visible, during wedding services I officiated in a fashion much like the stole’s worn in some denominations. I also wear the tallit when in prayer. When I first wore the tallit during a period of prayer it became clear to me just how small I was compared to G-d. It was a very humbling experience. Something I have not forgotten. It definitely makes me remember who I am and who Y’shua HaMoshiach is. Many resources6 were and could be used, but the most important is knowing and learning the WORD and prayer. Now for a little more information on the tallit.

4 5 6 Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know about the Jewish Religion, it People, and its History (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1991), p.659.
Hayim Halevy Donin, To Pray as a Jew: A Guide to the Prayer Book and the Synagogue Service (New York: Basic Books, Inc. 1980), P.155.
Rich Robinson, The Tallit and Tzitzit (Jews for Jesus Newsletter 1:5754 [1994] 9

Who can wear one?

Anyone who wants to declare Numbers 15:377 and be considered a child of the Commandments. By this commandment, according to rabbinical interpretation, men are required to wear the tzitzit but women have the option because of the work they do in the home. [If you look at the patterns and colors, you can see they are not just for men.]

  • Size: The sizes are listed generally the width. i.e. 24X72 means 24 inches from your head down to your shoulders. 72 is the length from hand to hand across your shoulders. 72 inches is the average standard length for a tallit and that is what is assumed if no length is specified. It is pretty hard to find a tallit under 24 inches unless it is for a child on a special manufacturing run. It is also not considered a tallit by halakah (Jewish rabbinical rules concerning the Torah). Now 50 inch looks good on a larger person (whether they are tall or short) but the fringe tzitzit will drag on the ground on someone under 5’5″. And we don’t want to look like the hypocrites of Matthew 23:6 who “enlarge the borders of their garments!
  • Tzitzit: tassel, fringe also translated as border or fringe in the Brit Chadasha (New Covenant). The plural is tzitziot. These are long twisted cords (gedillum) on the four corners (kanfot also translated as wing). On most tallitot the tzitziot are white because this is the way they have been manufactured for the last 1900 years.(pp. 7-8)
  • Techelet: the blue strand in the tzitzit that is dyed with a special blue dye from the gland of the “chillizon” (murex snail). The alone are very expensive. To be less rabbinical but still accurate you can retie the tzitzit with blue yarn or thread. Wool would be best but anything is appropriate as long as it approaches the original. The blue is like royal blue or turquoise. (I will have a teaching on how to tie the techelet at a later date.).
  • Atarah: is the neck piece or “crown”. It is considered the top of the tallit. It can be of any design whether matching or distinctive. The most common have the “brakha” or blessing in Hebrew although I have seen them in English and Spanish. The very heavy, large Chassidic may also have them with a Sterling Silver thread.
  • Corners: Are reinforced with corner pieces to keep the tzitziot from tearing off (remember the corner of the garment torn from Numbers 15:37-38

    HNV(37) The LORD spoke to Moshe, saying,
    (38) Speak to the children of Yisra’el, and bid those who they make them tzitziyot in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put on the tzitzit of each border a cord of blue:

  • Samuel’s ghost by Saul). They are generally on the “inside” which means you can see them when the tallit is over your head and you are in your prayer “closet”. I have seen some on the outside as well. Which is right? – I don’t know.
  • Colors: The colors are your choice. Certain colors are are associated with different things but are generally used with flags, banners and ensigns. Most Orthodox Jews wear black for mourning the destruction of the Temple and to not draw attention to themselves. The most traditional color worn by non-Jews is blue the either no trim or with gold or silver.
  • Material: Wool is the preferred material. It lasts longer and hangs better. It is easy to keep clean (hand wash in Woolite and line dry is the suggested method. [I personally soak mine in OxyClean works great]). Other materials are rayon which is silk like. Raw silk which is beautiful but very expensive. Blends like wool and polyester. The only blend not allowed by Torah is linen and wool. Why? I don’t know except YHVH, HaShem said NO, although you can put wool techelet on an linen tallit. This perhaps shows the original intention was for all Yisra’el to become a “nation of priests”. The garments in the Mishkan and Temple had both linen and wool. Other synthetics are made from acrylic called “Acrylon” and is very light and inexpensive. It makes a great first tallit until you are sure of what you want.

I pray this information blesses you all. Shalu Shalom Yirushalaim
Psa 122:6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee.