Visit a Saturday morning synagogue service, and you will notice that all the men and many of the boys are draped in white, fringed prayer shawls that are bordered with either blue or black stripes.
The prayer shawl is the tallit. Jewish people who use the East European Hebrew dialect usually pronounce the word TAH-liss” (plural tallesim, “tah-LAY-sim”). The modern Israeli pronunciation, however, is “tah-LEET” (plural tallitot, “tahlee-TOHT”). The tasseled fringes on the tallit are the tzitzit (pronounced TSI-tsit).
The Origin and Significance of the Tallit and Tzitzit
Originally the tallit was a four-cornered outer garment to which were attached the fringes, or tzitzit. Though the wearing of the tallit has its basis in Old Testament Scripture, the word itself is not found in the Bible. The tzitzit (tassels), however, are:
Again the LORD spoke to Moses saying, “Speak to the children of Israel: Tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a blue thread in the tassels of the corners.
“And you shall have the tassel, that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the LORD and do them…and be holy for your God”
You shall make tassels on the four corners of the clothing with which you cover yourself
The real significance of the tallit is not in the garment itself, but in the fringes. In modern terms, it might be likened to a sweatshirt or stadium jacket, where the importance lies not in the actual piece of clothing, but in the slogan or school emblem it carries.
Like many objects of Old Testament times, fringed garments were also found in non-Hebrew cultures such as Egyptian, Mesopotamian and Midianite. The fringes of the other nations probably were worn as decorations or amulets to keep away evil spirits. But, as with many other Old Testament laws, God took the already known and gave it a new significance for Israel. The tassels or fringes were to remind Israel of His commandments.
Along with the primary purpose of the tzitzit based on the Pentateuch, we find another, later meaning. In ancient times, tassels were part of the hem of a garment, and the hem symbolized the wearer’s authority. When David spared Saul’s life in the cave at En Gedi, he cut off the comer of Saul’s robe, symbolically demonstrating that the king’s authority would be cut off. This is seen in Saul’s response:
And now I know indeed that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand
1 Samuel 24:20).
Tassels added to the hem were not worn by commoners, but by the 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.
Not just the presence of the tzitzit but their 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:
…Who were clothed in purple, captains and rulers, all of them desirable young men…of Assyria…
There were white and blue linen curtains fastened with cords of fine linen and purple on silver rods and marble pillars; and…couches…of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of alabaster, turquoise, and white and black marble
Now Mordecai went out from the presence of the king in royal apparel of blue and white, with a great crown of gold and a garment of fine linen and purple…
Blue was also used in settings where God’s kingship was proclaimed. Blue was to cover the ark (and other tabernacle objects) whenever they were moved, and blue was also used with the curtains of the tabernacle where God dwelt “enthroned” between the cherubim (1 Samuel 4:4; 2 Samuel 6:2; 2 Kings 19:15; 1 Chronicles 13:6; Psalm 80: 1; 99: 1; Isaiah 37:16).
Then they shall put on it a covering of badger skins, and spread over that a cloth entirely of blue; and they shall insert its poles
You shall make a veil woven of blue and purple and scarlet yarn, and fine linen thread. It shall be woven with an artistic design of cherubim
You shall make a screen for the door of the tabernacle, woven of blue and purple and scarlet yam, and fine linen thread, made by a weaver
The third significance of the tzitzit, therefore, was in their colors. They spoke of royalty and kingship. Even today we talk of “royal blue” and “royal purple” from the custom of 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, a combination called sha’atnez (SHAT-nez). The reason, not stated in the text, is apparently because the priestly garments were made of that blend (the “thread” that is not designated as linen below is wool).2
…and they shall make the ephod of gold and blue and purple and scarlet thread, and fine linen thread…
…and a sash of fine linen and blue and purple and scarlet thread woven as the LORD had commanded Moses
Although sha’atnez was a “holy” combination, that did not mean it had special qualities or that the wearer became more spiritual. It simply marked the wearer as being separated for God’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:
And you shall put it on a blue cord, that it may be on the turban; it shall be on the front of the turban
It is understandable that the tzitzit would be used to remind Israel of God and His commandments. But why would a common Israelite wear garments of royalty, priesthood and holiness? God had said:
Now, therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people;…And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…
Just as Israel had priests who mediated between God and the people, the people as a whole were to be a “kingdom of priests” to mediate between God and the nations. The continuation of this role, however, depended on Israel’s obedience to God, her King. Therefore the tzitzit reminded the Israelites of who they were, who God was and what He required of them.
New Testament Mention of the Tallit and Tzitzit
In the New Testament we find the tallit and tzitzit mentioned as an ordinary all-day garment. Condemning the ostentatious religious practices of some people, Jesus referred to the extreme length of their tzitzit.
But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments
Sick people touched the hem of Jesus’ garment, that is, the tassels themselves.
And suddenly a woman who had a flow of blood for twelve years came from behind and touched the hem of His garment
…came from behind and touched the border of His garment. And immediately her flow of blood stopped
…and begged Him that they might only touch the hem of His garment. And as many as touched it were made perfectly well
Wherever He entered, into villages, cities, or the country, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and begged Him that they might just touch the border of His garment. And as many as touched Him were made well
These verses support the earlier theory concerning the Old Testament account of David and Saul, i.e. that the hem or edge of a garment stood for the wearer’s authority. The woman believed that if she could only touch the hem of Jesus’ garment, she would experience the power of His person and authority. Her act was not a matter of superstition, but a silent cry for Jesus to grant her His personal attention and healing power.
In contemporary terms the account might be likened to the public appearance of a popular politician or musician where people want to shake hands or in some way touch and connect with a celebrity. Jesus allowed those who “connected” with Him by touch to experience who He was: the Great Physician.
Changes to the Tallit and Tzitzit
Eventually the tallit was no longer worn as an outer garment but an inner one. Some think this change took place after Israel was exiled from the land because the tallit wearer, clearly marked as a Jew, would have been subject to persecution or discrimination. Very religious Jews still wear the “innerwear” tallit, with only the fringes 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 outerwear tallit of ancient times developed in yet another way that is more commonly known today. It is not the all-day inner garment described above, but a shawl to be worn only during certain times of prayer.
In modern Jewry only males wear the tallit and tzitzit, but rabbinic sources tell us that in earlier times tzitzit were also worn by women.
The tzitzit originally contained a cord or thread that was dyed blue. According to some, after the two Roman wars (67-70 and 132-135 A.D.), the dye industry suffered a recession. The community became poor, and the requirement of the blue cord was dropped. According to others, the color was changed to all white because a dispute arose as to what shade of blue the cord should be.
Rabbinic Laws Concerning 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 during all Yom Kippur services.
- The following benediction is recited before donning the tallit:
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.
- 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.
Customs Regarding 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 Jerusalem until Israel 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.
- Very observant Jews pray with the tallit covering the head, symbolic of being surrounded by the holiness of God’s commandments and submitting to His will. Most Jewish people today, however, pray with the tallit covering only the shoulders.
- Ashkenazim—Jews of East European descent—allow the wearing of child-sized tallitot for children who have not yet reached bar 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.
- 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.
- Many synagogues 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.
- When not worn, the tallit is kept in a special bag, usually of richly embroidered velvet.
- It is customary to bury a Jewish man in his tallit with the tzitzit removed or torn, symbolizing that the deceased can no longer observe the Law.
Spiritual Lessons From the Tallit and Tzitzit
One writer compares the tallit with its fringes to an “ethical string-around-the-finger.”4Another 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 Yeshua of who they are in Christ. Now not only Israel, but all humanity has the opportunity through Messiah Yeshua 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 God.
Today, God’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 or special head coverings for women during worship. Though none of these are the clothes of 20th-century royalty, they can proclaim that Jesus is our King and remind us and others of Him and of the fact that, in the words of Revelation 1:6,
…[Yeshua] has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.
- Jacob Milgrom, Numbers. The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation (Philadelphia and New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1990), p. 411. Much of the following material on the significance of the tzitzit is based on Milgrom’s discussion.
- 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 Christ wore the linen-and-wool mixture.
- Shulchan Aruch, OH 16: 1.
- Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Literacy: The Most Important Things to Know about the Jewish Religion, its 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.