Kippah, Tallit and Tefilin: The Clothing of Jewish Prayer

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Three basic items can be observed being worn in a synagogue: head covering, prayer shawl, and phylacteries--in Hebrew, kippah, tallit, and tefillin. They are also worn when praying individually at home.

The kippah (in Yiddish, yarmulke) is worn during prayer services by men, and has become optional for women as well in Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist congregations. (In some Reform congregations, the kippah is also optional for men.) Jewish tradition does not require any specific type of head covering.

A kippah can be worn conveniently under a street hat, as was the custom of most Jews in the first half of the 20th century. It is still the practice of many Orthodox Jewish men to wear a headcovering throughout the day, not just during prayer. (One tradition holds that a Jewish man should not walk more than four cubits in any direction with an uncovered head.)

The tallit is a large rectangular shawl made of wool, cotton or synthetic fibers. In each of the four corners of the shawl are strings tied in a particular pattern, called tzitzit. The origin of the tzitzit is biblical; the practice is prescribed in Numbers 15. The precept is to put these strings on the four corners of one's garment--in ancient tradition, with a single strand of blue as well--as a reminder of the duties and obligations of a Jew. Since we no longer wear four-cornered garments, the tallit is worn specifically to fulfill the biblical precept.

Typically, men wear a tallit during morning services; in non-Orthodox synagogues, many women also wear a tallit. In some Orthodox congregations, only married men wear a tallit.  One may see people gathering the tzitzit in their left hand and kissing them when the paragraph from the Torah referring to them is recited.

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