Tallit (The Prayer Shawl)

The corner fringes on this ritual garment remind the wearer of all the commandments in the Torah.

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The textual basis for the practice of wearing a tallit only during the daylight hours is a phrase in the passage from Numbers 15 that establishes this mitzvah: "…and you shall see it, and you shall remember all the commandments of the Lord and observe them…" The words "to see " are traditionally interpreted here to imply a daytime obligation only--that is, during the time when one can "see" the fringes referred to, which are attached to the tallit.Reprinted from Louis Jacobs, The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

The tallit [or, in Ashkenazic pronunciation, tallis] is the robe with which the worshipper is wrapped during prayer and hence often referred to as a "prayer shawl," though this is not the traditional Jewish name for the garment, which was not originally associated particularly with prayer.

In the book of Numbers (15:37-40), the Israelites are commanded to put tzitzit ("fringes") [Ashkenazic pronunciation: tzitzis] on their garments in order to remind them of God's laws. But in the book of Deuteronomy (22:12) it is stated that these fringes have to be placed on the four corners of the garment, from which the Rabbis conclude that only four-cornered garments have to have tzitzit affixed to them. In Talmudic times people wore four-cornered garments and to these tzitzit were attached. In fact, the word tallit, of uncertain etymology, simply means a robe or a cloak (some connect the word with the Latin "stola"). The sole significance of the tallit was in the tzitzit. The tallit itself had no religious significance.

The Ritual Tallit: Rescuing a Mitzvah from Being Forgotten

The result was that in Europe in the Middle Ages, where people did not wear four-cornered garments, the precept of tzitzit was in danger of being forgotten. To prevent this Jews took it upon themselves to wear a four-cornered garment to which they would be obliged to attach the tzitzit and thus restore a precept that was in danger of vanishing from Jewish life. This special four-cornered garment was given the name tallit on the analogy of the four-cornered garments worn in ancient times.

Strictly speaking, the precept of tzitzit has to be carried out for the whole of the day but since Jews could hardly go about wearing such an unusual garment as the tallit all day, the wearing of the tallit was limited to the time of the morning prayers.

In the Rabbinic tradition the precept of tzitzit applies only during the day. Consequently, the tallit is only worn during the morning prayers except on Yom Kippur when it is worn, as a token of special reverence for the holy day, during the night service of Kol Nidrei.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.