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The Shawl



What is a Tallit?



The Lord said to Moses as follows:
Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes (Tzitzit)
on the corners (Kanphei) of their garments throughout the ages;
 let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner.
That shall be your fringe;
look at it and recall  all the commandments of the Lord
observe them,
so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge.
Thus you shall be reminded to observe all my commandments
 to be holy to your God.
 I the Lord am your God,
who brought you out of the land of Egypt
to be your God:
 I, the Lord your God

Numbers 15:37-40


You shall make tassels on the four corners of the garment
with which you cover yourself.

Deuteronomy 22:12


The tallit (Modern Hebrew: טַלֵּית)  (pronounced TAH-lis in Yiddish) is a prayer shawl. It is a rectangularshaped piece of linen or wool . The  correct plural  of tallit  in  Modern  Hebrew  is tallitot,  pronounced  tah-lee-TOT;  the  traditional  Sephardi  plural  of  tallét  is  talletot,  pronounced tah-leh-TOT,  

Most tallitot have a neckband also, called an Atarah, which has the blessing one recites when donning the tallit, embroidered across it .  It reads:




 Blessed are You, Lord, our God, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us regarding the commandment of fringes










The special fringes called Tzitzit are placed on each of the four corners of the rectangular shawl. It appears therefore, the purpose of the garment is really to hold the Tzitzit.


The word “tallit” itself does not occur in the Torah.   The base verb טָלַל occurs in several passages like Neh. 3:15; Gen. 19:8 and refers to “cover over” . In the book of Ruth, Ruth asked Boaz to “cover” her with his garment because he was a near kinsman (Ruth 3:9). Even here, base טל means “dew” and is connected with the daily manna which Lord God provided all through the wilderness (Exod. 16:13-14; Num. 11:9).  

The tallit   is prayer shawl  which when used  to cover the  head also creates  a personal isolated space for prayer shutting out the world around you. 


The name Tallit comes from the two Hebrew words:


TAL meaning tent 
ITH meaning little

Thus,  you  have tallih  as a  LITTLE TENT.   It is  this that  Jesus was referring to when he said,

Mat 6:6  But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door  and  pray  to  your  Father  who  is  in  secret;  and  your  Father  who  sees in secret will reward you. 

By  wrapping  yourself  in  it,  or  by  covering  your  head  with  it,    you can create an individual tent for yourself to converse with God. As recorded in the Talmud, these were sometimes worn partly doubled, and sometimes with the ends thrown over the shoulders (Shabbos 147a; Menachos 41a)

The  tallit,  which  can  be  spread  out  like  a  rectangular    sheet,  is  woven  of  wool  or  silk,  in  white,  with  black  or  blue  stripes  at  the ends.  .  The garment can be  made out of linen,  wool, silk or synthetics,  so long as the biblical prohibition against the wearing of clothing combining  linen and wool is observed.

The tradition is that the tallit is worn only during the morning prayers,  except  for  the  Kol  Nidre  service  during  Yom  Kippur

Out of Egypt

Egypt  is  a  hot  country  with  very  little  rain  and    little  cold  to  worry about.  So  ancient  Egyptians  wore  as  little  as  possible  due  to  the  heat.    Ordinary  people  wore  nothing  but  a  loin  cloth  to  cover nakedness.  Noblemen  would  occasionally  wear  tunics,  cloaks,  or  robes, though.  Women, who mostly  stayed indoors,  would  likewise  wear  little  clothing,  though  they  used  elaborate  jewelleries.    Men  also shaved off their head to reduce heat. 

Into  this  culture  came  Jacob  and  his  clan  of  70  people  with  their beards  and  thick  hair  and  covering  the  entire  body  with  wool  and linen.  Midrash  tells us  that  they  observed  the  laws  of tzniut  —  the laws of  modesty.   They  continued to  wear their  traditional dress  of  nomads They continued to wear their traditional dress of nomads even in Egypt. It was their distinct culture that kept them as a separate people which eventually led to their liberation and return to Canaan. Without that they would have just merged with the Egyptians and lost as an ethnic identity as a separate people which  eventually led to their liberation and return  to  Canaan.    Without  that  they  would  have  just  merged  with the Egyptians and lost as an ethnic identity.




The Dress of the Nomads


The original tallit probably resembled the "'abayah," or blanket,worn by the Bedouins for protection from sun and rain, and which has black stripes at the ends. It usually had tassels also. Thus the shawl covering the top part of the body was the normal dress of the Jews as they came out of Egypt and suited well for their wilderness journey.





Roman Dresses


Roman toga was also very similar. The toga was a distinctive garment of Ancient Rome. It consisted of a long sash of cloth, of over 6 meters in length. This sash was wrapped around the body loosely and was generally worn over a tunic. The toga was made of wool, and the tunic underneath was made of linen.











Women’s dress consisted of TUNICA (underdress), STOLA (overdress), and PALLA (wrap)

Non-citizens were forbidden to wear a toga.

Distinctiveness of the Tallit

Num 15:38 "Speak to the people of Israel, and bid them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put upon the tassel of each corner a cord of blue.

What was distinctive to the new commandment was not the regular tassels at the ends but the tassels at the four corners of the rectangular shawl.

The Torah explicitly commands that Tzitzit be added to the four corners of garments (Maimonides considered it one of the most important of the 613 Mitzvot); traditionally the wearing of Tzitzit began with this commandment, though biblical scholars consider it to be much older, and argue that the commandment reflected an already existing practice. If this is true the distinctiveness is simply the association of the Tzitzit with the 613 Mitsovot.












The Arba Kanfots or Tallit Katan

Arba Kanfots = Four Corners

Tallit Katan = Small Tallit



After the 13th century AD, when the dressing styles of the nations where the Jews were in dispersion changed, Tzitzit began to be worn on new inner garments, known as Arba Kanfos, rather than the outer garments. This inner garment was a rectangle, with a hole in the centre for the head to pass through.   According to Jewish Halakhah (legal rules), the Tallit Katan must be at least twenty-four inches long and eighteen inches wide. It was worn just under the overcoat but over the inner dress. These arba kanfots constantly reminds the wearer that they are under the law and protected by divine law.

The Britanica gives the following reason regarding the evolution of Arba Kanfot:

“Jewish religious garment that apparently came into use during times of persecution as a substitute for the larger and more conspicuous prayer shawl (allit). Both garments have fringes (tzitzit) on the four corners, increasing the likelihood that one was a conscious imitation of the other. The allit, however, generally falls across the head, neck, and shoulders, while the arba kanfot has an opening for the head (like a poncho), so that it can be worn beneath the upper garments. Orthodox male Jews, including children, wear the arba kanfot during the day to fulfill the requirement of wearing fringes (Numbers 15:37–41) as reminders of God’s commandments.”

The minimum size talit katan that should be worn by an adult, defined as anyone over bar mitzvah age, depends upon which Rabbinical authority one follow.  Some sizes are shown below:  

Hazon Ish     24" x 24" (60 x 60 cm)
Rav Chaim Naeh   20" x 20" (50 x 50 cm)
Rav Moshe Feinstein (l'hatchila)  22" x 22" (55 x 55 cm)
Rav Moshe Feinstein (b'di'avad) 18" x 18" (45 x 45 cm)


Tallis Gadol (Large Tallit)

A tallis gadol is much bigger is traditionally known as tallét gedolah amongst Sephardim.  This is a large size cover which covers most of the body. These are usually made of  wool  and are large enough to reach the ankle, conforming to the halacha that the tallit should be large enough to be full-body apparel.


Tallis Gadol


Chuppah in Weddings

A chuppah, a piece of cloth held up by four poles, serves as a marriage canopy in traditional Jewish wedding ceremonies. The bride and groom stand under the chuppah during the ceremony. The canopy symbolizes the new home being created by the couple.

Some people use a tallit for the chuppah cloth. Others use a tallit  under the Chuppah as an additional covering.  The chuppah is usually held outside, under the stars, just prior to sundown, as a reminder of the blessing given by God to Abraham, that his children will be as numerous "as the stars of the heavens."  

A tallit is commonly spead over the wedding symbolizing the unity of husband and wife and reminding them of the commandment.  It also indicates the covering of God’s mercy and faithfulness over the family to generations as He has promised.

"Bless Adonai, O my soul. Adonai, My God, You are very great, You are clothed in glory and majesty. You have wrapped yourself with a garment of light, spreading out the heavens like a curtain.":



The mystical interpretation of the covering shawl is the representation of the covering of glory of God on man.  This represents the union of man and wife as one body as the Lord Our God is one – unity in many.  

Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.

(Gen 2:24)  And Jeus  repeated it in  Mat 19:5

And Jesus’ high priestly prayer was more inclusive:

Joh 17:21-22 that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us.  And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one:

It is this triple order of oneness that is represented in the Tallit covering. It is this order of oneness that is represented by the chuppa the covering and also the Tallit when used in prayer. In the traditional prayerbook the following meditation before putting on the tallit is found, based on the Kabbalah:

"I am here enwrapping myself in this fringed robe, in fulfillment of the command of my Creator, as it is written in the Torah, they shall make them a fringe upon the comers of their garments throughout their generations. And even as I cover myself with the tallit in this world, so may my soul deserve to be clothed with a beauteous spiritual robe in the World to Come, in the garden of Eden."

Covering the Head


The ultra-Orthodox wear the tallit over the head when they recite the more important prayers. The earlier authorities are divided on the question of covering the head. Some are none too happy with a practice that might be seen as showing off, since the essential idea of covering the head in this way is for the worshipper to be lost in concentration, on his own before God, as it were. Religious one-upmanship is generally frowned upon. Some hold that only a talmid hakham, a man learned in the Torah, should cover his head with the tallit. The final ruling is that one should follow whatever is the local custom.











There are very few religious requirements with regard to the design of the tallit. The tallit must be long enough to be worn over the shoulders (as a shawl), not just around the neck (as a scarf), to fulfill the requirement that the tzitzis be on a "garment." It may be made of any material, but must not be made of a combination of wool and linen, because that combination is forbidden on any clothing. (Lev. 19:19; Deut. 22:11)

"You shall not wear combined fibers, wool and linen together" (Deut. 22:11).

The Torah does not explain the reason for shatnez, and it is categorized as a chok -- a law whose logic is not evident. The Rambam (Maimonides), in Hilchos Kilayim (Laws of Mixtures) Chapter 10, Law 1, says quite explicitly: “Nothing at all is forbidden in clothing mixtures except wool and linen mixed together. As it says in the Torah (Deuteronomy 22:11): Do not wear shaatnez, wool and linen together.”

The prohibition is limited to these two fibers alone  viz. Wool and Cotton.   




Deu 22:11 You shall not wear a mingled stuff, wool and linen together  This may be because the shawl represents ONENESS of the cosmos within ONE God