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Tallit Guide

The tallit  (prayer shawl) is a symbol of our ancient tradition and of God’s commandments. Wearing a tallit, during prayer services, symbolises a Jewish adult's acceptance of this tradition, so identifying themselves as part of the congregation at prayer and our shared Jewish heritage.

The tzitzit (tassel) tied to each of the four corners is in fact the essential component. A tallit is really just a four-cornered garment for these four tzitziyot to hang from! That's why - although there are certain designs that might be thought to be more 'traditional' - there has always been a huge variety and opportunity for creativity. Radlett Reform has numerous tallitot, in various styles, that you can borrow during services. You will find these, hung on rails, on the left-hand side of the sanctuary.

For those who wish to purchase their own tallit, the following are a good place to start:
Meketa - Supporting Ethiopian Jews (online and also available from the synagogue office)
Manor House Books (online, or shop in Finchley)
Divrei Kodesh (online, or shop in Edgware)
Aisenthal Judaica (online, or shop in Temple Fortune)

There are many beautiful designs also available from Israel and the United States. Do however take care if you are buying elsewhere online as some (non-Jewish) outlets may even supply products with verses of the New Testament to the unsuspecting bargain-hunter. 

Tying tzitzit is a mitzvah and an art. If you have a beautiful scarf, shawl or other suitable four-cornered garment that you think could become your own special tallit, please do get in touch for us to help or show you how.

A beautiful pink shawl with pink tzitzit showing

Why knot?

There's a clear commandment in the Torah, in the third paragraph of the Sh'ma (Numbers 15:37-41) and it also comes up in Deuteronomy, that we Jews - two or three thousand years ago and in every generation since - are supposed to tie tzitzit on the corners of our garments to remind us, when they catch our eye, of our duty to God.

Actually that's it. It's a simple and rather beautiful idea: a kind of religious knot in your hanky, a reminder that moral responsibility, religious obligation, extends beyond moments of prayer, into the everyday...

But here's the complication. Somewhere along the line, God invented tailors. If you read the tzitzit commandment carefully the tzitzit have to be tied in the corners. If you wear a shawl or a poncho then you're sorted - as long as you tie tzitzit on it. But most clothes don't have corners - and the Talmud specifies that it's only four-cornered garments that can have tzitzit. Three, or five, or more won't do. And so Jews invented the tallit as a way of wearing tzitzit at a time of prayer. In fact a tallit was originally just a way of fulfilling the mitzvah of wearing tzitizit if none of your other clothes had four corners, and it might have been worn all day... And indeed, in the Talmud (M'nachot 43a) the verb in the tzitzit commandment, וּרְאִיתֶ֣ם, that we should see the tzitzit, was taken to mean that tzitzit were only required during daylight, and hence no tallit at evening services in our day.

The tallit has become part of our 'prayer uniform', a way of visually declaring our acceptance of God's commandments and identifying with the prayer community. Nevertheless, it is the tzitzit that actually make a tallit; the rest is just something to hang them from.

Why do some think it's not traditional for women to wear a tallit? Of course what we mean by 'traditional' is often shorthand for 'what they do in Orthodox synagogues' because there's this fallacy that they do things the way Jews have always done them, perhaps the way that God said even, but that we - for one reason or another - have chosen to do things differently.

Let's go back to the original tzitizit commandment. God tells Moses to tell all the Israelites the mitzvah of tzitizit. It doesn't say just the men. Perhaps it was just the men who did, though there's no reason to think that ritual macramé was a particularly macho activity in biblical time. And in case we're not sure, the Talmud is exceptionally clear. It's a rabbinic ruling, 'All must observe the law of tzitzit: priests, Levites and Israelites, proselytes, women and slaves'. You really can't get more explicit than that. So we can assume that at the time that everyone was wearing four-cornered garments anyway, women and men would have worn tzitzit tied to them.

So why don't Orthodox women wear tzitzit to this day? Well, one Rabbi in the Talmud gave women an opt out. Presumably because some women had other priorities, all women were exempt from what are called 'positive, time-bound mitzvot'. It's not a great concession. It means that women are still not allowed to do things that the Torah prohibits and anything that we are positively commanded to do still needs to be done by women too, unless it is tied to a particular time. So because reading from the Torah or indeed leading or even attending services have to be done at particular times, women were exempt. Because the rabbis had decided that tzitzit were a daytime mitzvah, Rabbi Shimon, in the Talmud, declared that women didn't have to do it. And it only took time for an exemption (you didn't have to) effectively to become a prohibition (you weren't allowed to).

Let's be clear. The biblical commandment - rather an attractive one I think - was for men and women, in every generation (so that includes us) to tie tzitzit on the corners of our garments. If your garment doesn't have four corners, it doesn't need tzitzit. Some Jews therefore made a point of wearing a four-cornered garment, so that they could still perform the symbolic mitzvah of tzitzit, a visual declaration of our commitment to doing God's will and of identification with the community. In time people only wore these 'tallit' garments for morning services or even just when actually participating in the service. As women were not just exempt but barred from participating in services, they presumably stopped wearing these four-cornered garments and tzitzit. To this day, a significant part of becoming B'Mitzvah has been wearing a tallit for the first time, though a common tradition in some (Orthodox) Ashkenazi synagogues is for unmarried men not to wear one unless they are involved in the service. Jewish tradition is that you can choose whether or not to wear a tallit whilst simply sitting in the congregation, though one should be sensitive to the customs of the community. If you got  a mitzvah however, the expectation was to put on a tallit, with its tzitzit symbolising not just the mitzvot in general but perhaps in some way the person's acceptance and commitment to the particular mitzvah or honour being given.

B’rachah for putting on (or tying) tzitzit
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָֽׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו, וְצִוָּֽנוּ עַל מִצְוַת צִיצִת 
Baruch attah Adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam asher kidd'shanu b'mitsvotav v'tsivvanu al mitsvat tsitsit

B’rachah for putting on a tallit
בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ מֶֽלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָֽׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו, וְצִוָּֽנוּ לְהִתְעַטֵּף בַּצִּיצִת
Baruch attah Adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam asher kidd'shanu b'mitsvotav v'tsivvanu l'hit'atteif ba-tsitsit

Sat, 25 May 2024 17 Iyar 5784