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What is the meaning of “Tallit”

At a Bar/Bat Mitzvah or Wedding, a tallit is often purchased for the groom or child coming of age as a religious ritual. For the Bar/Bat Mitzvah child the tallit is worn for the very first time when they read from the Torah. For the groom it is worn not at the wedding, but the next time he prays in the Synagogue.  Very few people actually ask me what the word “tallit” or “tallis” actually means. I usually put a description in with their bag which I hope is read at some point.

Very simply, “tallit” means “little tent.” Designed to create your own private sanctuary when praying. One wraps the tallit around them and sometimes puts it on their head to have even a more personal prayer experience.  It is the four fringes on each corner, “tzitsis” which have the most significant meaning on the garment. The tzitsis are to remind us during prayer of God’s laws. Without these fringes, the tallis has no religious significance.

As stated in the book of Deuteronomy (22:12), the tzitzit (fringes) are to be placed on a four cornered garment. The Rabbi’s concluded that only a four cornered garment can have tzitzit. Thus, the origin of the prayershawl (tallit) .

Another version of the tallit called a “tallit katan” or “small tallit” is an undergarment worn by many pious Jews all day – a kind of vest worn under clothing.

Tallitot come in all shapes and sizes (another blog topic). However, they all must have four corners and tzitsis tied in the traditional manor to be kosher.  All other parts of the tallit are decorative.

Remember, the decorative part of the tallit has importance too. Although the above is the religious and historical meaning of a tallit, I have experienced over the past several years people who attach their own personal significance to their tallit…..and why not?  It has a different meaning for all of us and we all experience the wearing of a tallit differently.

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Women and the Tallit

Wool

Why do women wear tallitot, and should they? These Jewish prayer shawls are ceremonial and symbolic, and provide an important connection to a woman’s heritage. It also lends itself as a focal point of concentration. Usually made of wool, they are often first worn by children on their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs. Traditionally, however, they are only worn by men.

According to Halachic works, both women and men are forbidden to wear clothing of the opposite gender. As the tallit is most commonly associated with and worn by men, this explains the taboo of a woman wearing one.

So, what should a woman do if she wants to wear a tallit? According to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a woman who wishes to wear a tallit must wear a distinctly feminine one [Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim V, section 49]. This should not be done as a protest of the tradition, but as a way for a woman to fulfill this mitzvah and recognizing that they are not required to do so.

This issue directly relates woman’s equality and rights, both within the religion and socially. While the Torah does not outright forbid a woman to wear a tallit, it certainly does not encourage it. That does not mean that change isn’t underway, and while Rabbi Feinstein warns a woman not to wear a tallit as a sign of protest, it still nonetheless is an indication that these changes are underway.

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