Tallit

Definition

by Paul Joseph De Mola
published on 03 June 2013

The tallit is a garment worn by those of Jewish faith as a symbol of communal solidarity and devotion to their god. The foundation for modern Jewish socio-religious concepts is the Tanakh, or Hebrew bible which is also the Christian Old Testament. Within it, the first five books of the Masoretic Text (i.e. Bereʾšyt, Shemot, Vayikra,  Bəmidbar, Devarim), or Torah, are where the Laws, traditions and early history of Hebrew culture are found. It is from here that traditional Israelite (or Israeli) material culture and national unity is originally derived. Principally, the טַלִּית, or tallit, functions as a reminder for Jews to remain constantly devoted to God. Moreover, it is also a symbol of Jewish solidarity within a Gentile world and may be understood through a Jewish/Gentile dichotomy.

However, it should be noted that modern Jewish identity is an extremely complex subject that easily fragmentizes into various yeshivas regarding religious beliefs (e.g. Orthodox, Conservative, Reformed) and political affiliations (e.g. Israeli-Likud, American-Democratic), which are further complicated by national allegiances (e.g. Israeli, Anglo-Jewry), social philosophies (e.g. Religious-Zionism, Socialism) and even genetic research. Simply put, many contemporary Jews do not wear the tallit. Considering the socially sensitive nature of the aforementioned, for the rest of this entry we will refer to ‘Hebrews and Jews’ and all anthropological interpretations of ‘Judaism’ in the Ultraorthodox context.

The Four Corners of the Garment

The origin of the tallit can be found in two clauses in Numbers 15:37-41 where God ordained the wearing of a ‘tassel’, ציצית or tzitzit, on each of the ‘four corners’ of a standard ‘garment’. Practically speaking, medieval fashion trends frustrated the fulfilling of this commandment by not allowing tzitzit to be worn easily on everyday apparel. Consequently, the tallit was designed specifically to fulfill the obligation of wearing the tzitziyot. In this light, the tallit acts as a social bridge allowing Jews to function in the modern world (Cf. Deuteronomy 22:12). However, unlike the religious iconography from other cultures, a tzitzit is typically not thought to possess amuletic properties. Materialistically, the cultural significance of tzitziyot can only be understood through their tedious production process and by the social construct they signify to others.

For example, a tzitzit is fashioned on one of the corners of a tallit by tying seven white linen and one blue, or t’kheilet, wool strands of cloth five times for a sum of fifteen. Furthermore, rabbinic tradition fixes the numerical value of ציצית at six hundred. Collectively, the summation of all numbers (five, seven, one and six hundred) is six hundred and thirteen — the exact number of ‘commandments’ in the Torah. Hence, the Torah itself is immediately signified by the wearing of tzitziyot.

An interesting side note is that the special blue t’kheilet dye was employed in the sacred vesture of the Levitical High Priest. Given the deferential role the Levite tribe played within Hebrew society, the use of t’kheilet by non-Levitical Jews may infer a perception of communal ‘holiness’ for all Torah observant Jews regardless of tribal affiliation (Cf. Numbers 18:1-32).

The Passover in the Tallit

Another meaning for the tallit may be observed through a close examination of Judaic historiography and oral tradition. For example, the Biblical injunction to wear tzitziyot is intimately associated with the narrative of the Hebrew period in Egypt and their ‘deliverance’ (or independence and separation) from Pharaoh (Numbers 15:37-41; Cf. Exodus 12:37-51). Interestingly, these events are commemorated in the spring Feast of Passover, which historically is seen as the first festival (or ‘independence day’) of the ancient nation-state of Israel (Leviticus 23:4-5; Exodus 12:14, 13:5). Cosmologically, it may be inferred that Pharaonic Egypt is symbolic of ancient ‘Gentile globalism’ from which a ‘Jewish nation’ became independent (Cf. the Abrahamic rite of covenant in Genesis 17:7-16 with its post-Mosaic reinstitution in Joshua 5:3-5). Thus, a tzitzit might also be a sign of ancient Jewish nationalism. That being said, archaeological evidence from the Bar Kokhba Period (CE 132-136) reveals that Zealots were wearing tzitziyot during their war of ‘liberation’ from Roman occupation.

Fascinatingly, the young Rabbi Jesus from Nazareth, whose life would spark one of the great world religions, wore a tallit as he preached ‘deliverance’ to the inhabitants of Roman Palestine (Iudaea) (Mark 9:5; Luke 4:18). This is evidenced by the use of κράσπεδον when referencing the ‘hem’ (corner) of Christ’s garment in Mathew 9:20 and 14:36. Κράσπεδον is the ancient Greek translation for tzitzit. Such a fact reminds one of the historical bonds between Jewish traditions and early Christianity. More importantly, it underscores the shared sociocultural structure in the religious messaging of both faiths. In summary, it may be argued that the contemporary tallit and tzitzit are a microcosmic diffusion of Hebrew faith, Jewish history, Levantine customs and Israeli nationalism. Thus, the sacred custom of wearing tallit publically may be viewed as a justifiable exercise in auto-segregation arising from a conscientious objection to the secularism of postmodern globalism.

Written by , published on under the following license: Creative Commons: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike. This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon this content non-commercially, as long as they credit the author and license their new creations under the identical terms.

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  • Paul Joseph De Mola wrote on 08 June 2013 at 22:14:

    Hello Patricia: Yes, well done. Abraham was the father of many nations. Historically, to use the word Jew — which is the standard English translation for the Hebrew הַיְהוּדִ֖ים or the ancient Greek Ἰουδαίου — is anachronistic if applied to Hebrews living before the Kingdom of Judah. Indeed, the first use of הַיְהוּדִ֖ים is during the events of 2 Kings 16:6 which is roughly datable to the early 8th century BC.

  • Patricia Neil wrote on 08 June 2013 at 19:57:

    Hello Allan and Paul'
    For the record, Abraham was not a Jew, he was a Hebrew. The Jews are descendants of Abraham's great-grandson Judah. Just thought I'd mention that.

  • allan bateman wrote on 06 June 2013 at 22:25:

    My mistake,( I must be getting old) I was referring to Talmud, how I got changed around I don't know, but Sumerian and Akkadian are two very distinct languages (not related). Cuneiform was introduced by the Sumerians who were completely annihilated by the Semitic Akkadians, from this the Akkadians used Cuneiform. As did the Semitic Babylonians and the Semitic Assyrians.They all spoke an ancient Hebrew, but it was the Canaanites that spoke a Hebrew that would be understood as Hebrew today. An interesting fact is the year "one" in the Hebrew calendar 3760 BC was the year the Semitic King Naram-Sin declared himself "Master of the Universe" and defied himself. The 1st year of the Semitic Kingdom on Earth. Abraham was NOT the 1st Jew, but Semitic people existed thousands of years before him.

  • Paul Joseph De Mola wrote on 06 June 2013 at 17:23:

    Allan:

    Thank you. I suggest you look up Torah in a good Hebrew dictionary, your confusing it with the Talmud. Once more, you keep referring to the Pentateuch as if it is separate from Torah when it is merely the Greek word for many different post-Mosaic versions of Torah as I previously described.

    Again, Akkadian is an extinct Afro-Asiatic language closely related to Sumerian. Whether, or not, Abraham's decedents once used cuneiform is irrelevant. As nomadic tribes, they would have been familiar with many regional languages until they settled in Canaan around 1500 BC. You must remember, a language does not define a culture. For example, I write and speak in English, but that does not make me English — let alone British! I also speak and write in Italian with no trace of an accent. Does that make me necessarily European? Of course not. In any case, none of this has anything to do with a tallit which is ‘material culture’ closely related to the Hebrew people. ~Paul

  • allan bateman wrote on 06 June 2013 at 15:15:

    Thanks Paul; but my comment was the "Torah" were man made laws,interpretations of the Pentateuch, not inspired, by God. The Akkadians were the 1st Semitic people, and their language was the first Hebrew,their Calendar is still used by the Jews, though the Hebrew written language did not appear for several centuries later, as they wrote in Cuneiform. The 1st God of the Semitic people was Dagan in Sumerian, that was changed to YHWH in Hebrew. Still I liked your article.

  • Paul Joseph De Mola wrote on 05 June 2013 at 23:26:

    Allan:

    Actually, the Hebrew word תּוֹרָה (Torah) is correct and as such the orthodox reference to the first five books of the Tanakh (Old Testament) which were of course written by Moshe. The word literally translates as ‘instruction’ which more accurately describes the ‘Law’ itself. What you are referring to semantically in the Pentateuch is merely a Greek designation for the Hebrew expression “five-fifths of the Law”, transliterated from Hebrew as "ḥamishshah ḥumshe haTorah” (Cf. πεντάτευχος or ‘five-books’). The Pentateuch, as we know it, may also refer to differing collections of the first five books (e.g. a targum of the Torah, Greek and Samaritan translations of Torah, etc) but not a distinct ‘Law’.

    Speaking of Semitics (which is a broad, generic multicultural category and has nothing to do with the discussion in my article except for the fact that we are discussing Jewish traditions), the extinct Akkadian culture was polytheistic and indeed predated the monotheistic Hebrews. Regardless, based on the Biblical chronologies (counting backwards from the building of the First Temple), Abraham was quite possibly a contemporary of Ur-III, or the first ruling dynasty of Amorite Babylon.

  • allan bateman wrote on 05 June 2013 at 20:17:

    Great article, just a point; The first 5 books written by the prophet Moses were call the Pentateuch, which were called inspired by God. The Torah were laws written from the teachings of Moses. The 1st Semitic people on Earth were the Akkadians, and their God was Dagan.

    http://trueancienthistory.blogspot.ca/2013/05/dagan-first-god-of-semitic-people.html

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