Jewish Signs and Symbols: Tzitzit and Tallit

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Child being wrapped in tallit by fatherCredit: Gil Cohen Magen

Most of the Torah’s commandments govern Jews’ behavior toward one’s fellow man and toward God. And then there is one commandment that exists simply as a reminder to perform the other ones: Tzitzit.

These are the fringes that religious Jewish males wear under their shirts. As the Torah says: “Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes in the corners of their garments And it shall be unto you for a fringe (tzitzit), that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them.” (Numbers 15: 38-39)

There are two forms of tzitzit - that worn under the shirt (know as tallit katan, or small cloak) and that worn over the shirt (tallit gadol, or large cloak). In either case, the cotton or woolen fringes are tied onto each corner of a rectangular piece of fabric.

The tallit katan is worn all day long, in keeping with the above-cited verse, which states “that ye may look upon it.” The sages interpreted this to mean it should be worn during the daylight hours. Many Jewish males take the idea further, and allow the tassels to hang out from below their shirt, so that they will be optimally visible.  Others choose to conceal the tzitzit by tucking them into their pants.

Tzitziot traditionally have light blue tassles.

The tallit gadol – widely known simply as “tallit” - is a prayer shawl, used only while praying. In traditional circles, the tallit is worn only by Jewish males, either from the time of their bar mitzvah or after marriage. In more egalitarian communities, the tallit is worn from the time of the bar or bat mitzvah by both sexes.

Until the Roman era, tzitzit would always include a blue thread, in keeping with the scriptural injunction “and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of tekhelet.” Tekhelet (a particular shade of blue) was also used in making the High Priest’s robes. But the secret of the dye’s natural source was lost, and for over 1,300 years, tallit-wearers had to make do with undyed tzitzit strings.

One of the more fascinating finds made during the early 1960s excavation of Masada was the discovery of a swatch of fabric dyed blue. Chemical analysis proved that it was derived from a marine snail, Murex trunculus. In 1988, the ancient technique was successfully reproduced, and limited commercial production of tekhelet began soon after.

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