Uniquely Jewish

June 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

I bought my tallit, this large one that I wear all the time, during my first year in rabbinical school. A group of us students made a special trip to the old city of Jaffa to visit the Gabrielli family’s storefront along the stone streets.

The tallit showroom is in the basement of their shop, featuring shelves and shelves of tallitot. The six of us students camped out there one afternoon, trying on every conceivable color and size. Red tallitot with black stripes; blue tallitot with grey stripes; white tallitot with rainbow stripes; Cotton, wool, and silk varieties; all kinds of handwoven tallitot were stacked on the shelves around us.

And it was wonderful to have my fellow-students help pick it out: they argued persuasively for the supersized black-and-white tallit that I am wearing today. I diligently tried on a whole stack of tallitot in smaller sizes – they were much less expensive, after all – but my crowd was absolutely convinced that I was best served by the full sweep of the largest size.

Had I been left to my own devices, I would have bought a more demure white-on-white silk tallit in the smallest size. But the consensus was that mine needed to be a graphic black and white, and larger than life, big enough to serve as a chuppah when I remarried. I am grateful to my friends for knowing that about me.

I have worn this tallit at all major life-cycle events since that time. I was ordained in it and got married under it. I wore it at the Western Wall for the Women of the Wall 25th Anniversary. It has become a part of my identity as a rabbi. Not that it is irreplaceable – for no object ever truly is – but it would certainly feel that way.

My kippah, however, is actually much older than my tallit: that’s why they don’t precisely match. I bought it at a URJ biennial convention before I ever applied to school, just after my conversion. I’ve worn the same one for twenty years now. Though it’s very pretty, it doesn’t have the same significance to me. For one thing, the kippah – the head covering that Jews wear – is not something from the Biblical era. It’s a custom rather than a mitzvah – it’s not a commandment – which is why we don’t say a blessing when we put it on our heads.

The tallit, on the other hand, is something entirely our own. The purpose of the tallit is to serve as the vehicle for the tzitzit, the knotted fringes on the four corners. That’s why there is such variety in the tallit design: it’s the placeholder. The fringes are what’s actually commanded.

In fact, the commandment to wear tzitzit comes from our Torah portion today:

“The Lord said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners 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 and 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 and to be holy to your God.”[1]

Why are the tzitzit usually white if the passage says they must have blue in them? Apparently, the blue dye came from a sea snail that has since gone extinct. I have seen tzitzit in multiple shades of blue, done in the hope that one of the shades would be the right one. But the general ruling is that without the proper dye they should be left white.

The knot pattern itself is distinctive: the most common pattern found in the US is an Ashkenazi style of a double knot, seven spirals, a double knot, eight spirals, a double knot, eleven spirals, a double knot, thirteen spirals, and finally a double knot. There is a Separdic variation in which the spirals loop in on themselves to create a swirling spine down the length of the tassel. Though there are reasons for why that pattern, they all appear to be explanations after the fact. Why that pattern? It just is.

If you go to the Israel Museum, to the Shrine of the Book, where the Dead Sea Scrolls are kept, you will see an exhibit downstairs of the other items they found alongside the scrolls. One of those items is a tallit, made of white wool with black stripes, with white knotted fringes. It looks remarkably like the traditional tallitot for sale on Ben Yehuda Street today, but for the 2000 years of wear and tear.

In other words, wearing tzitzit is not simply one of the commandments: it is also a practice uniquely our own, one that stretches all the way back to the Biblical period.

It is likely that the tallit gadol – the grand tallit like what I’m wearing now – was originally worn as an outer cloak; eventually it became a prayer garment, worn in the morning during the shacharit prayer service, at the Yom Kippur Kol Nidre service, and when leading services. We also wear one here when doing an aliyah, which are the blessings before and after the Torah reading.

But the tallit gadol is not the only kind. Traditionally, there is also an undergarment that is worn every day, all day, as the first layer of clothing. It is called a tallit katan (small tallit) and it is usually a kind of tank top or bib that you pull on over your head. You may have seen the tzitzit from one of these: some men tuck the tzitzit in, so that they are not visible; others like to pull them out, so that they dangle from the edges of their shirt. That’s usually how they outfit the character Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. Both options are supported by the tradition.

Traditionally, of course, this mitzvah of wearing the tallit katan was reserved for men. The verse has been interpreted to mean that only men are specifically required to wear it. So, if you were shopping for a tallit katan you were necessarily shopping in the men’s section. For traditional women, it is inappropriate to wear men’s clothing – that’s why traditional women always wear skirts or dresses – so it is a genuine barrier to the performance of the commandment if the only ones available are sold in men’s sizes in the men’s section.

When I first saw the notice on the internet regarding a new company Netzitzot [see https://www.netzitzot.com/about-us.html] that sells the tallit kaftan for women I decided to buy one in support of this new company. I wanted to help make it possible for women to fulfill this commandment, but I did not have a clear sense of what I was planning to do with it myself. Bring it to my Introduction to Judaism class, perhaps, for show and tell? Wear it on occasion, perhaps?

The morning after its arrival, I put it on to see how it felt. And I found that there was a certain sense of rightness to it, a sense that a missing piece had been fulfilled. I had wanted to fulfill this commandment but it was not open to me. And now it was.

So I started wearing it as often as possible while also taking steps to keep it freshly laundered. It did not take me long to decide I was going to need a full set.

Thus I have taken on the daily mitzvah of wearing of tzitzit. Why should that be something so satisfying to me? Why should a tank top with fringes make a difference, you ask?

The odd thing about ritual: it is always a bit arbitrary in its structure. Why fringes? There is no clear rational answer as to why this and not that.

But it also has a certain logic to it: you wear something on your body as part of your person to remind you, in those moments of transition and vulnerability, of the grander structure.

And that is indeed what it means to be a Jew: to see godliness in the smallest detail, and to do so in the context of a tradition that extends well into the past, and to do so with the intention of continuing well into the future.




[1] Numbers 15:37-40, from the JPS translation

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