The tallit, which is arguably the most iconic symbol of Jewish identity, is ironically not mentioned by name in the Bible. So where does it come from? In the Book of Numbers, immediately after the sin of the spies, G-d commands Moshe to teach Bnei Yisrael about the mitzvah of tzitzit: “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: They shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments… And this shall be tzitzit for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of G-d, and perform them” (Numbers 15:38-39).
From then on these “tzitzit”, or fringes, placed on our cornered garments, were to serve as a constant reminder of the mitzvot and as a safeguard not to stray away from them. While the Oral law set the parameters for which garments qualified to fulfill this mitzvah, such as the necessary material (wool, linen, cotton), the number of corners (4), the minimum size (big enough to cover the head and most of the body of a child) etc., the exact appearance of the garment itself was left undefined. It was just assumed that people wore some kind of cornered outer garment, and therefore, men were commanded to attach these fringes to them, but how did these garments come to look as we know them today? Let’s take a look:
In ancient times, people often wore a large outer sheet-like mantle as a means of protection from the elements. Jews would make theirs from the required material, often wool or linen, attach tzitzit to the corners and wear them every day. For the Jews, this style of garment, together with the addition of the tzitzit, was an appropriate way of displaying the royalty or priesthood of the Jewish people: “..and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel (Exodus 19:6).”
With the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the exile of the Jews from Eretz Israel, and their subsequent scattering amongst the nations of the world, this mantle was eventually removed from our daily wardrobe and set aside as solely a prayer shawl, today what we call the tallit gadol. However, new garments with 4 corners were constructed as a way to still fulfill this mitzvah throughout the day, albeit now in a more private way under ones outer layer. These “Arba Kanfot” are what we call today the tallit katan.
Traditional and Modern Tallit
Today, a Tallit Gadol is pure white, made of wool, with stripes in black, blue and/or white, which serve as a remembrance of the techelet, the Biblical command to dye one of the fringes with the blood of a shellfish called “chilazon.” After the Jewish people were exiled from the Holy Land, the chilazon was no longer available, so for many centuries Jews have worn a tallit without the actual techelet fringe. Additional gold or silver stripes and ornaments can serve as a decoration, while the design of more modern tallitot incorporate a broader range of colors, textiles or embroidery.