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Tallit Tales

Welcome to our second Bava, Bava Metzia! Before we dive into the intricacies of returning lost objects and settling claims, let鈥檚 take a look at the very first words of the first Mishnah:

鈥淭wo are holding on to a tallit, the one says I found it and the other says I found it. . .鈥 (Bava Metzia 2a)

The standard English translations say 鈥済arment鈥 for tallit and of course the rules apply no matter what the two claimants are holding on to. But the Mishnah chose to have them fight over a tallit and that allows us to take a look at this basic Jewish garment. Ask most Jews what is a tallit and you will get a pretty standard response: a ritual shawl, usually with stripes, with fringes on the corners. Many will add that it is only worn in synagogue and most Ashkenazim will say it is only worn after marriage.

Lilach Daniel, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

But go back in time to Mishnah days and a tallit is a piece of clothing, albeit an important one. The root of the word, according to Dr. Jastrow鈥檚 Aramaic dictionary, is 讟诇诇, to cover or drape over. The word crept into Arabic where a taylasan is a shawl. So a tallit is a covering, wrapped around one like a shawl. Under what circumstances did people wear one? How did it fit into the typical wardrobe of an ancient Jew?

Professor Zeev Safrai points out something obvious to anyone who has spent time looking at Greek or Roman statues.聽 Most items of clothing in the ancient world were square or rectangular pieces of fabric, draped and folded in various ways and secured with pins, a few stitches or a belt. Think of the toga or the tunic, classic Roman clothes. Before zippers and buttons and definitely before velcro, this was how people dressed. You took a length of cloth and wrapped it around yourself strategically.

Statue of Zeus wearing a himation, a Greek wrapped garment

G.dallorto, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons

This does not mean that there were not distinct items of clothing. One of the fascinating sources for what Jewish men wore is the Gemara in Shabbat that talks about what items can be saved from a burning house on Shabbat. In the Mishnah, Rabbi Yosi instructs people to take their clothes out of the fire by wearing as many garments as they can. He says there are eighteen items of clothing to save. The Gemara lists them:

鈥淩abbi Yosi says: eighteen garments, and these are the eighteen garments: A cloak [miktoren], a cape [unkali], , and a large hollow belt [punda], a wide linen garment [kalbus], and a robe worn against the skin [chaluk], a robe wrapped above [apilyon], and a kerchief, and two straps, and two shoes, and two socks [anpilaot], and two tall boots [pargod], and a belt around one鈥檚 loins, and a hat on one鈥檚 head, and a scarf around one鈥檚 neck [sudar].鈥 (Shabbat 120a)

We immediately notice a few things about this list. Many of the items have Greek or Latin names; the old Jewish terms of 诪注讬诇/coat, 砖诪诇讛/dress and 讻转谞转/undergarment have been replaced by new and often foreign names. In addition, no one would wear all these things simultaneously 鈥 we have heavy coats and lighter ones, boots and shoes. At the end of the list is the 住讜讚专, usually translated as a scarf. We find this scarf in many places in the Gemara, serving many uses: it was waved as a flag to attract people鈥檚 attention (Sukkah 51b), used as a strainer (Mishnah Shabbat 20:2) and even could be an executioner鈥檚 tool, used to choke people (Sanhedrin 43a). Its main function though was a wrap or head covering, similar to the tallit. And yet the tallit is not mentioned in this list, which seems to include only the basic items of clothing. The tallit is not part of the ordinary male wardrobe, at least according to this list.

Other hints in the Gemara indicate that the tallit was a special garment, worn only by scholars and important people:

鈥淩av Yehuda says that Rav says: anyone who glorifies himself by wearing a tallit of a Torah scholar, but he is not a Torah scholar, he will not be brought within the boundary of the Holy One, Blessed be He鈥 (Bava Batra 98a)

There were rules for how to wear it:

鈥淩abbi Yo岣nan asked Rabbi Bena鈥檃 . .聽 How should a Torah scholar wear his tallit? He replied: So that a handbreadth of his garment worn under his clothes is not visible from beneath it.鈥 (Bava Batra 57b)

It indicated the high intellectual and religious status of its wearer, albeit not his monetary status. In fact, the Gemara in Sanhedrin (20a) relates that the generation of Rabbi Judah bar Ilai was so poor that six students would cover themselves with one tallit as they studied Torah. The use of a tallit as the garment of choice is not accidental 鈥 this is the clothing of scholars.

Like any four-cornered garment, the tallit was obligated in tzitzit, ritual fringes:

讚旨址讘旨值譃专 讗侄诇志讘旨职谞值证讬 讬执砖讉职专指讗值诇謾 讜职讗指诪址专职转旨指郑 讗植诇值讛侄謹诐 讜职注指砖讉吱讜旨 诇指讛侄芝诐 爪执讬爪执譀转 注址诇志讻旨址谞职驻值芝讬 讘执讙职讚值讬讛侄謻诐 诇职讚止专止转指謶诐 讜职谞指芝转职谞譀讜旨 注址诇志爪执讬爪执芝转 讛址讻旨指谞指謻祝 驻旨职转执芝讬诇 转旨职讻值纸诇侄转變
“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.” (Bamidbar 15:38)

Everyone could and did wear four-cornered garments, only Jews added on the fringes. We know that in Yemen Jews and non-Jews wore the same type of striped tallit-like shawl, but the Jews added tzitzit on the corners. The tallit was a regular article of clothing, obligated in tzitzit like any other similar item. But when wearing a wrapped piece of fabric fell out of fashion, and people started to wear shirts without corners, the tallit evolved into a ritual garment, worn to synagogue and used to (partly) fulfill the requirement of tzitzit. It moved from an everyday item to a ritual item and a symbol of Judaism.

A tallit that survived the Holocaust and the War of Independence

Yoav Nachtailer, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Many tallitot have stripes. This is a holdover from the Roman world and from the status symbol that a tallit once was. In Roman clothes, stripes, known as latus clavus, conveyed status. If you had stripes on your toga, you were part of the ruling class, wealthy and influential. Jews copied this fashion. A striking example of this is in the Dura Europos synagogue paintings from the third century CE. Biblical characters of importance, like Moses and Ezra, are depicted in garments with two vertical stripes. Jews of the time would have understood the symbolism of this fashion. Our tallit continues to carry the stripes although their meaning has passed from the world.

The prophet Samuel (on the left, with stripes) anointing the young David, Dura Europos wall painting

reworked by Marsyas, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Even those who are not regular synagogue goers are exposed to the tallit on a regular basis, at least if they live in Israel. The Israeli flag, with its two broad blue bands, was inspired by the tallit. David Wolfson, an early influential Zionist, writes:

鈥淪uddenly I had an inspiration: we already had a flag, the blue and white of the tallit.鈥 (David Wolfson 1897)

The flag had already been created by then, in the community of Rishon LeZion. The tallit, morphed into the Israeli flag, continued to inspire Jews in the next chapter of their history.

讚讙 拽讟谉, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the 鈥淒arkaynu鈥 program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at
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