The Symbolism Behind the Tallit and ‘Tzitzit’



When it comes to high drama, the beginning of Shelach- Lecha is unrivaled. It details the mission of the 12 spies Moses sent to investigate Canaan.

We learn of the faithlessness of the 10 who disparaged Israel's ability to conquer the land contrasted to the faithfulness of Caleb and Joshua who recounted the divine care that had and would sustain the people on their journey.

In graphic images, we read of the people's despair, of God's near rejection of the Israelites and Moses' intercession, which transmutes the divine decree into what would become 40 years of wandering as a new generation, raised in freedom. It is they who would enter Canaan.

While this week's portion begins in a compelling fashion, I would argue that its end has exerted a greater influence on Jewish life. The conciliatory phrase that Moses' entreaty evoked from God, "I have forgiven, as you have requested," is repeated annually in our High Holiday liturgy. However, the tallit, whose guidelines conclude this parshah, has functioned as a "sacred blanket" enveloping us weekly, if not daily, from one generation to the next.

What constitutes a tallit? It is a four-cornered garment bound by specially tied fringes, one at each edge. Every aspect of these tzitzit is symbolic. The numeric value (gematria) of the word tzitzit is 600; combined with the eight strings and five knots of each fringe, we arrive at 613, the traditional number of mitzvot.

Each tzitzit is wound 26 times, the numeric equivalent of the ineffable divine name. Since 13, the sum of the strings and knots is the gematria of echad, "one," the tallit wraps us, as it were, in the presence of the One, whose divine charge guides us no matter which of the four cardinal directions life might lead.

Many are the permutations of the tallit. The Torah mandates that one thread per tzitzit be blue — the color of ancient nobility and the sky. For reasons that include loss of the formula to extract the dye from a specific mollusk, the chilazon, this custom waned for centuries, only to be revived recently among some groups.

Since traditionally men are required to wear tallit during daylight hours, many wear a small, undershirt-size garment beneath their clothes. As wearing a tallit has become more popular among women and is often given as a Bar or Bat Mitzvah present, we have seen the craft grow as a ritual art both among skilled craftspeople and those who wish to fashion their own prayer shawl.

While intricate symbolism can be fascinating, it is the tallit's material reality, reinforced by our memories, that mark its compelling nature: feeling sheltered by an elder's tallit as we played with the tzitzit; the first time we donned a tallit and felt that we had come of religious age, whether as children, young teens or later as adults. Perhaps no one has captured the enduring power of this experience better than the Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai.

"Whoever puts on a tallit when young will never forget … opening the folded shawl … kissing the length of the neckband … Then swinging it in a great swoop overhead like a sky, a wedding canopy, a parachute. And then winding it around one's head … wrapping one's whole body … snuggling into it like a butterfly's cocoon, then opening would-be wings to fly … Whoever has put on a tallit will never forget … ."

Rabbi Howard A. Addison is the religious leader of Congregation Melrose B'nai Israel Emanu-El in Cheltenham. E-mail him at: [email protected]


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