This video from Religious & Ethics NewsWeekly shows a class of boys and girls preparing for their bar and bat mitzvahs (Jewish coming-of-age ceremonies) by making their own tallits. The tallit is a Jewish prayer shawl composed of a rectangular piece of cloth with fringes along its four corners representing God’s 613 commandments. The tradition of wearing the tallit dates back to the time of the Torah, the Hebrew Bible, when Jews were given the commandment to wear these fringes, known as tzitzit, on their garments.
Judaism Glossary (Document)
The tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl, has no particular religious significance, but the tzitzit, or fringes, on each of its four corners is symbolic. The tradition of wearing tzitzit is rooted in the Torah: "And you shall see [the fringes at the corner of the garment] and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and observe them" (Numbers15:39). Like a piece of string wrapped around your finger, tzitzit serve to remind Jews of God's commandments.
Tzitzit are tied in an intricate pattern with religious and numerological significance. One interpretation is that each pattern set corresponds to one of the four Hebrew letters in God's name. Another explanation draws upon Jewish numerology to conjecture that the pattern means "God is one." The interpretation described in the video revolves around the number 613. That is the numerological value of the word tzitzit, plus the total of the strands and knots of the fringes. It is also the number of commandments in the Torah.
Jews ordinarily begin wearing a tallit at their bar or bat mitzvah, usually at the age of 13. While the students in the video are making their own by hand, it is more common for Jews to purchase their tallit. In Orthodox congregations, only married men wear tallits. But in the more modern Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist congregations, both men and women may wear a tallit (although men are more likely than women to do so.) Typically, Jews wear a tallit for morning prayer, but not for afternoon or evening prayer. This is based on an interpretation of the Torah that the tzitzit must be seen by the light of day.
Strictly observant Orthodox Jewish men wear a special four-cornered garment under their clothing which lets them fulfill the commandment of wearing tzitzit all day long. Though sometimes referred to as a "small tallit" or "four corners," most Orthodox Jews simply refer to this garment as tzitzit. It is placed over the head like a small poncho and worn under a shirt. Since the Torah specifies that the fringes be seen, some Orthodox Jews let the fringes hang out of their shirts.
Rabbi GREG HARRIS (Congregation Beth El, Bethesda, Maryland): The tallit is a ritual garment. It is a prayer shawl that is composed of a large piece of cloth that has fringes on the edges. The tradition of wearing fringes dates all the way back to the time of the Torah, the time of the Hebrew Bible. In the Book of Numbers, in Chapter 15, we are given the commandment, one of the 613 commandments in the Torah, that tells us to wear tzitzit, to wear fringes on our garments. When we recite the verses from the Book of Numbers, we recite it during a prayer called the Sh'ma. The Sh'ma is a central prayer within Judaism, and we literally gather our tzitzit together, and each time we say those words, we give it a kiss.
SUSAN KANTER (Congregation Beth El, Bethesda, Maryland, speaking to class): And once again, watch the lipstick.
Rabbi HARRIS: A kiss is something that you give to someone that you love. It's not the cloth that we are showing affection for, but it is what they represent -- the 613 commandments. To be able to select the colors, select the material can be personally meaningful and, I think, a very powerful way to access a tradition that is as ancient as Judaism. It's the best example of hands-on Judaism. It is not uncommon for a couple that's going to get married to build their wedding canopy, the chuppah, to include a grandfather's tallit because he can't be there himself.
An atarah is the neckpiece, the top piece of the tallit, and anything can go on there. Sometimes, if you go to a synagogue you will see that it has the blessings itself written on. We say "L'hittatef ba'tzitzit" -- to wrap yourself in the tzitzit. But anyone can choose a verse that's meaningful. The 613 commandments are all represented by the tzitzit.
AMANDA FORD (Congregation Beth El, Bethesda, Maryland, speaking to class): These are kosher tzitzit. They're made out of pure wool, out of a twisted string, and there's enough in here to do all four corners.
Rabbi HARRIS: We know that in Hebrew, every letter has a number. Aleph is one and bet is two. If we add up the numerology of the word tzitzit, it adds up to 600, and that combined, the word tzitzit for 600, five knots, four strings that are folded over to make eight is 613, which are the commandments.
The prayer we say when putting on the tallit ends, "L'hittatef ba'tzitzit" -- to wrap yourself in the tzitzit. I always tell the bar mitzvah boys and the bat miztvah girls that when we say L'hittatef ba'tzitzit that we are wrapping ourselves in everything that it means to be Jewish: Jewish law -- halachah -- and Jewish customs, Jewish music, Jewish food, Jewish books. And we are being embraced by thousands of years of tradition. It is a highly spiritual, powerful moment.
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