The tallit (also spelled tallis or talith) is a garment one can wear to create a sense of personal space during prayer - the name comes from two Hebrew words: TAL meaning tent and ITH meaning little. Thus, you have an etymology of LITTLE TENT. By wrapping yourself in it, or by covering your head with it, the intention and direction of your prayers can be enhanced. The tradition is that the tallit is worn only during the morning prayers, except for the Kol Nidre service during Yom Kippur. The garment can be made out of linen, wool, silk or synthetics, so long as the biblical prohibition against the wearing of clothing combining linen and wool is observed.

It is not the garment itself, whether beautiful and adorned or plain and simple, that makes the prayer shawl special. What transforms a piece of cloth into a tallit are the tzitzit, the fringes on its four corners. The Torah instructs us to wear these fringes on the corners of our garments as a way of remembering and doing all God's commandments (Numbers 15:37-41). The mitzvah is to remember God, to further holiness in our lives, and to keep the commandments, assisted by the visual reminder of the tzitzit. The tallit is therefore not worn at night because we are supposed to see the tzitzit by daylight.

Torah wrapped in
Tallit with Yod

Tallit Bag

A Tallit Bag is used to store the tallit when not in use.

Should you be thinking of wearing a tallit, many meditations are available to increase consciousness and awareness. Verses from Psalm 104 are often spoken: "Bless Adonai, O my soul. Adonai, My God, You are very great, You are clothed in glory and majesty. You have wrapped yourself with a garment of light, spreading out the heavens like a curtain."

Tallit Clip Tallit Clips keep the tallit around the shoulders.


What is a tallit?

The tallit (also pronounced tallis) is a prayer shawl, the most authentic Jewish garment. It is a rectangular-shaped piece of linen or wool (and sometimes, now, polyester or silk) with special fringes called Tzitzit on each of the four corners. The purpose of the garment is to hold the Tzitzit.

Most tallitot (alternative plural: talleisim) have a neckband, called an Atarah, which most often has the blessing one recites when donning the tallit, embroidered across it.

Why wear a tallit?

The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites 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. I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the Lord your God. [Numbers 15:37-41]

The purpose of the tallit, then, is to hold the Tzitzit, and the purpose of the Tzitzit (according to the Torah) is to remind us of God's commandments.

The tallit is worn for morning prayer, during the week as well as on Shabbat and other holy days. It is not worn for afternoon and evening prayers because of the commandment that one should see the Tzitzit, which has been interpreted as meaning to be seen by the light of the day. The Shaliach Tzibur (who leads the prayer) usually wears a tallit, as well, even in the afternoon and evening.

Who wears a tallit?

Generally, a Jew who has reached the age of majority (in most communities, this is 13, though in some communities, girls reach the age of majority at 12) wear a tallit. There exists a custom, not widely practiced, of not wearing a tallit prior to marriage: This custom was explained by the Maharil (Rabbi Yaacov Mollen, 1356-1427) based on the juxtaposition of two verses in the Torah. The first, Deuteronomy 22:12 articulates the commandment concerning the wearing of tzitzit. It is followed by Deuteronomy 22:13, which says, "If a man takes a wife..." This custom is not widely practiced, however, in large measure because it prevents one from fulfilling a commandment between the age of 13 and the time one marries.

In congregations where a tallit is generally worn, you will find a rack of tallitot available for use by visitors near the entrance to the sanctuary.

Why do tallit have blue or black stripes?

The reason why the tallis is striped is simply because that was the fashion in Greece and Rome. But this doesn't answer the question of why blue or black? Tzitzis are supposed to include a thread of blue wool in each tassle. The stripes on the tallit remind us of the 'strand of techelet' once worn as part of the tzitzit.  The Torah commands that tzitzis contain a thread of Tichales (blue). The reason for this is contained in Sotah 17b.

Blue is like sea,
Sea is like sky
Sky is like the Throne of the Lord.

Techelet is sky-blue wool. The dye used for this color came from an animal called the Chilazone. The Talmud recounts that the Chilazone appears only once in seventy years (Menachot 44a). Over the centuries, the exact identity of the Chilazone became forgotten. Hence, the 'strand of techelet' became a mitzvah we are unable to fulfill (according to most authorities).

Two groups claim to have rediscovered the dye - one claims it is from the Squid and the other from a type of snail. A fascinating analysis refuting the snail theory may be read here . A 19th century Chassidic Rebbe claimed, after much scientific research, to have properly identified the Chilazone as the Squid - read his treatise here. This translation is provided as a public service by Beged Ivri and we are grateful for their allowing us to post this content on our website.

In memory of this dye, some adopted a custom to place a blue stripe on the garment itself. Others decided to add a black stripe of mourning for the lost element of the mitzvah. The black stripe gained popularity in Europe of the 15th through 19th centuries, when black-and-white clothing was more common for Jews in general. The blue stripe is now seeing a revival in the 20th and 21st centuries, but it's actually the older of the two customs. It just seems to us to be more modern.

How are the Tzitzit tied?

Tying Tzitzit is a Jewish art, a form of macrame. A hole is carefully made and reinforced in each corner of the tallit. Through each hole, four strands are inserted: three short strands and one long strand. The longer stranded is called the shammash and this is the one which is used for winding around the others. To tie the Tzitzit, line up the four stands so that the three of equal length are doubled evenly, and the four strand is lined up at one end with the other seven ends. With four strands in one hand, and the other four in the other, make a double knot at the edge of the fabric.

Then take the shammash and wind it around the other seven strands seven times in a spiral motion. Make a second double knot, with four strands in one hand and four strands in the other. Then wind the shammash around the seven strands eight times and make another double knot. Wind the shammash around eleven times and make a double knot. Finally, wind the shammash thirteen times around the remaining seven strands and make one final double knot. When done correctly, the Tzitzit will have 7-8-11-13 winds between the double knots.

For a visual representation of how to properly tie the Tzitzit according to the 3 traditions, click the appropriate link below:

How to tie Tzizit according to the Ashkenazi style
How to tie Tzizit according to the Sephardic style
How to tie Tzizit according to the Chassidic style

What does the 7-8-11-13 windings pattern mean?

There are a number of wonderful interpretations for this pattern of windings.

One interpretation is that each set of windings corresponds to one of the four letters in God's name.

Another interpretation employs Gematria, Jewish numerology, which assigns to each Hebrew letter a numeric value: aleph is 1, bet is 2, gimmel is 3, and so on. In this second interpretation of the windings of the Tzitzit, the numbers 7-8-11-13 have special meaning: 7+8=15, which in Hebrew is written yod-hay, the first two letters of God's name (the Tetragrammaton); 11=vav+hay, the third and fourth letters of God's name. Hence the first three windings "spell" God's holy name. Thirteen, the last set of windings, is equivalent in value to the word "echad" which means "one." Hence, all four windings can be interpreted to say, "God is one."

Yet another interpretation holds that when we consider the windings between the knots, 7, 8, 11, and 13, the first three numbers equal 26, which is numerically equivalent to the Tetragrammaton and the remaining number, 13, is equivalent to "echad" ("one"). Hence the windings tell us that God is One. If we take the sum of the first three numbers (7+8+11) and equate that with God's Name, then the 13 which remain can also be interpreted to reflect the 13 attributes of God, as articulated by Moses Maimonides and set to verse in the Yigdal.

By still another interpretation, the Gematria value of the word "Tzitzit" (tzadi-yod-tzitzit-yod-taf) is 600. To this we add the eight strands plus the five knots, totaling 613 in all. According to tradition, God gave us 613 mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah. Just looking at the tallit with its Tzitzit, therefore, reminds us of the commandments, as the Torah says, "You should see them and remember all God's commandments and do them."

Each Tzitzit is made from 8 strings, 7 white and one blue. 'Seven' is the number representing perfection in the physical realm. 'Eight', therefore, transcends the physical realm and symbolizes a direct link to the spiritual realm.

Each group of 8 strings is knotted 5 times to form a Tzitzit. There are five books in the Torah.

Each of the 4 tzitzit have 8 strings, making a total of 32 strings. Thirty-two is the numeric value of the Hebrew word for "HEART". The tzitzit's loose strings represent God's 'heart strings'.

How to put on a Tallit
  1. Open tallit and hold in both hands so you can see atarah (the collar band on which the blessing is often embroidered.

  2. Recite the berachah

    Click here to listen to the blessing sung by Cantor Kenneth B. Cohen of Temple Sholom, Greenwich, CT. This file requires installation of QuickTime on your PC.

    Download QuickTime

  3. Kiss the end of atarah where the last word of the blessing is embroidered, and then and beginning where the first word is.

  4. Wrap the tallit around your shoulders, holding it over your head for a moment of private meditation.

  5. Adjust the tallit on your shoulders comfortably.
Customs of wearing a tallit
  1. If you borrow the tallit for the service, say the berachah

  2. If you use it just for an aliyah, no need to say the berachah

  3. Don't take it into the bathroom

  4. If you take the tallit off for a short time (eg. to go to the bathroom) you don't need to repeat the berachah when putting it on again.
Kissing the tzitzit

There are several times during the service when people kiss the tzitzit symbolically. First is during the recitation of the third paragraph of the Shema (Numbers 15:37-41) which mentions the tzitzit three times. As the worshiper reads the word "tzitzit," it is customary to kiss the tzitzit, which were gathered together in one hand prior to reciting the Shema.

When the Torah is removed from the Ark and carried around the synagogue in a Hakafah (procession), those within reach touch the Torah mantle with tzitzit (if they are wearing a tallit) or a siddur (prayerbook) if they are not. They then kiss the tzitzit or siddur which touched the Torah scroll. This is an expression of love and affection for the great gift which Torah is to our people.

Further reading and study about Jewish liturgy

Here are some books about Jewish liturgy which may be helpful to you:

Image Header and edited text © Jonathan L. Hirshon, based on text from multiple original sources.

© 2008, Temple Emanu-El of San Jose, except as noted for additional content used with permission and/or as attributed to original author. All Rights Reserved.