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TCS Question - Why do we wear a tallit?

When Tevye tried to explain Judaism in the film (or musical) Fiddler on the Roof, he described that we have traditions for how to eat, how to sleep and how to wear clothes. As he continues: ‘For instance, we always keep our heads covered and always wear a little prayer shawl … This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask how did this tradition start? I'll tell you … I don't know.’

Well maybe it’s time to help Tevye with an answer to this question, this month we’ll start with the question of why we wear the tallit, and in two months time we’ll deal with the trickier question of why we cover our heads.

The simple answer is that we wear a tallit because it is a mitzvah, a commandment – but this is really not sufficient.

In the Book of Numbers, God instructs Moses: ‘Speak to the children of Israel and tell them that each generation shall put fringes on the corner of their clothes, and put a blue thread on the corner fringe. Then when this fringe catches your eye, you will remember all the commands of the Eternal and do them’ (Numbers 15:38-39). This passage may sound familiar, because it is also included in our daily liturgy as the final paragraph of the shema.

According to the Biblical instruction we are supposed to put fringes, including a blue thread, on the corner of our clothing; the reason being that when we see the fringe it will serve as a reminder of God’s commandments.

Today we no longer wear cornered clothing, and this was already the case back in the Middle Ages. Anxious that a Jewish commandment would be lost as a result of changes in fashion, Jews decided to wear special four-cornered garments so that they could affix fringes to them and fulfill the mitzvah. This led to the tallit, which is traditionally worn at all morning services, and it also led to the tallit katan (small tallit) or tzitzit, which is worn underneath the clothing, so that the commandment can be fulfilled throughout the day, and not just at times of prayer.

You will notice that in the Torah passage it mentions that there was to be blue thread in the fringes. The blue dye used in the process was known as techelet, which was obtained from the shellfish the khillazon. However, over the years the actual identity of the source of the dye was lost, and therefore today the fringes are usually all white.

Some of you may have seen that I usually have a fringe hanging from my trousers. I have tried wearing a tzitzit, but found the additional garment to be rather uncomfortable. I therefore wear a “tzitzit keyring”, which serves the same purpose of reminding me of God’s commandments whenever the fringe catches my eye. If you want to make your own tzitzit keyring I am happy to help, and I also encourage all of our Bnei Mitzvah students to remember that a tallit is for life and not just for the Shabbat when they become Bnei Mitzvah. So whenever you’re here for a morning service, bring the tallit with you, and fulfill the commandment in our services.. 

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Rabbi Danny
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