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The Origins of the Tallit

Updated on April 11, 2013

What is a Tallit?

  • A Tallit is a Jewish prayer shawl
  • The word Tallit has Aramaic origins and comes from the root meaning cover. It is worn on top of one’s clothing
  • It is worn during weekday morning prayers, the Sabbath day and festivals
  • It is rectangular in shape
  • On each of the four corners are knotted fringes
  • Any material can be used to make a Tallit except for a mixture of wool and linen which is forbidden by Jewish law
  • Traditionally, the Tallit is made from wool in Ashkenazi communities
  • Spanish and Portuguese Jews sometimes use silk Tallitot
  • Tallitot are usually white with black or white stripes running down its two long sides
  • Sizes of Tallitot vary , with religious Jews generally choosing a Tallit that is large enough to wrap entirely around oneself


What is the Biblical Origin of the Tallit?

The book of Numbers in the Bible is the source for wearing a Tallit. The Tallit itself is not mentioned by name. Rather, the commandment of wearing fringes on the corners of one’s garments is presented. It was assumed that people wore some kind of large outer shawl and therefore men were commanded to attach fringes to such shawls.

There are no specific details mentioned in the Bible regarding the Tallit. Customs regarding the numbers of knots on the fringes, how to tie them and types of knots are traditions handed down by the Sages.

Development of the Tallit Gadol and Tallit Katan

Typically, in Biblical times, people wore a large outer shawl. Fringes were therefore placed on these shawls. With time, fashions changed and in most places in the world, men do not cover themselves with a shawl when venturing out. Therefore, the fringes were placed on a specially designated garment called Tallit Katan (“small Tallit”) and were worn under one’s clothes. The Tallit Gadol (“Large Tallit”), similar to the original shawl worn when going out, is worn nowadays only during prayers by men.

Difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardic Tallit-wearing Tradition

According to Ashkenazi tradition, men wear a Tallit only after they are married. They continue to wear a Tallit even if, G-d forbid, they divorce or are widowed. Sephardic tradition is such that boys wear a Tallit from the rite of passage into adulthood; their Bar Mitzva at age thirteen. In some communities even boys before Bar Mitzva age wear a Tallit for educational purposes.

Photo credit: Eliels / / CC BY-SA

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      Ben of Ben's Tallit Shop 5 years ago

      A few corrections, if I may...

      "Spanish and Portuguese Jews sometimes use silk Tallitot." That may have been true a few hundred years ago, but I don't think this applies today.

      "Tallitot are usually white with black or white stripes running down its two long sides."

      Actually the stripes run down the short sides. Expressing which is the long side and which is the short side can be confusing. In halacha (see Mishna Brurah) it describes the short side as top to bottom.

      - Ben (Ben's Tallit Shop)