Where does the tradition of wearing a tallit originate? The wearing of the tallit comes from the third paragraph of the Sh’ma. In Numbers 15:38-9 we read: “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: They shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments…And this shall be tzitzit for you, and when you see it, you will remember all the commandments of God, and perform them.”
The tallit is a ritual object that attempts to address this commandment. You may wonder, what is the “third paragraph” of the Sh’ma? In the traditional prayer books, the Sh’ma has three sections. Early on, the Reform movement eliminated all but the first –probably to shorten the prayer. The first paragraph, the Veahavta, is the basis for two ritual objects: the mezuzah, and the t’filin -both ritual objects discarded as “superstitious” by early Reform rabbis. The mezuzah and the tallit have seen a comeback in recent decades. Among Reform men and women, the wearing of the tallit became more common.
For years, however, women were not allowed to wear a tallit while praying at the kotel, the Western Wall of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. In the past few months, the controversy about women praying at the Western Wall intensified. As a result of a recent Israeli court ruling, women praying at the kotel are allowed to wear whatever Jewish ritual objects they please as well as to read from a Torah scroll. Women can now freely wear a tallit. Beautifully decorated tallitot have been crafted of the finest fibers to adorn the shoulders of Jewish women here and in Israel. For “Women of the Wall” wearing their pomegranate-embroidered silk tallit has become a symbol of their defiance of the Ultra-Orthodox rabbinate.
I know that many among us would sympathize with their struggle. Yet wearing a tallit at our congregation seems to be reserved only for b’nei mitzvah students on their special Shabbat. It seems odd that this wonderful symbol of religious freedom is absent at our worship services. It is time we make a change and join the rest of the Reform Jewish world. Fortunately, we will have a chance to wear a tallit on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar, during the Kol Nidre service.
The tallit is traditionally worn during all morning and afternoon services, and in recent Reform practice by those called for an aliyah, even during the Erev Shabbat service. Yom Kippur is the only time of the year when it’s customary for all Jews to wear a tallit at night –since the command of tzitzit applies during the day. Some believe that the custom began with Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (thirteen century) based on the fact that during Kol Nidre we say selichot, penitential prayers. There is a beautiful Midrash that links selichot with the wearing of a tallit. According to the Midrash, when Moses prayed to God to forgive the Jews after the sin of the golden calf, God “wrapped Himself in a tallit” and showed Moses how to pray. Despite the obvious fact that this is an anachronistic and anthropomorphic tale, it teaches that wearing a tallitreminds us of being kind and merciful towards each other, like God was towards the Jews then.
Thus, wearing a tallit is not to be seen as giving in to some “superstitious” practice, but it can be tangible way of showing solidarity with Jews asserting their religious freedom in Israel. I invited you all, men and women alike, to bring a tallit (or wear one of our congregational prayer shawls available at the doors to our sanctuary) and wear it during Kol Nidre. Show your care and support for Women of the Wall!
Learn more about Women of the Wall and our support for their cause.
Please, take the time to share your comment on wearing a tallit below!