The History of the Tallit (Tallis)


Written by Chana Karden

Because we sell so many Tallitot, for various occasions, many of our customers have asked us about the History of the Tallit and some of the customs.

The word Tallit originally meant "gown" or "cloak." It was a rectangular mantel that looked like a blanket and was worn by men in ancient times. At the 4 corners, tassels or tzitzis were attached in fulfillment of the biblical commandment. The Tallit were usually made of wool or linen and resembled the blanket (abbayah) still worn by Bedouin for protection against the weather.

Some of the Tallit made of finer quality was similar to the Roman pallium and was worn mostly by the wealthy and by distinguished rabbis and scholars. The length was to be a handbreadth shorter than that of the garment under it.

After the exile of the Jews from Eretz Israel and their dispersion, they came to adopt the fashions of their gentile neighbors and the Tallit was discarded as a daily habit and became a religious garment for prayer; hence its meaning or prayer shawl.

Traditionally, the Tallit is usually white and made either of wool, cotton, or silk. In remembrance of the blue thread of the tzitzis, many Tallitot have blue stripes woven in. Until recently, there had only been black stripes.

The custom of wearing the Tallit differs in many communities. In Ashkenazi ritual, small children under Bar Mitzvah age dress in Tallitot made according to their size, whereas in the Polish-Sephardi ritual, only married men wear them. In most oriental rites, those unmarried also wear Tallit. In some communities it is customary for the bridegroom to dress in a tallit during the huppah ceremony. It is also customary to bury male Jews in their tallit from which the fringes have been removed or torn.