Monday, September 22, 2008

The tallit

If you google the word "tallit," you might wind up at a web page that offers this: "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." ( As much as there's some useful information there, though, it's more difficult to explain what to me has become the very profundity of the tallit.

I used to think that a tallit was an interesting idea... but I didn't want one.

Then I noticed that some women in my synagogue were wearing them, and that was interesting... but I didn't want one.

After a while, I thought that it might be nice to have one to wear from time to time... but it wasn't really important.

After another while, I thought that perhaps I would, after all, like to have one, if I could find one that I liked... but I didn't look that hard.

It was on my mind, though, and I kept coming back to it. Eventually, I started to look for one. There are some incredibly beautiful ones available to purchase, but I wasn't really sure, because I wasn't really sure of my commitment to the idea. Perhaps, I thought, I might make one for myself. I began to look for fabric... but not too hard. It wasn't that important (yet).

One day, out shopping for something that had nothing to do with a tallit, I found a beautiful linen scarf - the only one of its kind in the store. I noticed it because it had two bands of a particular shade of mossy green that my daughter and I call "Grandma Green," because it was my mother's favourite colour. I had no idea what I might do with this scarf, but I knew that I would buy it simply because of the colour.

By the time I got home that day, I had decided that I would make a tallit with this scarf. I began searching for a design, but again, though there was much to see that was quite beautiful, there was nothing that really spoke to me.

I remembered The Book of Ruth. According to David Plotz of Slate Magazine, this is one of the most popular books of the entire Bible (Jewish & Christian books included). Many of us have heard Ruth read at weddings - "your people will be my people, your God will be my God." What we often don't know, though, is that this is not said by a bride to her husband. Rather, it is said by a widow to her mother-in-law. And suddenly, I had an idea for my tallit. I had lost something myself with my conversion - in my case, it was a great connection to my family. Of course, they are still my family and still love me, but we no longer share a faith tradition... and yet, although I couldn't minimise the importance of this, there was no question that I was choosing another path.

So my tallit, starting out with this cream-coloured linen scarf with its green bands, was embroidered with a tree of life... and with the Hebrew words for "your people will be my people, your God will be my God." My mother taught me to embroider when I was about 10 or 11, so there is more of her in this tallit than just the colour. I think she would have liked the idea. I finished the tallit last year in time for Rosh Hashanah, which seemed appropriate, and have been wearing it since.

Why wear a tallit, though? I'm a Conservative Jew, and as an egalitarian branch of Judaism, women certainly can wear them, but not all women do. In fact, women are in the minority in this choice, it seems. Once I began to make mine, though, I began to think about what it might mean to me. The way that it makes most sense to me is this: I wear a tallit because in a community of Jews, where we pray together, the tallit provides me with an intimate space for my own personal interaction with God. I am a Jew as part of a community, but also as an individual, and here is a space where I am that individual but in a community of believers.

I don't know how many others who wear a tallit feel (or have come to feel) as I do about them. I love wearing it, I love the connection I feel to God and to a tradition - to a people - that is thousands of years old. I loved making it, because with every stitch, I was reminded of its importance. When I embroidered the blessing on the atarah, I had time to savour every single Hebrew letter, each Hebrew word, that would eventually come to say, "Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha'olam, asher kid'shanu, b'mitzvotav vitzivanu l'hitataif b'tzitzit," or "Blessed are You, Lord God, king of the universe, who makes us holy with commandments, and who has commanded us to wrap ourselves in tzitzit."

What's most important about the tallit isn't actually the tallit, though - that's what you see first. What's important are the tzitzit, or the fringes, that hang from each of the four corners. They are meant to remind us of the commandments (mitzvot), so that whenever we put on a tallit, we say a blessing that reminds us of them, and we wear a garment upon which they are, metaphorically speaking, resting.

It's not a tallit if there are no tzitzit, so I had to learn how to tie them. And this is where my greatest surprise came, because it wasn't just about wrapping a handful of threads around each other until they looked like the fringes I'd seen on other tallisim (that's the plural of tallit). There's a pattern to the winding and knotting of tzitzit, and like much in Judaism, there's symbolism connected with the number of times you wind and knot the threads. Ultimately, by the time you've finished wrapping and knotting, you will have 'counted' to 613. Care to guess how many mitzvot there are in the Bible? Yup... 613. And every time you tie a knot, you say "L'Shem Mitzvat Tzitzit ("for the sake of the commandment of tzitzit")," as a reminder of why these fringes are so imporant.

I've grown used to my tallit. I would feel incomplete at shul without it. For me, it's an expression of my faith, and the great amount of time spent in creating a tallit reminds me how important my faith is to me. Maybe that's why I'm almost finished another one (though my daughter suggests that my ultimate aim might well be to have a tallit that matches each pair of shoes I own!). I had thought it would be finished for the summer... then, I thought it might be finished for a Bar Mitzvah in late August... then I began to wonder if I would ever finish it at all!

Well, this evening, I will finish it. I was on a roll last night and got a lot of work done. It's beautiful, more beautiful than I had dared hope it would be, and I can hardly wait to tie the tzitzit! It will be ready for Rosh Hashanah, and how perfect is that? Perhaps this will become my own tradition - a new tallit for each new year. L'shanah Tovah!


Maggie said...

I like hearing the things you have to say with regards to Jewish life and your journey within in. Sometimes it makes me think and sometimes that's a good thing, but sometimes it's uncomfortable....... however, I do think your prose is very eloquent!

heartinsanfrancisco said...

I learned so much from this post. I was born to a non-practicing Jewish family and there is a lot I don't know.

Adult Education classes at a synagogue and independent reading filled in some of the gaps, but I was unaware of the symbolism in every stitch of a tallit, although I did know what one was.

What a lovely tradition you've created!

Chaviva said...

Hi, 'heart!'

Thanks so very much for your sweet comment. The making of the tallisim has proven to be so much more than I had ever anticipated... I just thought I was making a prayer shawl! There's very little selection to buy them locally here, but when I decided to make one (then 2...), I didn't expect what happened...

I highly recommend making one yourself!!

Rupinder said...

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