Prayer Shawl, Bible Manners and Customs

Anyone attending an orthodox synagogue today will see that the men are all wearing prayer shawls. It is a very important part of Jewish life.  Learning about this sacred garment will teach many exciting lessons from other Bible stories, even in the New Testament!

The Jewish people say that the Talis (Prayer Shawl) is a religious symbol, a garment, shroud, canopy, cloak which envelops the Jew both physically and spiritually, in prayer and celebration, in joy and sorrow.

It is used at all major Jewish occasions: circumcisions, bar mitsvahs, weddings and burials. It protects the scrolls of the Torah when they are moved.

It inspired the Jewish flag. Three separate people had the same idea. They just unfurled the prayer shawl and added the Shield of David and created the flag of Israel.

The dead are wrapped in it when they are buried.

The wearing of the “tallit” (pronounced tal-eet), also called the “tallis” or “prayer shawl,” was commanded by God in Deuteronomy 22:12 and Numbers15:38-40; “Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations…And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the LORD.”

In biblical times, the Jewish men wore the prayer shawl all the time — not just at prayer. If it should be thought that this practice was obscure and short-lived, it will be enlightening to look at other Scriptures that clearly have a bearing on this subject.

Prayer Closet
TALITH contains two Hebrew words; TAL meaning tent and ITH meaning little. Thus, you have LITTLE TENT. Each man had his own little tent. Six million Jews could not fit into the tent of meeting that was set up in the Old Testament. Therefore, what was given to them was their own private sanctuary where they could meet with God. Each man had one! His Prayer Shawl or Talith. They would pull it up over their head, forming a tent, where they would begin to chant and sing their Hebrew songs, and call upon God. It was intimate, private, and set apart from anyone else — enabling them to totally focus upon God. This was their prayer closet!

Ruth And Boaz
Jewish weddings are sometimes performed under a prayer shawl held up during the ceremony by four poles called a chupa or huppah. In Mid East culture they cast a garment over one being claimed for marriage. In Numbers 15:38 the word translated “border” (corner) is a Hebrew word which can also be translated wings, as it is some seventy-six times in the biblical text. For this reason, the corners of the prayer shawl are often called wings. In Ezekiel 16:8, the Lord speaks to Jerusalem and likewise says, “…and I spread my skirt over thee, and covered thy nakedness:…” and in Psalm 91:1-4 we are able to “…abide under the shadow of the Almighty…” and “…under His wings….”

In Ruth 3:9, She found herself at the feet of Boaz, and as he awakened, he was moved with her vulnerability. Women were not to do things of this nature in those days, but in complete honesty and openness she said to him, “…spread therefore thy skirt over thine handmaid; for thou art a near kinsman.” Ruth was saying, Take me under your WING. Cover me, is a term of intimacy. Boaz was an honorable man and did the honorable thing. They were married, and she became his bride. Here she was, a Moabite woman from a foreign country, grafted into the nation of Israel. She had the right to be covered by her Jewish spouse’s Talis. This is a symbolic expression of marriage.

It is interesting to note that a similar custom still prevails at an orthodox Jewish wedding, when the bridegroom covers his bride with his tallit, his prayer shawl, with its tassels at each corner, signifying that he is taking her into his care. The skirt of Boaz would doubtless be edged with the fringe and tassels that indicated his status. This request by Ruth was for his protection and his care as symbolized by his personal fringe – his status symbol. For more on the Jewish wedding customs, read article “The Jewish Wedding”.

A Status Symbol
The hem of a Jew’s garment was not, as in modern clothes, a simple fold of the cloth, sewn down to prevent the edge from fraying. It was a decorative feature that made a statement about the status and importance of the wearer. The people of other nearby nations also had this custom. In texts found in Mesopotamia, references indicate that the removal of the fringe of a man’s garment was the equivalent of removing part of his personality. To cut off the hem of a wife’s garment was regarded as divorcing her. Tablets have been found with the impression of a fringe as the mark of the individual, a personal seal or signature.

In New Testament times, ordinary people only wore a tallit on special occasions, if at all. It was the Pharisees who seem to have worn it regularly and, apparently in some cases, often for show. Jesus expresses no disapproval of the custom itself but he does condemn the extra long fringes that they affected to display their piety [Matthew 23:5]. Thus the hem or fringe of a garment indicated the rank or personality of the wearer.

When David spared Saul’s life, he took away evidence that he had him in his power: “…Then David arose, and cut off the skirt [hem] of Saul’s robe privily.” 1 Samuel 24:4. Why did David do this, and why did his conscience smite him for having done it? Was there some special significance in what he had done? In fact, the act of cutting off the skirt (fringe) of Saul’s robe was of very great significance, which Saul was not slow to recognize. When the shouting began the next day, Saul said: “And now, behold, I know well that thou shalt surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in thine hand.” (1 Samuel 24:20). David had robbed Saul of his status symbol, the fringe of his robe that identified him as king. The fringes on the garment were a status symbol.

The Prophet Elijah passed his mantle on to Elisha in II Kings 2. Many believe that this mantle was actually his Talis and was symbolic of the power of prayer that Elijah had saturated that mantle with. This mantle that Elijah left behind, as he was taken up by a whirlwind into heaven, was what Elisha struck and parted the waters with.   Elijah’s mantle was a status symbol.

It will be remembered that Jesus castigated (criticized or reprimanded) the Pharisees for enlarging their fringes (Matthew 23:5), the inference being that they were thereby trying to magnify their importance.  Despite this, he must sometimes have worn one himself, as the story of the woman who touched the hem of his garment suggests [Luke 8:43, 44]. What was the significance of the hem of His garment and how did she know touching it would heal her? Other people, too, were healed by touching the borders or tassels of his clothes [Mark 6:56].

The Hem of His Garment
“But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings;” Malachi 4:2
One of the best known miracles of healing that Jesus performed was the occasion when a woman who had suffered from a hemorrhage for twelve years came up behind him and touched the hem of his garment, Matthew 9:20. The woman was, in fact, reaching for the tassels on Jesus’ prayer shawl. In Hebrew, these tassels, which are attached to the corners of the prayer shawl, are called tzitzit. Why should she stoop to touch the fringe? Why not his arm, or his feet?

As the Atorah was placed over the head, it formed his own tent. WINGS of the garment were formed when the arms were held out.  For this reason, the corners of the prayer shawl are often called “wings.”  During the first century, there were several traditions associated with the tzitzit concerning Messiah. One was that these knotted fringes possessed healing powers. Certainly, the woman with the issue of blood knew of these traditions, which would explain why she sought to touch the hem (the wings) of Jesus’ prayer garment. The same word used in Numbers 15:38 for borders is used in Malachi 4:2 for wings. With this understanding in mind, an ancient Jew under the prayer shawl could be said to be dwelling in the secret place of the Most High and under His wings (Psalm 91:1-4). The lady with the issue knew that if Jesus were the promised Messiah, there would be healing in His wings (fringes).  That this was the opinion of many other people is revealed by the crowd who sought his healing powers, “…that they might only touch the hem of his garment: and as many as touched were made perfectly whole.” Matthew 14:36.

When one realized the significance of this concept to the first-century Hebraic mind, it becomes clear why this woman was instantly healed. She was expressing her faith in Jesus as the Son of Righteousness with healing in His wings and declaring her faith in God’s prophetic words.

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