An Embrace of Light

There’s a wonderful story about the Nobel laureate Isidore M. Rabi, who said that his mother never asked him what he learned in school. Instead she’d ask him each day, “Izzy, did you ask a good question?” We are a people who revere the question as the mark of one who is awake and free. Last week Elaine Goodman asked me, “When is it appropriate to wear a tallit?” And then after I answered, she said, “You know, it would be interesting on a Friday night to answer questions we may have about Judaism.” So tonight I’d like to talk about not only the when, but the what, why, where, and how of the tallit.

Actually, let’s begin with who wears a tallit. First, God wears a tallit, and since we are in God’s image, we pay close attention to what God wears. Before putting on the tallit, we say, “Bless Adonai, my soul! Adonai my God, how great You are, clothed in majesty and glory, wrapped in light like a robe. You spread out the heavens like a tent.” The light of the world is God’s tallit, God’s robe, God’s tent. Energy or force are other words for the same idea. And when we clothe and wrap ourselves in the prayer shawl, we connect ourselves to the light of creation and to the light within ourselves.

Now, the what of tallit. The tallit, along with tefilin, is our most important ritual clothing. Tallit means robe, and it’s not the shawl but the fringes, the tzitziot, that count. What is the big deal about the fringe? In the ancient world, one’s status was revealed by the hem of the garment: the more fringes, the more important the person. God tells the Jews that they are a nation of priests, and since the priests were of highest status, now every Jew will wear the same fringes.

That’s one meaning of the tzitziot, the pshat or simplest meaning. I wear fringes because I am part of a royal people. The deeper meaning comes from Numbers 15, which is part of the shema. Adonai said to Moses, ‘Speak to the children of Israel and tell them that each generation shall put tassels on the corner of their clothes, and put a blue thread on the corner tassel. Then when this tasel catches your eye, you will remember all God’s commands and do them. Then you will no longer wander after the desires of your heart and your eyes which led you to lust. ”

Here we learn that the tallit is a reminder not only of our descent but of our responsibility to live surrounded by God’s light. By that light do we come to see our own, and our own light shines when we live by God’s guidelines, the mitzvot. Tzitzit, like all Hebrew words, has a numerical eqivalent, and its number is 600. The fringe contains eight strings and five knots. Put it together and it equals 613, the legendary number of commandments we own. When we say the shema, we gather the four corners of the tallit together to bring heaven and earth, and all beings together.

Numbers 15 also tells us when we wear the tallit –by day, not night, because the only way the tzittzit catches the eye is when we can see it, and we need light to see. Every morning during prayers we wear a tallit and that’s why we don’t wear it tonight. The great exception to this is Kol Nidre, when we all wear prayer shawls. We do this because it is the holiest night of the year, and the service begins before sundown, so we stay within the guidelines set forth in Numbers.

Let’s get back to who wears the tallit. In most non-Orthodox congregations, Bar/Bat Mitzvah is the event that marks the beginning of wearing this garment. For our children, the tallit represents what long pants represented in my father’s generation, clothing that tells the wearer that he or she has reached a stage beyond childhood. At 13, children in our tradition are understood to be ready to make moral choices, to move from their parents emotionally and intellectually, and to take responsibility for their decisions. The tallit, usually given by the parents, now becomes woven with the the shelter provided by the parents. We cannot hold them forever, and we are comforted knowing that the tallit will embrace them. . The weight of the shawl will remind the wearer of his or her parent’s embrace.

For the legalists, however, a Bar Mitzvah tallit is a custom. In Talmudic times children wore tzitziot as soon as they understood their meaning. And in the Orthodox world, unmarried men do not wear tallitot; it’s easy to spot eligible bachelors. And what about women? Do they wear them? Traditionally, no, yet we know that the writer of the Mishnah sewed them on his wife’s clothes. So, some argue women aren’t allowed and others argue they are.

Besides tzitziot, a tallit always has a band or atarah, so that we always wear the tallit in the same direction, and it usually has stripes, and they’re often blue. You remember that Numbers 15 refers to a blue thread. The dye for the thread came from a precious mediterranean sea snail, and because of its great value, it was the royal color. All Jews wore this color on the fringe to further stress the nobility of the nation. When the Temple was destroyed, the snail disappeared, and we no longer wear the blue thread on the fringe but weave the color into the shawl.

The Torah portion this week is Lech Lecha, God’s words to Abraham. Go from the land of your ancestors….” God says. Yet the grammar is odd. It really says, go yourself, or go to yourself. Enter your deepest self, Abraham, to birth a new people with a new idea. The tallit is a ticket to this inward journey. By cloaking ourselves in light, we may see where we are going, who we have come from, and who we want to be.

If any of you have questions about about objects or practices, such as mezuzah, kashrut, tattoos, or cremation, please let me know.