pt.7: Tallit continued”
A Series of Practical Messianic Living (halachah)
By Rabbi Ariel ben-Lyman HaNaviy
(Note: all quotations are taken from the Complete Jewish Bible, translation by David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc., unless otherwise noted)
"Rabbi Ariel, can a woman wear a tallit?" Let us first define what a tallit is, and its function. A tallit (say "tall-eat"), also known as a "prayer shawl", is a four-cornered, rectangular-shaped garment, containing ritual fringes on each of its four corners, worn for the express purpose of fulfilling the following mitzvah (command). These tassels are called tzitzit (say "seat-seat"). The prayer shawl is usually adorned with colorful stripes and a special Hebrew-lettered neckband to identify the top edge. Before I answer this possibly controversial question, I want to draw your attention to the specific Torah passage that addresses the topic of the fringes.
In Numbers 15:37-41, we find a series of verses specifically aimed at teaching Am Yisra'el (the people of Isra'el) how to revere HaShem and his Torah. The incident which "sparked" the giving of the tallit mitzvah in the first place was the violation of the Shabbat (see 15:32-36). This is inferred by the immediate context of the chapter. However, the mitzvah of wearing the fringes spans the entire context of Torah observance, in that, placing ritual fringes on the corners of the garment (see 15:39-39) was to serve as a visual reminder that HaShem was serious when he told them to "keep the commandments".
In ancient Isra'el, these fringes adorned the corners of the actual garment that was worn as part of everyday dress. To be sure, ancient garments functioned similar to a sheet with cutouts for the head and arms. As time went on, styles changed, but the mitzvah remained. So Judaism created the tallit to contain the four corners in which to attach the tassels. From this passage we learn that the actual mitzvah is directed towards the tassels themselves, not the tallit.
Traditions play an important part of our daily walk as new creations in Messiah Yeshua. In my opinion, some traditions enhance that walk, while other traditions hinder it. Logic dictates that if a tradition comes directly from the Torah, then HaShem designed it to enhance our walk. According to Jewish tradition, men wear a tallit to signify obedience to the above mentioned mitzvah, to signify the desire to engage in public prayer and Torah exposition, or in special cases, depending on the length of the tallit, it can signify a position of leadership (rabbi, deacon, prayer-chanter, etc). We know from the Torah itself, the New Covenant part, that Rabbi Yeshua ben-Yosef, as a Torah observant Jewish man, wore the fringes on his garment (see Matthew 9:20).
Now to address the question head on: "Can a woman wear a tallit?" According to the Biblical injunction to perform the mitzvah of the tzitzit, a woman should wear some sort of prayer shawl, adorned with fringes. The above mentioned passage is addressed to the "Children of Isra'el", which translates the Hebrew phrase "B'ney Yisra'el". This familiar phrase, used throughout the TaNaKH quite frequently, normally includes all of Isra'el, and not just the men or (literally) "sons". What this means is that historically, we should have seen the women joining in on this mitzvah. After all, doesn't it stand to reason, therefore, that HaShem wants the females to be Torah-observant also?
What I am suggesting is that women might purchase a nice, feminine-looking prayer shawl (perhaps adorned with lace), get a rabbi to attach some Biblical fringes--that means INCLUDING authentic blue fringes--and start changing the religious norm. After all, women are not second-class citizens in the eyes of HaShem, so why should we relegate them to that status in our Messianic Congregations? What I am suggesting here has been done in the congregation where I was a rabbi, and no one had a problem with it. I must warn, however, that most non-messianic congregations probably won't be as receptive to the idea of challenging centuries of tradition. To be sure, most non-messianic congregations won't even allow the blue thread to be woven into the tassels, even thought the Torah specifically commands it to be placed there!
Can a woman wear a tallit? As long as it doesn't send the wrong signal to the other male members, I don' see why not. As previously mentioned, my first choice would be a feminine (verses the traditional male-oriented) styled one. If you cannot purchase a feminine shawl (and there's really no reason why a standard, ladies shawl cannot be found somewhere for purchase), then why not make your own. Purchase a traditional small tallit, and sew laces onto it, tailoring it to look like a female version of the male one. All of these suggestions need to take into account the various sensitivities that many congregations (or churches for that matter) currently have. You married women, consult the opinion of your husband; you single women, ask your rabbi or pastor. Approach the concept with a sensible amount of caution, and by all means, bathe it in prayer! If HaShem doesn't want you to cause unnecessary strife in the public gatherings, then I suggest that you practice your tzitzit-mitzvah keeping in the privacy of your own home. We should not seek to intentionally offend the conscience of another believer, for the sake of our own personal interpretation of the Torah, especially if the other believer might be weaker. This does not please the Holy One!
In closing, I want to restate that the purpose behind the placing of tassels on the garment served as a reminder to keep the commandments. This idea of commandment keeping is a state of mind, as well as a daily function! We should never fall for the age-old, compulsory reasons for keeping the commands of HaShem! Legalism, that is, keeping the Torah for the sake of salvation or behavioral preference with HaShem, is simply NOT Scriptural! To be sure, it is a misuse of the Torah itself! Torah observance is a matter of the heart!
It is a natural action of ours, urged on and empowered by the Ruach HaKodesh (Holy Spirit) within us! It is the result from having the Torah placed on our inward parts, as new creations in Messiah Yeshua! It is not something we do to BECOME saved; it is something we do BECAUSE we are saved!
If you are still not sure you understand the true intent behind Torah observance (which includes the command to wear fringes), I suggest reading my introductory teachings in this series. They are available at this web site, or you may write to me personally. As you seek to become more obedient to HaShem's Torah, by adding the mitzvah of the tzitzit, here is the traditional blessing by which Jews adorn themselves with the tallit:
“Baruch atah YHVH, Eloheynu, Melech ha-‘Olam,
(Blessed are you, O’ LORD, our God, King of the Universe,
It is also, it is customary to recite Psalms 36:5-9. The reason for this choice of passages is that verse seven contains the Hebrew word "kanaf", usually translated "wing", or "extremity". A tallit contains four "wings" or "extremities", upon which the tzitzit are attached. To strengthen the connection between this use of the word kanaf, the prophet Malachi 4:2 predicted that when the Sun of Righteousness (another name for the expected Messiah) would arise, he would have "healing in his wings"! When the woman with the issue of blood reached out to touch Yeshua (Matt. 9:20-21), she was placing her trust in the miraculous healing contained within the extremity of his garment! She reached for the tassels of the long-awaited Savior! I encourage you to continue to study the Torah to discover the rich traditions that HaShem has lovingly placed there. To be sure, HaShem had us in mind when he created them.
(For more on the “shomer mitzvot” series, read the next issue!)