What is a Tallit? What do the Fringes Mean? And a Ritual for Tying the Knots

The B-Mitzvah (R)evolution

Tallit as a Jewish spiritual practice is derived from a verse in the Torah: “God told Moses ‘Speak to the children of Israel, and guided them throughout their generations to make fringes on the corners of their garments.'" [Numbers 15:37-40]

The Tallit is a four-cornered prayer shawl with specially knotted fringes, called tzitzit, worn as a reminder to live a mitzvah-centered life. The tallit is a portable spiritual home in which you can wrap yourself at home, in synagogue or when you are away on adventures and desire time for prayer, reflection or healing from a sore spot in your life.

A person generally selects or receives his/her first full tallit during the process of preparation for bar or bat mitzvah. Some Jews always wear a light-weight tallit under their clothes called a tallit kattan, "little tallit" and others prefer the full shawl-style tallit for prayer and special occasions in life. For example:

-A Jewish wedding canopy is often a large tallit, canopy of spirit, held over the couple on four poles.

-A Jewish person is buried wearing a tallis with one corner cut off and laid atop the rest of the tallit.

-An old tallit that is unsightly/torn/unusable gets donated to the synagogue or a Judaic library and will be used to wrap worn out or superfluous documents like photocopies with Adonai, the sacred name of G*d on them in Hebrew script so that they can be buried with dignity in a geniza, a Jewish cemetery section set aside for this purpose.

-There was a time, when a child became sick, the parents would wrap her/him in a tallit and pace the floors praying, sensing that the power of all the prayers ever said under that tallit would intensify prayers of love and healing for the child.

-The Yemenite Jews have a practice of wearing an all black tallit at prayer during a period of mourning. Some Jews have an all white tallit to wear on Yom Kippur, symbolizing rebirth. Recently, tallitot [pl] have appeared in many-colored varieties throughout the world.

-On Simchat Torah many communities hold up a tallit canopy and invite the children to stand underneath and receive a taste of honey or candy to symbolize the sweetness of the experience of Torah in life.

-Women wearing tzitzit is a revival of the Torah's guidance for all to put fringes on their garments that had lapsed by the time the Mishneh Torah was written. The Talmud in Menachot 43a reports that Reb Yehudah attached fringes to the aprons of women in his household and there it reads: "All must observe the law of tzitzit, Cohanim, Levites and Israelites, converts, women and slaves." This section also records one scholar, Reb Simeon, as declaring women not to be obligated to wear a tallit.

-A tallit is never worn in a bathroom, it is a sacred item. [Nor are tephillin; a kippah can be worn anywhere.]

-People who are leading services usually wear a full tallit, the rest of us only wear a full tallit at morning services with three exceptions: Kol Nidre (the evening service of Yom Kippur), the minchah service of Tisha b'Av and if you happen to be at a community where Torah is read on a Friday night. Why only during the day? Perhaps because there used to be a special blue dye, tekheylet, that would be applied to one thread and when you could differentiate between the darkness and the color of the thread then it was time to start morning prayers.

The Holy One, blessed be, surrounded Israel with the commandment of tephillin for their heads, tephillin for their arms, tzitzit for their clothing and mezuzot for their doors. [Talmud Menachot 43a-b] 

Where can you find a tallit just right for you?

Local Judaica stores, many web sites and synagogue gift shops and custom tallit makers await your visit. You can buy a tallit ready-made, by custom order, or make one on your own by choosing a favorite color, fabric, style and texture. Some tallit makers will offer the option of shipping yours with the fringes not yet attached, so that you can do the knotting as a family or personal ritual. This is a very memorable thing to do!

Meaning of the Knots on a Tallit, Tallis

The knots symbolize the 613 guidelines for conscious living through a Jewish lens that are found in the Torah called mitzvot [pl, singular is mitzvah]. As the Torah says:

"You will see them [the fringes] and remember all God's mitzvot and do them" Numbers 15:39

A easy way to remember this is through a math problem. Every Hebrew letter has a numerical value, which means each word's simple value is the sum of the value of each letter. See of you can figure out the value of the word for "fringes," tzitzit.

Now, there are eight lengths of silk or cotton in a tzitzit corner [doubled over] plus 5 knots, that, according to a medieval sage called the Ba'al HaTurim stand for each of the five books of Moses. So when you take the right answer for the gematriya (numerical value) of tzitzit which is 600 and add 8 plus 5, you come out with 613.

After each double knot except the last on your tallit fringe are a specified number of windings. First 7, then 8, then 11, then 13. In Hebrew the name of G*d that no one can pronounce that is made up of many forms of the verb "to be" is . Write down the value of each letter in this name.

Now, what do the first two letters, yud plus hey add up to?

What do the next two letters add up to?

So the name of G*d matches the first three winding patterns. And what about thirteen? That is the value of the word Ekhad, "one" [please check the math],

Which is what Judaism's core prayer the Shema says, that G*d is One. So when you hold all the fringes in your hand, you are honoring the oneness and the sense that by doing mitzvot you are helping to hold the holiness of the world together.

13 is a special number because when Moses recalls the best qualities of G*d he finds 13 to mention, so holding the tzitzit can be inspiration for you to remember your best qualities too!

Another teaching on the knots is that the five knots equal the first five words of the Shema [some people use them like a Jewish rosary] and since the last word is ekhad, "one," which equals the last winding between the knots, that makes it all "one."

Creating a Tzitzit Tying Ritual

Sara Harwin, a Portland Oregon designer of custom tallitot, kippot and Torah scroll covers (www.harwinstudios.com) teaches that the tallit can:

a) be draped on the student and then

b) the parent/guardians and perhaps older siblings, close aunts/uncles and mentors can step up to help tie the knots. [This is not difficult, just detail intensive, see below]. Sara recommends reserving one corner for the student to ask for their own most desired blessings.

As you complete each set of windings and tie the knot that will hold them, give blessings from your heart to the student. These blessings can be written in advance and also provided on paper to the student for their B-mitzvah memory book.

The formal blessing given in the Talmud for completion of this process is:
baruch atah adonai eloheynu melech ha-olam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu laasote tzitzit
Literally: Blessed are you oh Lord, my God, King of the universe, that makes us holy through mitzvot and commands us to make fringes.
Figurative (based on R'Gikatilla, 14th century): I bend my knee at the Pond of Blessing, at the Threshold of Eternity, where holiness comes through the mitzvah-centered guidance to make tzizit.

How to Tie Tzitzit

1. Practice first before you start making real tzitzit, yarn works well for this purpose. Start by cutting four pieces -- three short strings measuring 40 inches in length, and one long string measuring 60 inches in length. The long string is called the shamash, or caretaker, like the extra candle in the Hanukkah menorah that is used to light the others. The shamash string will be used to wrap around the other strings.

2. Hold one end of all four strings together evenly. Push them through a hole in a square of cardboard or a key ring. It really helps to have someone holding the cardboard or ring while you do this project. Pull the strings until the cardboard is dividing the shorter strings exactly in half. The shamash string will remain longer on one side. This will be the string you use to wrap around the other strings. It may help you to remember which string is the shamash by tying a single knot at the bottom of its long end.

3. With the four short even strings in one hand and the three short strings and shamash in the other, tie two knots about two inches from the hole in the cardboard.

In order to fulfill the mitvah of tzitzit, it is customary for you to say "l'shem mitzvat tzitzit," "for the sake of doing the mitzvah of tzitzit," each time you tie a knot.

4. Hold the shamash in one hand and the other seven strings in the other. Tightly wrap the shamash around the group of seven strings seven times. Count the wraps very carefully. Make sure that the wraps start and end on the same side.

5. Continue wrapping and tying in the same order as in the picture-- two knots followed by eight wraps, two knots followed by eleven wraps, two knots followed by thirteen wraps, and two knots. Be sure to carefully check the number of wraps before each pair of knots. 7 - 8 - 11 -13 is the order of the wraps, with two knots between each.

Putting on Your Tallit and Putting it Away

1. Hold the tallit so that the decorative collar, called the atarah, is facing you. Often these have the blessing on them or a verse from Torah or prayer of deep meaning, or a decoration. Let yourself feel what it means to enter this fabric sukkah, a shelter of peace.

2. Some people kiss the tallit at this point, the way you might put a kiss on a mezuzzah, realizing you are crossing a threshold [the root word of Adonai, "adan" means threshold] with the intention of experiencing and bringing love into the space.

3. Recite the blessing: Barukh ata adonai eloheynu melekh ha olam asher kidshanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu l'hitateyf ba-tzitzit.

Here's my explanation of what this means:

Blessed is our G*d, Governing Principle of the universe that makes us holy through guiding us to do the mitzvah of wrapping in a tallit.

4. Holding your tallit like a cape by the atarah (collar section), fling it up and around and over your shoulders. Some wear it like a cape, other folded into a neat column, and others wear it like a shawl and if it is very large flip the corners up onto their shoulders.

When it is time to take your tallit off, fold it gently and return it to a pouch or giant baggie for protection from moisture.

May your tallit be a spiritual shelter for you, where prayers flow easily, whether they be spontaneous or traditional. May your fringes caress the Torah scroll at many aliyot when you come up to witness the reading of the Torah and I hope, to share you own interpretations over the years.