The Traditional Tallit

One of the most recognizable Jewish religious items is the tallit, or Jewish prayer shawl. The use of tallitot dates back to the biblical period 1800 BCE.  Over time the tallit has changed forms.  The tallit as we know it today began to take its current form around 1000 CE.

Today tallitot are available in a wide-ranging assortment of styles, colors and materials.  Despite the tallitot being available in many styles, the traditional white and black or white and blue striped tallitot, are still the most commonly worn.

Tallitot are also available in an assortment of materials including wool, silk, organza, cotton, and viscose.  Traditional tallitot are made of wool.  A tallit may not contain a combination of wool and linen because of the prohibition of mixing fabrics (shatnez) in the same garment. The tzitzit or fringe on a tallit must be made of the same material as the tallit itself.

While today tallitot are available in a wide variety of colors and patterns, traditional tallitot are white, a color deemed as being a sign of purity.

According to biblical commandment a blue thread known as tekhelet is to be included in the tzitzit.  The Talmud teaches that the source of the blue dye for the tekhelet is to come solely from a marine creature known as the khillazon.  Following the Roman exile of the Jews from the land of Israel the identity of the source of the dye was lost. At this time tzitzit made of only white strings began to be worn.  The stripes that are seen on a traditional tallit are believed to symbolize the lost tekhelet. These stripes are traditionally black but can often be blue as well.  The lost tekhelet is referred to by various sources as being black as midnight or blue as the sky. The stripes of tekhelet on the tallit inspired the design of the flag of Israel.

Silver and gold, known as spania, are also often featured on a traditional tallit for a more luxurious effect. Typically the spania is limited to the atara and occasionally around the tzitzit in the corners of the tallit.