Here’s one of my favorite Jewish jokes. A man takes his tallit to the dry cleaner. When he picks it up a week later, he’s handed a bill for $150. “Why is this so high? The last time I had my tallis cleaned I took it to a place down the street and I was charged only $10.” The proprietor answered, “Maybe, but I bet the other guy didn’t take all the knots out.”
A tallit is a very special garment. It is much more than a ritual from another time and place. The garment itself, compared to a shelter made of God’s light that envelops us when we pray, helps to make the experience of Tefilah a special and spiritual time. Personally, I wear a large, square Tallit, the kind that is draped over my shoulders and wraps around my body. Others wear a rectangular tallit that extends down to the mid or lower back, and still others wear a tallit that is like a scarf, hanging around the neck. A tallit is often an artistic creation, made of interesting and attractive materials and colors. Of course, a tallit must have four specially tied fringes, called tsitsit (the commandment to tie tsitsit onto the four corners of our garment, incorporated by the Talmudic rabbis into the twice daily reading of the Shema, is found in this week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lecha). The tsitsit are specially tied in a way that symbolizes the 613 Divine Commandments, and often contain a thread of blue, called techelet. A tallit should be personal, something we choose carefully and own for a lifetime. If you don’t have your own, or own one that you cherish, consider obtaining a new tallit sometime soon, perhaps in advance of the coming New Year.
The Tallit, with its tsitsit, is more than a way to make the experience of Tefilah more enriching. Its message extends beyond reminding us to make life a quest for holiness by following God’s commandments. The Tallit also reminds us that human beings are vulnerable to temptation in all quarters of life, in ways that are both tangible and intangible. We may understand what comprises an ideal life, but we often lack the self-discipline to achieve that life. We often want things we shouldn’t have or that are not good for us, but we aren’t always able to resist the temptation to take them.
Along come the tallit and tsitsit to remind us always to strive for self-control. The passage from Shelach-Lecha says explicitly that this is the purpose of tying tsitsit onto the corners of our garments, that we not “go after the things that are eyes see and we crave.” The Torah uses the Hebrew words “lo taturu,” having a connotation of “lust after.” A famous Talmudic passage underscores how the tsitsit are meant to remind us to avoid temptation:
Once a man who was very careful about the commandment of tzizit heard about a certain harlot in one of the towns by the sea who accepted four hundred gold coins for her hire. He sent her four hundred gold coins and appointed a day with her… When he came in she prepared for him seven beds, six of silver and one of gold; and between one bed and the other there were steps of silver, but the last were of gold. She then went up to the top bed and lay down upon it naked. He too went up after her in his desire to sit naked with her, when all of a sudden the four fringes (tzitzit) of his garment struck him across the face; whereupon he slipped off the bed and sat upon the ground. She also got down from the bed and sat upon the ground and said to him, “I will not leave until you tell me what blemish you saw in me.” He replied, “Never have I seen a woman as beautiful as you are; but there is one commandment that God has commanded us, it is called tzizit, and with regard to it the expression ‘I am the Lord your God’ is written twice, signifying, I am He who will exact punishment in the future and I am He who will give reward in the future. The tzizit appeared to me as four witnesses.” (Talmud Menahot 44a)
Most people wear a tallit only during times of prayer, though observant Jews wear a “tallit katan” (a “small tallit”), a simple undergarment with four corners on which tsitsit are tied and that is worn all day long. The purpose of the tallit katan is to extend the power of a tallit from being an enhancement to prayer to being a tool to remind us constantly that we have the power to shape our own lives, to avoid temptation, and to make our days into a quest for the sacred.