Torah Observant

A Series of Practical Messianic Living (halakhah)

Tallit (continued)


(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.

In the first installment (Part One) I addressed the issue of the head coverings for men (kippah, pl=kippot); in Part Two I will tackle the issue of whether or not women can wear the tallit (prayer shawl) and the tzitzit (tassels).

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.  According to the Talmudic rabbis, one of the possible incidents that "sparked" the giving of the tallit mitzvah in the first place was the violation of the Shabbat (see 15:32-36); another might be the upcoming rebellion involving Korach and his bunch of rebels (see next parashah).  These are inferred by the immediate context of the chapters.  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", not just the Shabbat.

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, or perhaps they may have resembled what we would call a dress today.  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 and not the tallit, although according to some rabbinic sources, the “fringes” and the “tallit” are tandem objects and cannot be separated in discussion.

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 these days 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 do the Chazal (the Sages of Antiquity) have to say about this topic?  Let’s sneak a peek at their notes, preserved for us in the discussions of the Talmud.

In the Talmudic tractate Menachot 43a we read that everyone is obligated to perform the mitzvah of tzitzit, however the comment that follows exempts women: “Rabbi Simon exempted women because this was a positive mitzvah limited by time and from all positive, time bound mitzvot women are exempt”. Being exempt from something does not mean one is not allowed to; just because you don’t have to fulfill an obligation, doesn’t exclude you from participating. Commentators, such as Moses Isserles argued that women shouldn’t try and fulfill this mitzvah, as it would constitute an excessive demonstration of pride in their own piety.  However nearly all other commentators, with the exception of Maimonides and Epstein, permit women to wear a tallit, and to recite the blessings over it. We Jews do just love to debate!

At this point, for reference sake, let us look at the relevant passage once more.

Version: NAS
Numbers 15:37-40

37. The LORD also spoke to Moses, saying, 38. "Speak to the sons of Israel, and tell them that they shall make for themselves tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and that they shall put on the tassel of each corner a cord of blue. 39. "And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the LORD, so as to do them and not follow after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you played the harlot, 40. in order that you may remember to do all My commandments, and be holy to your God (emphasis mine).

A lengthier quote from Tractate Menachot will reveal more on this controversial topic.  *FYI: a “Baraitha” refers to an additional Talmudic comment not found in the Mishna, usually added by the Torah scholars called Tannaim:

Menachot 42b And for what purpose do the Rabbis use the expression ‘That ye may look upon it’? — They require it for the following teaching: ‘ That ye may look upon it, and remember’, that is, look upon this precept and remember another precept that is dependent upon it, namely, the reading of the Shema’. As we have learnt: From what time in the morning may the Shema’ be read? From the time that one can distinguish between blue and white. Another [Baraitha] taught: ‘That ye may look upon it, and remember’, that is, look upon this precept, and remember another precept that is next to it, namely, ‘the law concerning mingled stuffs, for it is written, Thou shalt not wear a mingled stuff, wool and linen together’. Thou shalt make thee twisted cords. And another [Baraitha] taught: That ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord: as soon as a person is bound to observe this precept he must observe all the precepts. This is in accordance with R. Simeon's view that [the tzitzith] is a precept dependent on time. And another [Baraitha] taught: ‘That ye may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the Lord’: this precept is equal to all the precepts together. And another [Baraitha] taught: ‘That ye may look upon it and remember . . . and do them’: looking [upon it] leads to remembering [the commandments], and remembering leads to doing them. R. Simeon b. Yohai says, Whosoever is scrupulous in the observance of this precept is worthy to receive the Divine presence, for it is written here, ‘That ye may look upon it’, and there it is written, Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God, and Him shalt thou serve.

The Midrash echoes this connection of the tzitzit and the commandments:

Midrash Rabbah - Numbers XVII:6 THAT YE GO NOT ABOUT AFTER YOUR OWNHEART AND YOUR OWN EYES (XV, 39). The heart and the eyes are the touts of the body, for they lead the body astray. THAT YE MAY REMEMBER, AND DO ALL MY COMMANDMENTS  (ib. 40). This may be illustrated by the case of one who has been thrown into the water. The captain stretches out a rope and says to him: ‘Take hold of this rope with your hand and do not let-go, for if you do you will lose your life! ' In the same way the Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: ‘As long as you adhere to the commandments, then, Ye that did cleave unto the Lord your God are alive every one of you this day’ (Deut. IV, 4). In the same strain it says, Take fast hold of instruction, let her not go; keep her, for she is thy life (Prov. IV, 13). AND BE HOLY UNTO YOUR GOD (XV, 40). When you perform the commandments you are sanctified and the fear of you lies upon the idolaters. But if you part from the commandments you become profaned. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: ‘In this world, owing to the influence of the Evil Inclination, you keep away from the commandments, but in the time to come I shall eradicate it from you’; as it says, I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh... and I will put My spirit within you, etc. (Ezek. XXXVI, 26 f.).

According to Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) - first Chief Rabbi of the modern State of Isra'el, the accompanying tassels do not even need to be white!  Observe his comments preserved for us primarily from his commentaries on Talmudic Midrashim (Ein Aya) and the prayer book (Olat Riyyah):

We are accustomed to the tassels being white, but the actual legal requirement is that they be the same color as the garment. This common color indicates that actions derive their power and direction from the 'garment', i.e., the character traits.
However, we add an additional thread, of sky-blue ("techelet"). This color reminds us of hidden, sublime matters: the sea, the sky, the sapphire stone, and the Holy Throne. Sky-blue is the background color of the universe. The techelet thread connects us to the very Source of life, from Whom all forces flow. Together with the other threads, which match the color of the garment and represent the diverse range of activity, the sky-blue thread complements and completes the function of the tassels.
The Sages taught that the mitzvah of wearing tzitzit corresponds to all of the other 612 mitzvot. "When you see (the tassels), you will remember all of God's commandments". [15:39] Wearing this special garment and its tassels reflects the splendor of attributes and deeds by which the Torah envelops and clothes the Jewish soul.

So we seem to have plenty of justification, both from Torah and Talmud for wearing the tallit and the fringes, but can a woman wear one?  A recent invention called a Gitah Zahav Tallit was created to allow the women to fulfill the mitzvah of wrapping herself in tzitzit. Again, it is recognized that traditionally women were not obligated to fulfill this mitzvah. This was due to the fact that tzitzit are worn during daylight hours (with the exception of the High Holidays) when women were occupied with many other duties. Throughout time women have taken on this mitzvah and it is interesting to note that Rabbi Judah the Prince, who was the editor of the Mishna tied tzitzit onto his wife’s apron!

If this special garment cannot be found then 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!  Much more can be said concerning the blue threads, the mixtures of the threads, and whether or not one should wear then outwardly or tucked into one’s “pants” but those discussions are reserved for the men.  My commentary called “Kippah and Tallit” will take up that midrash so read it there.


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,
asher kid-shanu b'mitzvotav, v'tzivanu
l'hit-ateyf b'tzitzit"

(Blessed are you, O’ LORD, our God, King of the Universe,
for you have sanctified us through thy commandments, and has commanded us
to sew (wear) the fringes"

It is also 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.

Torah Teacher Ariel ben-Lyman HaNaviy