Evolution of My Tallis by Rabbi D’vorah Rose


I have been musing on a presentation I attended at the American Academy of Religion.  Associate Dean Donna Bowman, Ph.D. of the University of Central Arkansas spoke on the prayer shawl ministry.  Traditionally, the prayer shawl (tallis gadol, in Hebrew) is worn by men, based on the commandment to tie fringes (tzitzit) on the corners of their garments (Numbers 15:38-40).  Also traditionally, a man would have one tallis for every day use and a special one for the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement (Rosh Hashanaha and Yom Kippur). While there is no prohibition in Jewish law against women wearing a tallis there has typically been the understanding that it is a man’s obligation to wear the fringes, so women have not (that whole separation of gender roles thing).  But over time, as women have found entrée into Jewish leadership, the tallis started to be worn by us.  Some Jewish women now have the most delicate talleisim – pink, gold, lace, dancing women, butterflies, ribbons, etc., while others create stories about Jewish text (midrash) on their talleisim, using symbols, pictures, text phrases, and the like. 

Bowman’s paper has led me to reflect on the evolution of my own tallis use.  I had never considered wearing one when I was a youth, and I certainly did not see any woman wearing one.  Having gone through a difficult period of feeling disconnected from Judaism in my late teens and early twenties, my first foray back into Jewish community was attendance at a branch of Judaism I had only recently learned about – Reconstructionism.  The first time I walked into a Reconstructionist Jewish worship service, I opened the door to the worship hall and saw a sea of multicolored and painted talleisim, on a cloth store’s worth of different materials.  I knew in that moment I had finally found a way back into Jewish life.  Shortly after this, I purchased my first tallis — what I later learned was a traditional Chasidic tallis.   Years later, looking back at this, I was bemused by the foreshadowing:  I had not heard of Chasidism and when first introduced to it was not only disinterested in it but was also a little hostile to it (more about this in the future).  And yet ultimately, my ordination was through Jewish Renewal, a neo-Chasidic Jewish movement.

I wrapped myself in this tallis for years.  Then I began to design or purchase new talleisim for milestone events, each tallis representing something particular to that event.  So I now have talleisim that have travelled with me through the ritual of receiving my Hebrew name, of being ordained, of marrying; a smaller one for when I lead lifecycle events; an interfaith one for all of the multi-religious work I do; and finally a tallis that is fair trade and made from sustainable materials.

Each tallis has been imbued with something special.  My naming tallis, for instance, needed to have the tzitzit tied on to each corner.  So three close friends sat with me and as we each tied the special knots to make the tzitzit, we made prayers.  I feel those prayers with me each time I wear that tallis.  And my smicha tallis – well, long story there – but the one I had designed has yet to be made.   This tallis will incorporate Buddhist symbols since I have a Buddhist practice alongside my Jewish practice.  So for smicha, I tied on ribbons representing each Buddha family. While this was not the tallis I had hoped to wear for smicha, I appreciated the full-circle experience — the tallis I did wear was in fact the first tallis I had ever owned and had travelled with me so far.

Rabbi D’vorah Rose received her Rabbinic Ordination from ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal; her MA in Jewish Studies from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.  She is currently the Spiritual Care Coordinator for Washington Hospital Healthcare System in Fremont, California.  She lectures and writes on the topic of spirituality and health throughout the United States and internationally. Her particular topics of concern are the correlation of spirituality and health for healthcare providers; the spiritual needs of minority-religion patients; and the spiritual needs and barriers experienced by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex patients, healthcare providers, and university students.
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9 replies

  1. Your post makes me appreciate my own prayer shawl. I had no idea of the history, or that they were originally used only by men. Until I was presented with my own shawl and I used it for the first time, I would not have understood how the prayers given over the shawl by members of my church would actually infuse the shawl. I was not expecting to feel such a powerful response when I wrapped myself in it.

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    • And until Donna’s lecture I didn’t know prayer shawls were being used outside of the Jewish community. The growth of the prayer shawl movement is a perfect example of different religious traditions influencing each other. I hope you continue to have rich experience with your blessed shawl.

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  2. Oh where are the pictures of the shawls?

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  3. Years ago I belonged to a women’s group at church. We made our own prayer shawls in beautiful and vibrant colors (note, the only time I think I have worn anything other than black!). When covered & in prayer, I experienced a deep interconnection to others,
    giving me pause. It has been years since I engaged in this practice, your post serves as a gentle reminder of the ritual and beauty that could be mine again.

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    • What a pleasure to know that something I wrote has reminded you of a ritual that has brought you such meaning. Your description of your experience raises an interesting question — one that I now plan to follow up on with female wearers of prayer shawls. I’m curious if women’s experience of the shawl is different than men’s.

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  4. I see no problem with a woman wearing a prayer shawl. As woman take leadership positions in religion, than they should also wear the regalia that males traditionally wore.

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    • Which ritual items to wear and how to wear them is a fascinating and on-going source of discovery and wrestling for women leaders in the Jewish community, as well as in other religious communities.

      Further, it is never an easy or smooth transition when leadership shifts from one group to multiple groups, from one recognized voice to multiple voices, and there is often experimentation and uncertainty as new leaders explore their role. And since I used a little bit of shorthand in my blog, here is some more background related to multiple voices on this topic of women and the tallis:

      A woman wearing the tzitzit and tallis is not prohibited in the Hebrew Bible (Torah), and there is no universally agreed upon prohibition or obligation within the Jewish law that developed after the writing of the Torah. However, over the generations as Jewish law became more complex, some rabbis in some communities did begin to argue for prohibition, while others supported women wearing the tallis and tzitzit. This disagreement continues. There are complicated arguments both for and against the practice. Here is a good link for more detail http://www.jpost.com/Magazine/PersonalNotes/Article.aspx?id=191382

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