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.