Symbolism of the Tallit
What is a Tallit?
A tallit (also called tallit gadol or by its Yiddish name, tallis) is a Jewish prayer shawl worn by men and women during morning prayer services and on the Sabbath and on holidays. They are used to prepare the mind and heart for prayer and inspire elation and reverence for God.
Like yarmulkes, Jewish prayer shawls or tallit can be very simple or very complex in design. A vibrantly decorated wool or silk tallit can reflect specific symbols, stories, places and events in Jewish culture or simply indicate states such as contemplation or celebration. The only requirements of Jewish tallit construction are that it be a shawl long enough to be worn over the shoulders, as a garment and that it not be made of a combination of wool and linen. Many women choose to wear silk tallit, which are lightweight and often decorated with gorgeous detail.
Many Jewish tallit feature the Hebrew blessing for donning a tallit across the atarah (the long side that lays closest to the neck). One quirk to note: Since sacred writings are not permitted to be taken into a bathroom, if the blessing is written on your tallit, you'll have to remove it (and most likely hang it on a nearby tallit rack) before proceeding into the restroom!
Religious Significance of a Jewish Tallit
The religious significance of Jewish tallit lies not in itself, but in the specifically-detailed fringes, or tzitzit, that are tied to each corner based on a passage in the Torah (Numbers 15:37-41) instructing wearers of "four-cornered garments" to do so in order to remember God's commandments.
Because they are exempt from any mitzvah that involves time constraints and considered innately closer to God by their very nature, women are not required to wear a tallit as a preparation for prayer or reminder of their faith. Therefore, wearing a Jewish tallit is a woman's personal choice based on her own desire for contemplation and expression of reverence.
The Blessing for Donning a Jewish Tallit
Hold the tallit outstretched in both hands and recite the blessing before throwing the tallit across your shoulders and briefly covering your head and face with your hands. The blessing in Hebrew is "Barukh atah Adonai, Eloheinu, melekh ha'olam asher kidishanu b'mitz'votav v'tzivanu l'hit'ateif ba-tzitzit." ("Blessed are you, Lord, our God, sovereign of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and commanded us to wrap ourselves in the tzitzit.") Once the blessing is said, the tallit is thrown and the head is covered, you can then adjust the tallit as needed over your shoulders.