The Power of a Prayer Shawl: Exploring Jewish Ritual Objects

by Yael Shuman

Illustration by Nancy Winternight

From Reconstructionism Today, Summer, 1994
Reprinted with Permission.

The Jewish tradition is rich in ritual objects that assisted our ancestors for centuries in unlocking spiritual meaning. Such objects as the tallit (prayer shawl), kippah (head-covering) or kiddush cup, in their beauty and tangibility, can actually change our state of mind, reach past all the objections and barricades we have to spirituality, and help us connect to the sense of meaning present all around us in the world. Many Jews today, however, grew up without knowing how to use or relate to ritual objects because we did not observe Judaism in a traditional way. Others who had ritual objects as part of our childhoods are now looking for a new and personal meaning for these sacred things.

Claiming a ritual object as a tool for spiritual growth, whether for the first time or as part of a process, of reconstruction, takes time and usually requires some help. Often the first step is to create a personal connection: to share stories about an old object that has been passed down through the family, as is done in the Federation of Reconstructionist Congregations and Havurot (FRCH) Cooperating Schools Network program (see last paragraph), or to intentionally forge a connection by using an object regularly, or at an important time in our lives, so that it becomes a part of our own spiritual development and our deepening connection to Judaism. Sometimes the choosing of a ritual object is itself is one of the first steps on a spiritual journey. The tallit that catches our eye and asks us to take it home can become the tool we use to rediscover or deepen our Jewish connections.

Depending on our background and gender, however, ritual objects may symbolize our exclusion from Jewish rituals or our forced conformity within the Jewish community. They may mark a dividing line between “religious” and “non-religious” that is difficult to cross. Ritual objects are surrounded by do’s and don’t’s, customs and laws, attitudes and fears, that can interfere with our willingness to explore the use of these spiritual tools. In truth, there are no mistakes along this path: We are creating meaning for ourselves and the only judge of relevance should be ourselves.

I was fortunate enough to attend the first Reconstructionist Family Camp in August, 1990, where one morning Rabbi Devora Bartnoff told everyone, adults and children alike, to put on a tallit. She didn’t give any of us the chance to say no — this was the group activity and everyone was expected to participate. We didn’t have to feel that we were making a statement about our own spirituality or revealing anything about our own practice and beliefs by putting on the tallit.

The tallit is a garment worn like a shawl or scarf during daytime services. It carries many associations for people that are shaped by where we grew up, whom we saw wearing tallitot and how the tallitot were used. People who grew up in the Reform movement have sometimes never seen people wearing tallitot during services. Many people are familiar only with the thin, narrow tallit that looks more like a scarf than a shawl — more of a symbolic than a functional object. Conservative and Orthodox Jews probably associate the tallit as a “religious man’s” garment. Within Reconstructionist communities, due to their wide variety of practice and observance, there are many various associations with tallitot.

For me, wearing a tallit was difficult. I had always feared that people would judge me if I wore such an obvious symbol of my spirituality. In my family of origin, ritual objects were very rarely used. There was a spoken and an unspoken feeling, very influential to me, that those who prayer were weak, and that being weak was bad. I didn’t know how I could allow myself a spiritual life that nurtured and sustained me without seeming weak.

Putting on the tallit forced me to confront these feelings. I felt as if I were jumping off a cliff, and I hoped that the path I had longed for would be there when I landed. The gentle support and encouragement I received at the Family Camp, couple with the awareness that no one was judging me, enable me to let go and try. As soon as I did, I knew that tallit was an object I wanted to know more about and begin to use.

Wrapping myself in a tallit changed my experience of praying in community. Previously, when I prayed in a community I felt watched. I felt too self-conscious to be spiritually open. By creating a private space within the community, I have been able to open my heart. Putting a tallit over my head during the Amidah (silent prayer) allows me to speak to God, to feel safe enough to speak words of apology or to surrender and give up my psychological resistance.

This was the beginning of learning how to pray in community. Allowing myself to have powerful feelings within a group context intensified the transformative nature of my prayer. This very object, a tallit, had the power to create safe space for me. I could feel held, secure and from there I could let go and feel the support of the sustaining power of life and the community.

Since that time at Family Camp, I have worked with several Jews who wanted to explore the use of a tallit. The process always seems the same: First, people find they are drawn to the tallit and want to see how it feels; next, they want to learn about how a tallit is used as a spiritual tool; finally, they want to explore what kind of tallit is right for them.

For me and several others with whom I have worked, the feeling that this was my garment and that I was entitled to wear it meant I had to do more than grab one from the basket or rack by the sanctuary doors. I had to create my own tallit. I had to engage in planning and thinking about it for a substantial amount of time. This decision-making forced me to explore, on a very physical plane, what the tallit was going to mean to me. By handling and feeling it, I got to know it intimately before I used it.

Without consciously realizing it, I developed criteria for my tallit. It had to be large enough for me to feel wrapped and held. It had to capture the feeling one has as a child when every thing is bigger than you but you are safe. It had to be decorated so that I would always be amazed by its appearance. Its colors had to fill my heart and make me happy. Its fabric had to be something that could catch my tears without staining and feel good and comforting — not itchy! — against my skin. I needed my tallit to be bright, vibrant and alive.

Many don’t feel this need to create their own tallit, and instead search for a piece of material that they like and simply attach tzitzit (ritually knotted and wound strings) to the four corners. A tallit can be made our of almost any material, although the halahah (Jewish Law) specifically prohibits mixing linen and wool. If you wish to observe this prohibition, you should check what yourfabric is made of, and be careful when selecting your tzitzit.

Many people choose silk for their tallit. Silk comes in a wide variety of styles and weights, ranging form raw silk, which is very nubbly and coarse, to highly styled jacquards, which are woven with a contrasting pattern, usually floral. In a fabric store that carries a wide variety of silks, you can wrap yourself to see how they feel before you make your choice.

To decorate your tallit there are now many products available from your fabric or craft store that are easy to use and yield excellent results. I have found cold water dyes and cold water wax resists to be the easiest decorative media because they don’t have to be heated and can be used right out of the bottle. Their colors are very vibrant and can be fixed simply by sending the tallit to the dry cleaners; all the wax and excess dye wash out perfectly without running.

Other people may want to buy a tallit that resemble their father’s or grandfather’s , or a tallit created by one of the many Judaica artists across the continent. A wide variety of tallitot are currently available in Jewish bookstores, or at Jewish conferences and craft shows where artists exhibit their work.

Beginning to wear a tallit is also a process. I used mine while it was being made, for I was aware that it was going to take time before I felt completely comfortable wearing it. I wore it a long time before I could bring myself to leave it at the dry cleaner, for fear of washing out any of what I had painted into it along this journey. Now I clean my tallit every year as part of my preparation for Yom Kippur.

These are many powerful journeys to be had with each and every ritual object we use. Each can be a gate to deeper meaning, to the most awesome feelings of reverence, fear, love and devotion. Ritual objects are tools that our people have used for centuries to bring a sense of the sacred into daily life. By integrating these objects into our Jewish lives, we create a connection to our past, meaning for our present, and a legacy for our future.

Yael Shuman, a member of the RT editorial board, is Director of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association.