Why Wear a Prayer Shawl

In Judaism, everything has meaning. When it comes to the wearing of a prayer shawl, a garment worn around a man’s shoulders, the meaning is remembrance: remember the God of Israel.

In the Bible, God told Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel. You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the Lord, that you may obey them'” (Numbers 15:38).

From that instruction came the “tallit,” or prayer shawl, worn by Jewish men over their outer clothes during the morning prayers and worn during all prayers on Yom Kippur.

Generally white and made either of wool, cotton or silk, with blue threads incorporated in its weave or design, a tallit features special twined and knotted fringes known as tzitzit that are attached to its four corners. The combination of strands, wraps and knots are supposed to add up to 613, the number of commandments God gave the Jews to follow in the Torah. When a Jew wears a tallit during prayer, he is reminded of God’s commandments to him.

Customs of wearing a tallit prayer shawl

  • A tallit is worn when saying the blessing in front of the congregation before reading a passage from the Torah.
  • Rabbis and cantors wear a prayer shawl when conducting services, but not during funeral services.
  • A prayer shawl is not worn in the rest room.
  • A tallit is worn for weekday morning prayers only. The only three evening exceptions are: during Yom Kippur, Simchat Torah or a special Friday evening service that includes a Torah reading.
  • Some wrap the prayer shawl around the head as a way of concentrating during prayer.
  • Prayer shawls are often presented to children to wear on their Bar Mitzvahs.
  • In some orthodox traditions, a tallit is presented to a prospective groom as part of the bride’s dowry.

Christian prayer shawls

Although the Jewish tallit and the Christian prayer shawl are both worn during times of prayer, they differ in purpose and meaning. In Christian churches, often a group of women get together to knit or crochet prayer shawls to give to members of the congregation or people in the community who are sick or going through difficulties, a time of grief or stress, surgery, even for celebratory events—the birth of a baby, a marriage or graduation. As each shawl is made, prayers are offered for God's blessing, healing or comfort for the person who will be receiving it. Recipients use their shawl as they see fit, such as wrapping it around their shoulders or over their heads as if to wrap themselves in prayer, or keeping it next to a Bible or other symbols of their faith. Some wear them while they pray, and some may give theirs away to someone they are praying for.

However they’re used, prayer shawls are visual reminders of God to those who consider themselves to be people of faith.

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