When I place my tallit around my body and say the blessing “lehitatef batzitzit – to wrap myself in the tallit”, a number of feelings wash through me changing my sense of self. To begin with, putting on tallit is a marker in time – with this action I am letting go of the mundane, of the worries and the niggles of my ordinary life and I am entering demarcated and focussed prayer time. Secondly, there is a marker of change in my emotional state – The feeling of being wrapped in the tallit provides a sense of warmth, comfort, separation from surroundings and connection to a different sphere, as the weight on my shoulders reminds me of the expectations and obligations I have taken upon myself as a religious Jewish person. And finally, the putting on of tallit creates a marker in space – my tallit provides a tangible boundary between my internal world and the outer one.
The tallit is so much more than a shawl traditionally worn while praying the morning service. It is a both creator and signifier of disconnection and reconnection.
I have never known a barmitzvah boy think twice about receiving and wearing his tallit. It is just something that they do, something they expect to do, for them it is a right and an obligation to wear the symbols of obligation and rights. I have never known a batmitzvah girl (or any woman) take on tallit without much soul searching and some anxiety. Are they ready to take on all that tallit means? Does the wearing of tallit give the proper statement about their religious observance and worth? Is it saying something more than they are able to do or be?
While it is often said to be that the tallit is a male garment, this view dates only from medieval times and came into being as a way of underpinning the growing move towards prohibiting women from wearing it. And women did, we know, wear tallit and they were explicitly permitted to do so in a number of early rabbinic responsa and even Talmud (Menachot 43a) tells us that “Our Rabbis taught: All must observe the law of tzitzit, priests, Levites, and Israelites, proselytes, women and slaves” and gives us two examples of Sages who attached tzitzit to the clothing of the women in their households – Rabbi Judah ( Menachot 43a) and R. Amram the pious (Sukkah 11a). The reason given for women being exempt from this mitzvah (not, note, prohibited) is that it is a positive time bound mitzvah and the rule of thumb was understood to be that women were exempt from having to perform mitzvot that were bound to fixed times – except of course, when they were not exempt, such as lighting the Shabbat candles, making Shabbat kiddush, lighting the chanukiah, prayer….. And the idea of the garment to which tzitzit are attached being strictly male – well, Bedouin to this day wear the four cornered cloak described in our texts (the abaya)– and both men and women wear it.
Only in the thirteenth century did Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg begin to overturn the practise of generations and his view was promulgated by Isserles in the 16th Century who wrote that the wearing of tallit by women might be a sign of religious arrogance or self righteousness (Yuhara), although even he admitted that a woman could wear tztitiz, it was her intention that mattered, not the wearing per se . But since this medieval onslaught against the presence of women in the public space, the practise has dwindled to the point where it is barely remembered, until in our days a critical mass of women have once more decided to take on the wearing of tallit as a mitzvah.
The variety of journeys that women take to adopt for themselves the mitzvah of tallit is extraordinary and salutary. I know of women who choose to wear the tallit of a deceased husband, father or grandfather as a mark of respect and love, and a desire to be close in prayer to those who gave meaning to their lives. I know of women who studied hard in order to make their own tallit and who choose to weave extraordinary moments and memories into the fabric, building a sort of physical memory of their spiritual life into the tallit. I know of women who wear the tallit of Women of the Wall as their choice of garment in order to additionally show their support for other women practising this mitzvah wherever they may be in the world. I know of women who wear ‘feminine’ tallit and women who wear ‘traditional’ designs always for particular reasons, and of women who wear both at different times in their prayer lives. I have never yet met a woman who thoughtlessly puts on tallit, or who sees it as her religious right that she must display to others, or sees the wearing of it as an act of rebellion or arrogance or in-your-face piety.
The arguments against women wearing tallit seem to hang on either it being a male garment (easily circumvented should one buy this argument by the plethora of feminine talliot that can be purchased) or that exemption should be extended to prohibition on the somewhat shaky ground that women only wear tallit to be arrogant (something that can be easily disproved by talking to -and listening to -women who choose to wear tallit.) The arguments for women wearing tallit is that we find it an aid to prayer, a ritual that increases our kavannah – our focus and concentration on our relationship with God as we pray. It creates special time, special space, a deposit of memory on which we can build and from which we can grow, a custom that deepens and warms our religious attachment. It provides a much needed boundary between the mundane and the sacred in our busy lives, it signifies our detachment from the unimportant and our attachment to our Creator in prayer. If you haven’t yet explored the possibility of this mitzvah, I encourage you to do so. Male or female, we all have much we can gain from it.