|Ask Rabbi Lerner|
I am curious about the origin of the modern tallit - how far back can you trace the origin of it's design. I understand the command in Numbers 15 and would like to track the history of it from that point. I have been told that the tallit today might possibly reflect a kabbalistic influence and this has captured my attention.
I personally follow the interpretation of Professor Milgrom of Berkeley University, who write one of the critical volumes of commentary on the Torah for the Jewish Publication Society, who saw the tzitzit as a sign of royalty or the priesthood. They were worn on the lower hem of the robe, and thus we are a "kingdom of priests" seeing themselves as a light unto the world.
I'm attaching a bit from the Encyclopedia Judaica. Keep reading there and elsewhere.
"TALLIT (Heb. TyZt, pl. tallitot; Yid. tales, pl. talesim), prayer shawl. Originally the word meant "gown" or "cloak." This was a rectangular mantle that looked like a blanket and was worn by men in ancient times. At the four corners of the tallit tassels were attached in fulfillment of the biblical commandment of zizit (Num. 15:3841). The tallit was usually made either of wool or of linen (Men. 39b) and probably resembled the abbayah ("blanket") still worn by Bedouin for protection against the weather. The tallit made of finer quality was similar to the Roman pallium and was worn mostly by the wealthy and by distinguished rabbis and scholars (BB 98a). The length of the mantle was to be a handbreadth shorter than that of the garment under it (BB 57b). After the exile of the Jews from Erez Israel and their dispersion, they came to adopt the fashions of their gentile neighbors more readily. The tallit was discarded as a daily habit and it became a religious garment for prayer; hence its later meaning of prayer shawl. The tallit is usually white and made either of wool, cotton, or silk, although Maimonides and Alfasi objected to the use of the latter. Strictly observant Jews prefer tallitot made of coarse half-bleached lamb's wool. In remembrance of the blue thread of the zizit (see tekhelet), most tallitot have several blue stripes woven into the white material (see Zohar, Num. 227a). Until recently, however, they only had black stripes. The minimum size of a tallit is that which would suffice to clothe a small child able to walk (Sh. Ar., OH 16:1)."
About kabbalah, I know that I don't encourage anyone to study any aspect of kaballah, especially as it has been vulgarized for profit and ego today in this country. Kabbalistic background of the tallit is something I know nothing about it.Best Wishes,
Rabbi Barry Dov Lerner
Foundation for Family Education (FFFE)