By Rabbi Lisa S. Greene, Guest Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Shlach (Numbers 13:1−15:41)
I remember the knot in my stomach. My father and I were about to talk about my getting a tallit. I was to begin a rabbinic internship at a Manhattan synagogue where, I realized, all of the clergy wore tallitot on the bimah. I didn’t have one.
I had not wanted a tallit previously. I grew up in a Classical Reform congregation in which no one wore a tallit or kippah. The clergy had atarot as part of their robes, beautiful bands with Hebrew letters representing the words “Baruch Atah Adonai ohev amo Yisrael” (Blessed are You Adonai who loves the people of Israel) sewn onto their robes at just the place where the atarah on a tallit would be. This is what I had seen my dad wear my entire life. A tallit wasn’t in my vocabulary, but now I needed one, if for no other reason than as part of my uniform.
Looking back, it’s funny that I was nervous. Dad of course responded as he was prone to do, thoughtfully and with love. My father, the one who bought me a fabulous suit for college interviews and cut the tags off before my mom could see the price, told me to get a tallit that was Lisa-size (I’m 5’3”) and elegant. He didn’t want to see me in one of those large, blue or black-striped tallises that would drown me in fabric.
What did he do? He called our friend Ann Harris, a renowned Judaica textile artist to set up a meeting. The result? I own an exquisite white tallit with understated black and gold edging and the tiniest tzitzit one might imagine. Yes, it’s elegant and Lisa-sized!
Since that time over 25 years ago, my tallit wardrobe has grown. There’s the one made with my Grandpa Morris’ tzitzit and atara. His atara is on the inside, touching my neck and shoulders, as if his hands are resting on my shoulders lovingly as they did when I would bend to hug him in his later sedentary years. There’s my Women of the Wall tallit, marked with the names of our four matriarchs on the four corners reminding me of the strong community of women with whom I stand. And there are some older tallises that belonged to my father and grandfather way back when — one whose insignia tells me that Dad wore it when he was an active duty Naval Chaplain. Each one of these I wear deliberately, switching definitively with holidays and emotion.
And since that time, I have studied with over 125 adults whom I’ve called to the Torah as adult b’nei mitzvah, students who have ranged in age from 28 to 95. Most but not all decide to wear a tallit when they are called to the Torah, after studying about tallitot with my wise teaching partner, Judy Weiss. Some select their own ever so deliberately. Others wear tallitot that long ago graced the shoulders of their fathers or grandfathers, or more recently the shoulders of their children. And some students are gifted exquisite prayer garments by their proud families in honor of their achievement, and drape their shoulders with awestruck tears in their eyes. There is a story in each tallit.
Inge and her daughter Kathy were in the same Adult B’nei Mitzvah class, years after her husband/Kathy’s father Kurt, a German refugee, died. Inge explains, “Kathy and I wrapped Kurt’s tallit around us while we were seated on the bimah. Then wore it while chanting our separate Torah portions. The tallit was his great grandfather‘s on his Dad’s side. The tallit bag belonged to his Mom’s grandfather. [The tallit] has been wrapped around all my grandsons for their [brises]. It was last used on the top of the chuppah at my granddaughter Amy and Jeffrey’s wedding. It’s waiting for the next occasion…”
Michelle’s tallit was purchased for her by her mother in Israel. “While my mother never had a bat mitzvah, she wanted to pick out a special tallit for me to wear that day. I loved it and then was able to share it with [my daughter] Jordyn when she had her bat mitzvah three years ago. Now, it has family significance and hopefully will for generations to come.”
Debbie described her tallit to me: “[It] was lovingly made in needlepoint by my aunt Ginny. She wove in my Hebrew name into a colorful scene of Jewish symbols. It is a treasured gift and prayer shawl connecting me to my family, beautiful memories of my studying with you and a special group of women, who I fondly refer to as my sisters…and it is enduring reminder for me to be Torah…”
And there are countless more stories.
This week, at the end of Shlach we find the instruction to place fringes on the corners of our garments, a commandment for the generations to come, too. The purpose of these fringes is clear. We are to see the fringes and they are to remind us of the mitzvot, specifically to do the mitzvot, and not to stray.
The last two verses of this section and the parshah are familiar to us from their inclusion in our liturgy, at the end of Shema: Thus you shall be reminded to observe all [G-d’s] commandments and to be holy to G-d. Followed by the oft-repeated reminder, I Adonai am Your G-d who brought you out of Egypt.
Why put fringes on our garments? To remind us to do the mitzvot. And why should we be reminded to observe the mitzvot? So that we can be holy And why should we be holy? Because G-d brought us out of Egypt. We are in relationship, part of a covenant — and this is what we need to do, act with holiness in our days and in our world.
Fringes on garments was a common practice long ago. Professor Nili Fox explains in The Torah a Women’s Commentary: “Since in the ancient Near East both genders customarily wore fringed garments, and since biblical laws are commonly prescribed for the people as a whole, we can assume that the law of tzitzit was ordained for all Israelites, females and males.” Although increasing numbers of women have taken on this mitzvah, there is still a lack of clarity out there. Many still think of tzitzit as a male obligation. A look throughout our textual tradition shows us that women may or may not be obligated to fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit, wearing a tallit, but we are not prohibited from wearing a tallit.
For me, as a woman, as a rabbi, a Reform Jew, a daughter, granddaughter, mother and aunt, one who wears, teaches about and gifts tallitot deliberately, this is a mitzvah that has gained sanctity through years and experiences. Wrapping myself in a tallit wraps me in my family’s history and in the history of our people, in the commitments and obligations of both. Enveloping myself in the fabric and tzitzit embraces me in sacred space to learn, pray and do. It is all about holiness.
The other day two friends who are women leaders in our congregation and nationally in the Women of Reform Judaism told me excitedly that they had each bought a Women of the Wall tallit — a second tallit for one, a first for the other. They were so proud as they prepared to wear them to lead Shabbat morning prayer and teach Torah. I was too, having learned and led with both over the last 20 years. As we talked about our tallises in an easygoing, natural way, I remembered that conversation with my father and realized where I began this journey. It began as pro forma, and became sacred.
Rabbi Lisa Greene is a rabbi at North Shore Congregation Israel.