By Eugen Schoenfeld
A few weeks ago on Shabbat, the sanctuary of my small shul was filled almost to capacity. In fact, attendance five weeks in a row was heavy because of a series of b’nai mitzvah.
Although the sanctuary is relatively small, it is large enough to give hadrath melech (honor to G-d). I love the intimacy and warmth of this synagogue.
The boys and the girls were well prepared for their b’nai mitzvah. Not only did they read many sections of the parshiot, but each also performed beautifully as a sheliach tzibur (cantor).
But in one of these services I noticed the bare backs of most of the men who were visiting family and friends; almost none of them wore a tallit. None of these bare-backed men availed himself of any of the handsome, clean, woolen tallitot hanging at the entrance.
I am not a died-in-the-wool Orthodox Jew; at best I am a historical Jew with a traditional heart. While I always wear a tallit, Reform Jews without tallitot never bothered me. Yet this time the absence of tallitot on the men saddened me — not because they were violating a mitzvah, but because none of them has experienced the beauty and the positive impact of wearing a tallit.
Perhaps at age 90, like most elderly, I am feeling nostalgia. Perhaps I am rejecting a belief held by many with a liberal bent that in modernizing Judaism we should discard all that is associated with symbolic rituals.
While I believe in modernization for Judaism to serve and reflect the needs of present-day conditions and beliefs, we should be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Just because something is old does not mean it is useless.
To understand the present-day meaning of the tallit, we first need to understand its function in the past. In the Torah (Numbers 15) we are told that G-d spoke to Moses and commanded him to inform the children of Israel that they should put tzitzit (fringes) on the corner of their garments as a reminder to observe the commandments. The wearing of tzitzit is one of the three memetics —reminders to obey and observe the mitzvot. The other two are the tefillin and the mezuzah.
To comply with the commandment, Jews created an outer garment with four corners, the tallit. Its function was to be a facilitator for the tzitzit. We also wore an inner four-cornered caftan with tzitzit tied on its corners, the tallit katan (the small tallit).
With time, the tallit itself assumed a primary function. While it continued to be the carrier of the tzitzit, the garment became a symbol of identity. Most Jews in my shtetl, Munkacs, wore a tallit whose pattern of stripes represented my city; it was a Munkacher tallit. Other tallitot represented other cities and membership in certain Chasidic groups. Above all, the garment served as a public statement that the wearer was a member of the Jewish people.
In my part of the world the tallit was an indication of a married man. A father-in-law with the means would give his daughter’s new husband two items: a pocket watch and a tallit. Both objects became status symbols.
The top-line watch one could receive (and very few got) was a platinum-cased Schaffhausen. It was given by a nagid (a very rich man) whose daughter married a doctor or a professor. A tallit was judged by its size, the quality of the wool and weave, and the atarah, the silver decoration added to its top.
I always thought a tallit was like an academic robe. When completing my doctorate, I was hooded and given the right to wear this particular garment that indicates my status. In the same manner, every time I don my tallit, I reaffirm my status as a member of the Jewish collective.
It’s a declaration: Behold, I am a member of this historic group of people called Jews.
To me, the tallit is not a religious object. It does not sanctify me, nor does it represent a magical relationship between me and the transcendent.
Still, it does have magical properties. It has endowed in me emotional experiences that I still feel.
When the kohanim, wrapped in their large tallitot, spread their fingers and pronounced their blessing on the congregation at a holiday, I was told that the Shechinah (G-d’s presence) descended into the synagogue, and the tallit protected me from harm.
My father would wrap me and my brother with his large tallit. In the mystical light filtered through the cloth, I was bonding with my family and with historic Judaism.
Years ago I attended Shabbat services at a synagogue in San Diego where I experienced the power of the tallit. Men, women and younger generations held their tallitot and with the cantor’s lead chanted hineni muchan oomzuman (behold, I am prepared to don the tallit). I felt that the Shechinah indeed descended to be with the congregation, and I knew I was at one with the universe and its Creator.