The wings of the Tallit

And wherever he came, in villages, cities, or countryside, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and implored him that they might touch even the fringe of his garment. And as many as touched it were made well.
Mark 6:56

Reading this passage has intrigued me for a long time. What is it about the fringes – or, in some translations, the corners – of someone’s clothes? Why would they be so important?

And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and though she had spent all her living on physicians, she could not be healed by anyone. She came up behind him and touched the fringe of his garment, and immediately her discharge of blood ceased.
Luke 8:43-44, see also Mat. 9:20ff & Mark 5:25ff

According to the Written Law (תּוֹרָה, Torah), the woman with the issue of blood was unclean for access to the temple and related religious duties (Lev. 15:25), and the people touching her would become unclean for temple service as well:

When a woman has a discharge, and the discharge in her body is blood, she shall be in her menstrual impurity for seven days, and whoever touches her shall be unclean until the evening.
Lev. 15:19

Therefore, if they had been in Jerusalem, this woman could not have touched anyone or been part of the religious rituals to have her sins forgiven. As a result, she was not allowed to come near God, an outcast from God’s presence. Now this woman wanted to be healed by Yeshua, who was surrounded by a crowd. But anything or anyone she touched would have become ceremoniously unclean as well, which, in a crowd where everyone wants to see this miracle-healer Yeshua, was probably hard to avoid. And anyone who would touch someone else who is unclean, would become unclean. So by the time this woman reached Yeshua, we can assume that the entire crowd was ceremoniously unclean. Had this occured in Jerusalem, where people had to be clean for temple service, she would have taken a big risk since the violation of this law was punishable by flogging. But since this was the Galilee, she was able to live a normal life. However, when she touched Yeshua, her impurity was taken away as she was healed, allowing her to once again go up to Jerusalem into God’s presence.

(1) A person who became impure by touching someone or something impure was required to confess and make a sacrificial offering to a priest to gain forgiveness for the sin.

(2) According to Maimonides, violation of a negative commandment (“You shall not…”) of the Torah is usually punishable by flogging.

(3) Touching human impurity also makes a person impure, but only when the person realizes he has done so.18

Yeshua called the woman back, to confront her publicly. Through this public confrontation, everybody present had to realise that they had become ceremoniously impure, unable to approach God. They now all needed to wait until evening to become ceremoniously pure again.

(4) Women who are menstruating or have recently given birth make others who touch or carry them impure.

(5) Anyone touching [a person with irregular genital flow] becomes impure and transfers impurity.

(6) A man is forbidden from getting close to his menstruating wife even if they are both fully clothed. […] He is not to come into contact with her even by touching her with his little finger.19

This woman was impure for 12 years, which is an allusion to the 12 tribes of Israel. Because of the issue of blood, this story says that Israel is ceremoniously unclean. Therefore, we can not receive forgiveness of our sins, since we can not participate in the temple rituals, until the impurity is removed. This is true, as there is no temple nowadays. This also means that we have no access to our God. And just like this woman, Israel is an outcast in exile.
As we need Messiah, who redeems, Messiah the son of Joseph, who comes to heal, purify and redeem us. Right after he has healed us, we can be forgiven of our sins and have access to God again.

Now I was wondering: Why did the people in the first century believe that touching the fringes of Yeshua’s clothes would heal them?
The word for the fringes, in the Greek manuscript, is κρασπεδου (kraspedon). The same word is used in the Septuagint for the Hebrew word tzitzit (ציצית). These are little knotted ritual fringes attached to clothes. So the people were actually touching the tzitzit on the corners of Yeshua’s clothes.

The Septuagint (short LXX) is an ancient translation from the 2nd century B.C. of the Hebrew Bible into Greek. The same language was later used in the New Testament manuscripts, and Hebrew terms that did not exist in Greek were often translated with the same words in both the Septuagint and the New Testament. It is therefore a valuable instrument to understand the underlying Hebrew culture of the New Testament writings.

Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tzitzit on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner.
Num. 15:38

You shall make yourself tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself.
Deut. 22:12

The tzitzit had to be attached to pieces of clothing that had four corners (Deut. 22:12).1 Nowadays, such a cloak would be called a tallit (טַלִּית, possibly Aramaic origin). In biblical times however, any four-cornered type of clothing would have tzitzit, so many Hebrew words were used for what is nowadays called tallit:

[The Tallit] 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 *ẓiẓit (Num. 15:38–41). 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. […] After the exile, […] the tallit was discarded as a daily habit and it became a religious garment for prayer; hence its later meaning of prayer shawl.
Encyclopedia Judaica2

As a result of becoming a religious garment, it did not have to protect the body from the sun any more. Therefore, smaller tallits were made, which eventually had a shape more similar to a scarf (or shawl), i.e. long and narrow. This is the shape most tallits have nowadays.

A Tallit as worn during prayerA Tallit as worn during prayera

In Hebrew, the word for corners (כנף, kanaph) can also be translated as wings.4 It is the same word that is used for the wing of a bird, the wing of a building, the wings of cherubim (כְּרוּבִים, a type of angels), or figuratively for the speed of the wind (the wings of the wind).10 With this in mind, several biblical verses started making sense. The people in the first century were waiting for Messiah to come with healing in his wings:

But for you who fear my name, the servant of righteousness shall rise with healing in the corners (of his garment).
Mal. 4:2a

The tallit became a very important tool in a person’s prayer life. Every person would have their own way of folding it. Eventually, that they would even be buried with it: After being washed, the body would be wrapped in a white shroud, and one corner of the tallit would be cut off before it would be used to cover the deceased (often their head).6&14

Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, and the face cloth, which had been on his head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself.
John 20:6-7

In the context of a Jewish burial, the word used in this passage (σουδαριον, sudarium) is a synonym of tallit, as it is a piece of cloth covering the head of the deceased.7 (Note that the greek word also denotes other uses, like wiping one’s face, which no Jew would ever do with a tallit.) It seems like Yeshua, after his resurrection, folded his tallit and left it there for his disciples to see. This would have been a proof to them that the body was not stolen, as nobody other than Yeshua’s closest friends would have known how he usually folded his it.

The sun of righteousness5
In most translations, and in the Hebrew Masoretic text, Malachi 4:2 says:

But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.
Malachi 4:2a

Persian sun-god Ahura Mazdab

From its context, this verse is clearly messianic in its meaning. But it also seems to link to sun-god worship, as often, ancient sun-gods (like the Persian god Ahura Mazda, or the Egyption god Horus) were depicted with wings. In the picture on the right, the sun is symbolized with the circle in the middle, and it has wings.
However, God strongly condemns the worship of the sun (Ez. 8:14-16). So how can Messiah be linked to the sun, or by association, to any kind of sun-god worship?
The issue arises from a problem in the Hebrew Masoretic text. Until the Middle-Ages (ca. 1000 years ago), Hebrew did not use vowels. The word in this verse was simply written as שמש. however, vowels were introduced In the Masoretic text some time in the first millenium. the word in this verse had been orally transmitted as שֶמֶש (Shemesh), which means sun. A similar word with the identical spelling is שַׁמָּשׁ (Shamash), which means servant. This word is used to designate both the shamash candle on the Hanukkiah (see post on Hanukkah) and the blue thread of the tzitzit. Therefore, it is well possible that a mistake was made when the vowels were introduced or during the oral transmission of the pronounciation. With the probably correct pronounciation shamash, the verse says:

But for you who fear my name, the servant of righteousness shall rise with healing in his wings.
Malachi 4:2a

Design of the tzitzit

The tzitzit were meant to remind God’s people of His commandments: They were instituted right after a man broke the rest of the sabbath (שַׁבָּת , shabbat). The bible states that they should have one blue thread on each corner.
According to Jewish tradition, the tzitzit are to consist of 7 white strings (symbolizing God’s Spirits) and one blue string, called the helper or servant (שַׁמָּשׁ, Shamash).17 Then, always between every double knot, the blue string would be wound around the other ones 7, 8, 11 and 13 times respectively. This a complex form of writing using the numerical codes of the letters. It is similar to saying that a is 1, b is 2, etc., except that the codes are not linear. The system originates from ancient times, before symbols were used as numbers, as people needed a system to count.
The sum of the first three numbers equal 26, which is the numerical value of the name Yahweh (יהוה): The numerical values of each of the 4 letters, added up, is 26 (10 + 5 + 6 + 5). The number 11 equals the numerical value of the word one (אחד, echad).16 These two words are an allusion to a very important prayer:

Hear, O Israel: Yahweh is our God, Yahweh is one.
Deut. 6:4

Note that Sephardic Jews use 10-5-6-5 as the number of windings, a combination that represents directly the spelling of the name of God.
Note that most tzitzit do not have the blue thread any more, because the snail of which the blue dye was made was thought to be extinct for almost 2000 years. It has only recently been re-discovered.12 These colours are significant as blue and white represents royalty (see Esther 8:15a).

The word tzitzit (ציצית) comes from the root tzitz (ציצ), which means blossoms. But the tzitzit do not look like blossoms. This, again, shows how different Hebrew thinking is from Greek thinking: The Hebrews think about function, not appearance.
The function of a blossom is to bring fruit. And as the bible says, the tzitzit are to remind us of the commandments. And fruits are the symbol of doing God’s will.5

Uses of tallit-like cloaks in the Bible

The words for cloak used in the following passages are different. What unites them, however, is the use of the word corner (or wings, כנף, kanaph), which denotes the place where the tzitzit were.

Ruth

The tallit has several uses in Jewish wedding traditions. Sometimes, a tallit is used as the canopy of the Chuppa (חוּפָּה), a canopy under which the couple stands during their wedding ceremony. It symbolized the room in which the marriage was consummated.8

A newly-wed Jewish couplec

Another use was that of a freshly married couple to be covered by a tallit (see illustration on the left).
The story of Ruth (רוּת, Rut) fits into this context: As a young widow without children, there was a danger that the family name would disappear from Israel. To prevent that, a childless widow could not get married outside of her former husband’s family (Deut. 25:5-10), so that her new husband would symbolically give her dead husband descendants (cf. Gen. 38:6-11).
Not being able to get married to anyone else, Ruth, the young childless widow, goes to talk to Boaz (בעז), a close relative of her deceased husband.

He said, “Who are you?” And she answered, “I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings over your servant, for you are my redeemer.”
Ruth 3:9

The symbolism of the cloak (nowadays called a tallit) covering the newly-wed couple appears here: Effectively, Ruth asks Boaz to marry her.

Elijah

The mantle of Elijah (אֱלִיָּהוּ, Eliyahu) has a big significance. The word used for his mantle was אדרתו (Adarto), which means mantle of glory. This comes a lot closer than the previous occurrences to describing a tallit: As Elijah used it in prayer and to perform miracles, it became a mantle of glory, with tzitzit in its wings (corners).

Elijah used his tallit (mantle of glory) at the Jordan River to re-enact the miracle of the Joshua’s crossing the Jordan Elisha then repeated the same event after receiving Elijah’s tallit (2 Kings 2:14). At first thought, the use of the tallit in this way may seem irreverent. However, rather than acting inappropriately, Elijah and Elisha demonstrated the connections to the power the tallit represent. […] The tallit is a […] symbol of [God’s] holiness [and] has great authority when used in conjunction with faith.11

In this case, Elijah’s mantle of glory symbolises God-given authority. Elisha would not leave Elijah until he could himself receive his mantle as the symbol: By passing on his mantle, Elijah is passing on his authority (1 Kings 19:19).

Samuel and Saul

The tallit is considered to be holy, not in itself, but through its use in prayer and in respecting the Lord’s commandements.6 As such, it should not be defaced.9 Furthermore, a High Priest’s garment should not be ripped (Lev. 10:6, 21:10). With this in mind, the following story about Samuel (שמואל, Shmuel) and Saul (שאול, Shaul) becomes shocking:

As Samuel turned to go away, Saul seized the corner (kanaph), and it (the cloak) tore.
1 Sam. 15:27

There is this story where David is hiding in a cave because Saul is pursuing him, in order to kill him.

There was a cave, and Saul went in to relieve himself. Now David and his men were sitting in the innermost parts of the cave. And the men of David said to him, “Here is the day of which the Lord said to you, ‘Behold, I will give your enemy into your hand, and you shall do to him as it shall seem good to you.'” Then David arose and stealthily cut off a corner of Saul’s robe. And afterward David’s heart struck him, because he had cut off a corner of Saul’s robe. He said to his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord’s anointed, to put out my hand against him, seeing he is the Lord’s anointed.”
1 Sam. 24:3b-6

David, as a symbol of Saul’s authority being taken away, cuts of one of the corners of Saul’s cloak. But that also means that he wishes Saul to be dead, as cutting off one of the tzitzit was what would be done at a burial.
Immediately after showing this, he repents and says that he could not do this thing, i.e. kill Saul. When David confronts Saul, Saul’s reply is surprising:

And now, behold, I know that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand.
1 Sam. 24:20

Saul recognizes that the authority was taken from him (and eventually, his life would be taken), but he also sees that David is righteous not to do himself what God has promised, but to let God do it.

References to the wings

With all of the symbolism of the wings of a tallit in mind, these passages give a new perspective:

He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler.
Ps. 91:4

The following verse shows a very common use of the tallit in prayer:

So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands. My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips, when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night; for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy. My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.
Ps. 63:4-8

The tallit’s corners symbolize Messiah’s wings, with which he covers His bride. What makes the tallit special is that it shows God’s authority, not ours. When using it, we symbolically put ourselves in His presence, under His authority.
The tallit also represents a small tent. Just like the original meaning of the Chuppa, it symbolises intimacy with the bridegroom:

Let me dwell in your tent forever! Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings!
Ps. 61:4

Many more psalms talk about the protection of God’s wings (e.g. Ps. 57:1, 36:7, 17:8).

Other New Testament occurrences

Sell your tallit

Yeshua is talking to his disciples a very short time before his crucifixion. Note that the word he uses here is ιματιον (himation, meaning garment). This is the same kind of garment used for prayer, and it would nowadays be a tallit. Therefore, I will substitute it:

And he said to them, “When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?” They said, “Nothing.” He said to them, “But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his tallit and buy one.”
Luke 22:35-36

In a way, Yeshua is mocking the people who are listening. Although he does want them to get a few swords for the fulfillment of a prophecy, he is not really suggesting to fight. Instead, he is also making a reference about their faith. He could be paraphrased as saying: Those of you who do not have faith in me, you who do not want to rely on prayer (what the tallit was used for), go and rely on your money and on your own strength (here using swords as weapons).15

End-times

When a person wears a tallit, the length is measured so that the tzitzit reach the thighs. Furthermore, the tzitzit are a complex form of writing using the numerical codes of the letters (as mentioned above). The passage about Yeshua coming back as Messiah the king (son of David) describes an interesting appearance of his garment:

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True […] He is clothed in a robe sprinkled in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. […] On his garment and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords.
Rev. 19:11a,13,16

Someone on the internet said about this passage: I recall reading the above passage and thinking to myself, ‘what kind of wild designer jeans is Jesus coming back wearing?’13 But Yeshua, being a Jew, would wear a tallit, and the tzitzit would be lying on His thighs.
The prophet Zechariah gives this image more context. During the reign of Yeshua on Earth (often called the millenium), people from all over the world will recognize those who belong to the Lord by the corners of a Jew’s cloak, where the tzitzit are.

Thus says the Lord of hosts: In those days ten men from the nations of every language shall take hold of the wings (כנף, kanaph) of a Jew, saying, “Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.”
Zech. 8:23

The sentence God is with you (אלהים עמכם) uses the same words as the sentence God is with us (אלהים עמנו). Abbreviated, these two words become one: Immanuel (עִמָּנוּאֵל). This, incidentally, is one of the names of Messiah (cf. Isaiah 7:14), whom the entire world will recognize. And Yeshua’s name was also Immanuel, as announced by the angel Gabriel (cf. Mat. 1:23).

Symbolism in the design

I personally am impressed by the design of modern-day tallits: they have stripes, a whole on each corner and and a tzitzit attached to it. The stripes , which are on a person’s back while wearing it, symbolize the stripes left by the lashes when Yeshua was flogged before his crucifixion. The 4 holes on each corner symbolize the holes left by the nails, and the tzitzit are whips.
And a tallit is to be used daily in prayers, reminding us of the one we have pierced (Zech. 12:10) through our wrong-doings. And yet, this is the mantle of glory, the mantle of Yeshua’s glory.

References

1 Encyclopaedia Judaica, Ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. Vol. 19. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. Zizit
2 Encyclopaedia Judaica, Ed. Michael Berenbaum and Fred Skolnik. Vol. 19. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2007. Tallit
3 Article on myjewishlearning.com
4 Entry in the Wiktionary: Kanaph
5 Jeff A. Benner, Video about the sun of righteousness
6 Article on the tallit blog
7 Joseph Gutmann, The Jewish Life Cycle, on Google Books
8 Abraham P. Bloch, The Biblical and historical background of Jewish customs and ceremonies (KTAV Publishing House, Inc., 1980), p. 32; on Google Books
9 Article on Chabad.org
10 David M. Rogers, 2006, article on Bibletruth.cc
11 Article on Keyboardsforchrist.com
12 Article on therefinersfire.org
13 Article on servantofmessiah.org
14 Article about the passover
15 Article by the divine coders
16 Article on Elisabethsyreministries.net
17 Article on Jewsforjesus.org
18 Website about the laws concerning ritual purity and cleanliness, chapter “General Considerations – Ritual Purity and Impurity”
19 Website about the laws concerning ritual purity and cleanliness, chapter “Impurity from Bodily Emissions”

Images
a A Tallit as worn during prayer, Wikisource
b The Persian sun-god Ahura Mazda, Livius.org
c Amherst Media, wedding photographers

Additional Links

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6 thoughts on “The wings of the Tallit

  1. Pingback: Hat Gott Flügel? | Die Kultur der Bibel

  2. Pingback: Kommt der Tallit im Alten Testament vor? | Die Kultur der Bibel

  3. Pingback: Was hat der Tallit mit Hochzeiten zu tun? | Die Kultur der Bibel

  4. Pingback: Warum berührte die Frau mit den Blutungen den Mantel von Jesus? | Die Kultur der Bibel

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