My husband was asked at shul yesterday what the word tallit means. We all know what a tallit is, that four-cornered flowing garment of infinite design and color that anchors the mitzvah of tzitzit, fringes.
But what does it mean? Where does the word come from? What are its roots?
It turns out, not surprisingly, that we don’t really know. The word itself never appears in the Bible. The first time we see it is in the Talmud. But there are two best guesses about where it comes from, both based on elements of nature.
The first suggests that tallit is a derivative of the word talal, meaning shade. In a world of tanning salons, bronzers and beach bums; of places filled with forests and tall buildings and obscured skies, it is hard to imagine the passion for shade.
But Israel is a place of relentless sun. Especially in the summertime. It is not only hot, it is dry. No, or few, clouds blunt the fierce solar rays. Day after day the sky is a brilliant blue, and the sun a stinging orb.
In biblical Israel, shade was a rare and precious commodity. In the settlements, the low buildings could offer some relief. But in the fields and along the roads, shade was elusive.
Years ago, my family and I were walking around Jerusalem on a typical summer’s day. It was close to noon, so even the shadows that cities often cast were thin, waning and few. In an alley in the old city, we lit upon a long sliver of shade, not more than four inches deep, huddling against the side of a building. So for a few blessed minutes, we too huddled in its midst, flattening ourselves against the stuccoed wall.
Imagine then what it must be like to walk along the way with the naked sun beating down upon you, with nothing save the distant, desired, deferred dusk, to ultimately offer relief.
In most ancient traditions, the sun was a god, harsh, powerful, dangerous and relentless. How fascinating that in Judaism, God is our shade, soft, comforting, protecting, restorative.
A tallit is measure of God’s tender care, a sheltering fabric woven by God’s courtiers, the seraphim, wrapping around us, shielding us from the harsh rays of the day we are about to enter. That is if the root of tallit is shade.
The other option is that it comes from tal, meaning dew. In summer months, when rain is far away and water is scarce, dew is the elixir that keeps life nourished. It was seen as almost magical, as stealth moisture slaking the thirst of the earth under the cover of night, dropping imperceptibly as a gift from heaven. It leaves as mysteriously as it comes. But its gifts remain to buoy us and gird us through the day.
So, like the dew, the tallit covers us in refreshing nourishment, ever so briefly in the early hours of the morning.
Either way, we are wrapped in the nurturing and nourishing folds of nature, both shade and dew seen as direct gifts of God. What better way is there to start each day?