Posted on September 12, 2017 by Rabbi Jim Bennett
Upon entering a traditional synagogue on the evening of Yom Kippur, the solemn night of Kol Nidre, the haunting prayer of annulment of vows and forgiveness, one might be struck by something unusual. Unlike every other night of the Jewish year, when hardly a single tallit (prayer shawl) is seen in a traditional shul, Yom Kippur finds every traditionally observant Jewish adult man wrapped in his tallit. From small tallitot wrapped around the shoulders to huge “tallitot gedolot” engulfing the entire body, including the heads of many men, Yom Kippur is the one night of the year when the “tallis” comes out of storage to be seen after the sun sets. Throughout the rest of the year, the tallit is only worn in the morning service, particularly when the Torah is being read. Yom Kippur is different, even for us as a Reform synagogue.
For more than 100 years, members of most Reform congregations shunned the wearing of the tallit. The founders of Reform Judaism in Germany and in this country in the mid 19th century, rejected the tallit along with other ritual garb as archaic and foreign. In their desire to fit in and assimilate more with contemporary culture, they instead adopted the suitcoats and even tails of their protestant neighbors. Even into the late 20th century, the tallit remained somewhat foreign and perhaps unwelcome in many Reform synagogues.
In recent decades, however, more and more Jews, regardless of their gender, are choosing to explore the spiritual practice and meaning of wrapping oneself in a tallit for prayer. Like most synagogues today, we welcome the tallit and encourage its use. We believe that the act of wrapping oneself in the tzitzit, the unusual fringes of the tallit, can literally tie us to our ancestors, and create a physical separation between our ordinary feelings and those we seek in the act of prayer and worship.
Yom Kippur in particular invites this practice and marks a good place to begin. As we enter the space of the Day of Atonement, a day on which we are to imagine that our mortality is omnipresent and our human frailty at hand, we are invited to wrap ourselves in the tallit, seeking the comfort of tradition, of our people, to know that we are not alone. Wrapped up in these “swaddling blankets” of Jewish tradition, we can find security and faith. Knowing that we are in the same spiritual space as our ancestors, even dressed a bit like them, we realize that we are connected to them by faith and destiny.
The tallit also represents our Jewish obligations to observe mitzvot and bring justice and peace.
Mishkan Hanefesh, our new High Holy Day prayer book, reminds us that, “It is written in the Book of Job: ‘I clothed myself in righteousness and it robed me. Justice was my cloak and turban’” (29:14). This biblical metaphor suggests a life lived with integrity, in which one’s actions are ‘all of a piece,’ governed by an overarching principle. By wrapping ourselves in a garment whose fringes recall our Jewish obligations, we, too, try to ‘clothe’ ourselves in righteousness.”
The berachah, or blessing, for wearing a tallit says, “Thank you God for all of the mitzvot, and for the opportunity to wrap myself in the tzitzit.” Imagine generations who did not have that opportunity.
If you own a tallit, even if it is stored away in mothballs, I invite you to bring it to Temple and wear it on Yom Kippur evening. Try feeling it’s ancient embrace. If you wore one when you became a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, find it and bring it along. Remember the comfort it may have brought you. If you have a tallit that your father or grandfather wore, remember why they wore it and try it this year. If you need a tallit to wear, let me know and I’ll find one for you.
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