By Jane E. Herman
“The Eternal said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Eternal and observe them…”
In this week’s parashah, Sh’lach L’cha (Numbers 13:1-15:41), a few verses toward the end remind me about the first time I wore a tallit, which was not a part of my bat mitzvah experience. In fact, I was well into adulthood before I even considered wearing one.
Far from home during a bleak period in my life two decades ago, I attended monthly, student-led Shabbat services in the lobby of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Los Angeles campus, where it seemed I was the only one not wearing a tallit. When I came east for Passover that year, my “home rabbi” at the time, at my request, instructed me about how to put one on along with the blessing to recite. I returned to Los Angeles feeling more Jewishly literate, and wrapped in a tallit borrowed from the rack in the lobby, I was infinitely more comfortable during services.
Fast forward to 2010, when I inherited a silk tallit my mother had made and wore regularly.
During those first months after her death, I took it with me to and from minyan each week. I liked having it close, but the lingering scent of Clinique’s “Happy,” my mother’s signature perfume hidden in its folds, made it too painful to unfurl or wear. At the time, Larry Kaufman, z”l, a friend to both my mother and me, wisely pointed out:
“[F]or many the significance lies not in the fringes (double meaning intentional) but in the wrapping. Remember that wrapping a boo-boo with a bandage is the first step toward the cure. The fringes are meant to remind us of the One who gives us direction. In your case, the fringes are also a reminder of the one who directed you in more ways than just toward the One.”
Another friend told me, “A tallit is not just a prayer shawl…it’s a hug as well,” to which Larry Kaufman replied:
“A tallit is more than a prayer shawl and more than a hug. I wear mine as a symbol of connection with k’lal Yisrael, across space and time. That symbolism has relatively little to do with whether I’m wearing a tallit off the race at the synagogue or have brought one of my own. The garment is only a thing, but it’s a thing designed to draw us close to whatever we want to be drawn close to.”
Over the years, I’ve come to wear my (mom’s) tallit on specific, “special” occasions—mostly during the High Holidays, when I chant Torah. I also wore it for an aliyah at a cousin’s bat mitzvah a number of years ago. My father had the aliyah after mine but had ascended the bimah without one. Without missing a beat, I took mine off and draped it across his shoulders. Somehow, that gesture brought my mom fully into the sanctuary. Just as my dad and I shared in wearing her tallit for our aliyot, so, too, did it evoke her presence to share in our family simcha.
Earlier this week, we observed my mother’s eleventh yahrzeit. Although I don’t wear her tallit often, when I do, I sing a little louder and pray a bit more deeply. Its silky hug draws me in, close to her and her endless love for us—her family—and for the Jewish living, learning, and celebrating that shaped every facet of her life.
Jane E. Herman is the senior writer at JCC Association of North America.