By Mottel Baleston

"Once it is understood that believers today are not under obligation of
Mosaic Law, . . . confusions and disputes are answered."

If you’ve ever visited the most holy site in the Jewish world today, the Kotel, the Western Wall in Jerusalem, or have even seen photos, you could not help but be impressed by the visual sight of religious devotion. Dozens of Orthodox Jewish men wrapped in their long striped prayer shawls, rocking back and forth and praying at that place sometimes known as the Wailing Wall.

The prayer shawl that they wear is known in Hebrew as a Tallit. A traditional Tallit is rectangular and has stripes of either blue or black, along with specially tied tassels at the 4 corners. The Hebrew word for those tassels is Tzitzit, and since they are commanded in scripture, they are the real reason that the Tallit is worn.

As believers in Messiah Jesus who desire to be familiar with the Jewish context of the New Testament narrative, this is something basic to our understanding of that world. Let’s look at the core verse in Mosaic Law with the command:

The LORD said to Moses, "Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner. And it shall be a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commandments of the LORD, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to play the harlot. ”

~ Numbers 15:37-39 ~

The command is repeated in summery form in Deuteronomy 22:12.

We need to distinguish between two types of Tallit that are worn by Jewish men:
- The Tallit Gadol is the familiar prayer shawl which is worn around the shoulders. This is supposed to be worn by all Jewish men participating in certain religious activities such as a Torah service in a synagogue.
- The Tallit Katan is a light vest which is worn under the outer garment. This vest is worn almost exclusively by Orthodox Jewish men, those who are committed to Mosaic Law observance. The Tallit Katan is worn at all times during waking hours, not just during religious ceremonies.

What they both have in common is that they have the Tzitzit tassels tied on each of the four corners of the garment, which is the focus of the Biblical command.

You may have noticed that we keep saying that the Tallit is a command for men, but have not mentioned women. If asked about this, the standard Orthodox Jewish response is to say that while women are obligated to not transgress the negative commands of Mosaic Law, i.e. the “thou shalt nots”, they are not obligated to abide by the positive commands of Torah, the “thou shalls."

In recent years the Conservative and Reform branches of Judaism, the centrist and liberal movements respectively, under pressure, have permitted the wearing of any Jewish religious article to both men and women, whether it be the Tallit Prayer Shawl, the Kippah head covering or the Tefillin, leather Scripture boxes worn on the arm and head.

Going back to the passage in Numbers, the command to wear the tassels was intended to remind the people of Israel that they were a unique possession of the Lord, they were in a covenant relationship to Him and were obligated to keep the commands of Mosaic Law. In modern terms, it would be like going around with a small Bible worn on a string around your neck.

Because the Jewish people were the only ones wearing such tassels on the corners of their garments, they would certainly be reminded of their unique status and obligation. Additionally, the tassels on the four corners are not random, but rather are several inches long and according to rabbinic tradition are tied in a certain specific pattern. The instructions for the intricate pattern results in a total of 613 loops and knots when all four tassels are added up, the same number of laws, 613, in the Mosaic Law.

The Numbers 15 passage also instructs that within each tassel there was to be a cord of blue. In the ancient world the color blue as a dye was rare and expensive. While there is some dispute, the consensus is that the dye was derived from a crushed snail that is native to the Mediterranean Sea. Because of the dispute regarding the origin of the dye, most Jewish authorities directed that the Tzitzit simply be white. In recent years the snail that produces the dye was rediscovered in the waters off Israel and some Orthodox Jews have resumed inserting the blue cord, while some Messianic Jews have used a blue cord in their Tzitzit for years.

As a Jewish man born under the law (Galatians 4:4), Messiah Yeshua lived during the Dispensation of Mosaic Law, and He voluntarily subjected himself to all the provisions of that law. He would have worn the Tallit Katan at all times, with the likelihood that His was of a long robe length, with the Tzitzit tassels below the knee. We see this illustrated in the passage where Jesus was passing through a crowd and a woman reached out to touch the fringe of his garment:

Suddenly, a woman who had a flow of blood for twelve years came from behind and touched the fringe of His garment. For she said to herself, “If only I may touch His garment, I shall be made well.”

~ Matthew 9:20 ~

Some translations use the word "hem," but a better rendering is "fringe" as in the Tzitzit fringe on the four corners of the Tallit that Yeshua was wearing. She believed the Jewish tradition of that day that if one touched the Tzitzit of a truly holy man, they would be healed.

The next verse gives the result:

But Jesus turning and seeing her said, “Daughter, take courage; your faith has made you well.” At once the woman was made well.

The woman was healed by her genuine faith that Yeshua was the Holy Son of God, not by a tradition of the Tzitzit.

So yes, that means Messiah Jesus wore a Tallit. Again, it must be remembered that He voluntarily wore them during the period in which Mosaic Law was the “rule of life” for Jewish believers. Believers today are no longer under the obligation of mandatory Mosaic Law keeping, which came to an end when the Dispensation of Mosaic Law ended at the cross. (See Ariel Messianic Bible Study #137 for a discussion of this.) This reinforces an additional lesson: simply because Jesus did something during the time He was on earth is not equivalent to that action being a commandment for believers today. This has become a disputed issue in parts of the Messianic Movement as well as the Hebrew Roots movement, segments of which teach a current obligation to keep all of these physical items in Mosaic Law. They pressure the doubtful with the line: “If Jesus did these things, shouldn’t you?”

Once it is understood that believers today are not under obligation of Mosaic Law, these confusions and disputes are answered.

So that brings us to an interesting point: Messiah Yeshua kept Mosaic Law as seen in the two passages above. Yet in Matthew 23:5 He cautions against the misuse of those fringes by saying that they had. In this way their observance of this commandment would be noticed and seen by all. That is why Messiah charges them with putting on a religious show for appearance’s sake.

Thus, we are reminded of the verse: Man looks at the outward appearance, but God looks upon the heart (1 Samuel 16:7).

While I dearly value my Jewish heritage and love and practice the culture (1 Cor. 9:20), I need to ask: Do I ever do things for the sake of religious appearance? Do you? It’s a sobering question we must ask ourselves. As believers in Messiah Yeshua we know that He has promised that He will write his word and his will upon hearts that are soft, hearts that are truly yielded to him. Let’s not broaden the straps of our phylacteries and do things for the sake of religious appearance, but let’s be yielded so He can accomplish His will through our lives.

Tallit: The Jewish Prayer Shawl
~ a messianic study ~
© Mottel Baleston, 2016


Mottel Baleston is the AMC Board Secretary, the director of Messengers Messianic Jewish Outreach of New Jersey, and a teacher at Ariel’s School of Messianic Jewish Studies. He served for 16 years as Messianic Rabbi or Associate Rabbi at Beth Messiah Congregation in Livingston, New Jersey, and is presently advising a new Messianic congregation set to launch in New York City in late 2016. For much more about Mottel and his present activities, please go to

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