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Tassels and Corners

A prayer shawl is called ‘tallit’ in Hebrew, and we will look at it in terms of our Hebraic Heritage especially looking at both Hebrew and Greek Scriptures, the Old and New Testaments.

Is it Biblical?

Is the prayer shawl biblical? – well, as we will see, there is one aspect in which it does fulfil a biblical commandment.

Numbers 15:37 and 38 tells us that

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.

Tassel here is the word ‘tzitzit’ in Hebrew, an unusual sounding word. In some translations the word ‘fringe’ is used and in others ‘tassel’.

It is only used four times in the Hebrew Scriptures, here twice in verse 38, once in verse 39 which we will look at shortly, and another time in Ezekiel 8:3 where it is usually translated as a lock of hair.

He put out the form of a hand and took me by a lock of my head, and the Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and brought me in visions of God to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the gateway of the inner court that faces north, where was the seat of the image of jealousy, which provokes to jealousy.

You may see Strict Orthodox Jewish men and boys having like a tassel of hair grown from the temple area on each side of the head. These are called peyot in Hebrew and are like sidelocks or ringlets.

The Reason for wearing Tassels

So we notice that there is not a commandment in Scripture to wear a prayer shawl as such. The commandment is to wear tzitzit or tassels on a garment and there is a particular reason for doing this. Look at verse 39. ‘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 whore after.’

Pretty strong language and we would understand this as applying to the sinful nature of all of us.

The reason for the tzitzit then is to remember the commandments, to do them, to be obedient and not to sin. What is the result of obedience? – fruit. The word tzitzit in Hebrew comes from a root word which can also mean flower, blossom, or flourish.

What often appears before the fruit? – blossom. Isaiah 27:6 ‘In days to come Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom (tzoots) and put forth shoots and fill the whole world with fruit’.

The Lord wants you to blossom and produce fruit. Jesus said to his disciples and therefore also to us in John 15:1-2 –

"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.

Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.

Fruit is the proof that we are His disciples. Be aware that pruning is also an essential part of bearing fruit. Sometimes we go through difficult times but God uses these so that we decrease and He increases in order for us to bear more fruit.

The reason for wearing tassels continues in Numbers 15, verses 40 and 41 -

So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I am the LORD your God.

So the purpose of the tallit, the prayer shawl, is really to bear the tassels as commanded by God in Numbers 15. The tassels at the four corners of the modern day prayer shawl are tied into knots using a complex procedure with number-related symbolic meaning and I’m not going to go into that because it is quite complex and varied but the numbers add up to 613 which the rabbis say is the total number of commandments in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. This numbering is not based on Scripture but on Rabbinic Gematria or numerology.

The Colour of the Prayer Shawl

The other significant part of the prayer shawl is the colour. Almost all tallit will be white and either blue or black. Black is for mourning and is a reminder to the Jewish people of the loss of the Temple. Most are coloured with blue and this refers to the single blue cord that was commanded in our passage. This is known as the tekhelet which is translated blue.

This same Hebrew word translated blue is used in reference to the clothing of the High Priest and the material used in the Tabernacle and the Temple. When the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek in the Septuagint the word used was ‘hyakinthos’ or hyacinth in English.

Now the blue dye that was used, according to the Talmud, is a special dye that comes from the blood of a shellfish or snail called chilazon, which is found only in the Mediterranean Sea.

When the Jews were scattered from Israel, they lost the use of this special blue thread for many centuries.

More recently, with the return of the Jewish people to Israel, some rabbis claim to have found this shellfish using its description in the Talmud, and now some prayer shawls can be found sporting the blue thread in the tassels. There is however a huge debate about this which has been going on now for many years.

What we can say is that Blue is the most popular colour for prayer shawl embroidery because the biblical command of the tassels also specifies, "let them attach a cord of blue to each corner" (Numbers 15:38). However, some prayer shawls have black stripes instead of blue because some rabbis have taught it would be improper to try to duplicate the unknown blue.

The Messiah and the Tassels

Now do the tassels have anything to do with Messiah?

Well I believe the colour blue is significant. Blue represents heaven, the heavens, the sky and speaks of divinity. Why had there to be a one blue cord on each tzitzit? It reminds us that only one would be worthy. Only one who would come down from heaven and would be enabled to fully keep all the commandments, to fully keep the Torah, Messiah Jesus, the sinless Saviour!

The Wings

Now there is also another connection. The other key word in the Numbers passage is where the tassel or tzitzit is to be placed and in your bibles in verse 38 of Numbers 15 it probably says on the corners or borders of their garments. The Hebrew word for corner is ‘kanaph’. But it has a much more enhanced meaning than merely a corner or border.

This word first appears in the creation account of Genesis chapter 1 verse 21 when it refers to God creating the birds – the Hebrew is ‘oaph’ and ‘kanaph’, oaph means fowl and kanaph means winged. Kanaph appears 109 times in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the majority of cases it is translated as wings, so when it is used here in Numbers and translated as corner or border we miss that connection with wing. Why is this important? It makes us understand with deeper meaning a Messianic Prophecy in Malachi 4:2 But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in His wings’.

It is that same Hebrew word ‘kanaph’ and it can also refer to garments.

We may have read that Malachi verse and thought about say an eagle, or another large bird and relating ourselves to come under the protection of His wings and that’s not necessarily wrong – look at Psalm 17:8

‘Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings (kanaph)

In Ezekiel 16:8 where the Lord is speaking to unfaithful Jerusalem we see the word related to a garment:

"When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment (kanaph) over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord GOD, and you became mine.”

Also in Zechariah 8:23 -

Thus says the LORD of hosts: In those days ten men from the nations of every tongue shall take hold of the robe (kanaph) of a Jew, saying, 'Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.'"

We see a similar use in Ruth 3:7-9

And when Boaz had eaten and drunk, and his heart was merry, he went to lie down at the end of the heap of grain. Then she (Ruth) came softly and uncovered his feet and lay down. At midnight the man was startled and turned over, and behold, a woman lay at his feet!

He said, "Who are you?" And she answered, "I am Ruth, your servant. Spread your wings (Kanaph) over your servant, for you are a redeemer."

Here Ruth is placing herself under Boaz’s authority, the authority of her ‘goel’, her redeemer. He had already said to Ruth in Ruth 2:11-12

But Boaz answered her, "All that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband has been fully told to me, and how you left your father and mother and your native land and came to a people that you did not know before. The LORD repay you for what you have done, and a full reward be given you by the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings (kanaph) you have come to take refuge!"

Would Jesus have worn a prayer shawl?

So would Jesus have worn a prayer shawl? We do not know how long the prayer shawl has been in existence so we cannot say for sure and there is no commandment to wear a prayer shawl. What we can say with confidence is that He would definitely have worn a garment with tassels, tzitzit, as He kept the Torah perfectly. He would have obeyed the commandment to wear this. So I said earlier – is the Prayer Shawl biblical? No, in the sense that there is not mentioned a garment which is used for prayer, but yes in relation to the tassels, the tzitzit.

New Testament References

Is tzitzit mentioned in the New Testament? Several times.

In the Septuagint the Hebrew word tzitzit is translated into Greek as ‘kraspedon’. So, where in the Greek Scriptures, the second part of our bibles, do we find the word kraspedon?

We find it in Luke 8:43 - 48

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. And Jesus said, "Who was it that touched me?" When all denied it, Peter said, "Master, the crowds surround you and are pressing in on you!" But Jesus said, "Someone touched me, for I perceive that power has gone out from me." And when the woman saw that she was not hidden, she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed. And he said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace."

We find kraspedon in verse 44 (highlighted above) translated as border or fringe. In the equivalent passage in Matthew it is sometimes translated as hem.

Also look at Mark 6:56 -

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.

So we see that these fringes, tassels, are to remind us of the commandments. They also now, through Jesus, remind us of more than the commandments. We see in these passages how the fringes speak of faith, faith in Messiah to heal.

They can also speak of prayer – James wrote that ‘the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.’ James 5:15

We can therefore come to the Lord and touch the fringes of His garment in a spiritual sense.

Tassels and Holiness

Now why tassels? Why could they not just touch any part of His garment to be made whole, to be healed? Well maybe they could have but it is because those tassels represent the commandments and we know that Jesus kept all the commandments which meant what exactly? Go back to Numbers 15:40 ‘So you shall remember and do all my commandments, and be holy to your God.’ Paul said of the Torah that it is ‘holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.’ Romans 7:12. This reminds us of the Holiness of God, His purity, His being set apart from all others for a particular divine purpose and that purpose was redemption, salvation. There was great significance in people touching the fringes or tassels of Jesus’ garment in order to be made whole. Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew) was and is holy. Recall what the angel said to Mary (Miriam in Hebrew) "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.’

We see here the purity and holiness of Messiah and this would be my title for this teaching – the purity and holiness of Messiah. As we came to Him it was as if, in a spiritual sense, we took hold of the tzitzit of His garment and were healed, we were saved and redeemed.

John the Baptist said that Jesus would baptise with the Holy Spirit and with fire and without the Holy Spirit, we cannot be holy. He is the One sent from God who enables us to keep the commandments, who enables us to be holy. ‘But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.’ John 14:26

We need to be full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.

The tassels of the Prayer Shawl remind us therefore of

1. The commandments

2. Faith

3. Holiness; and most importantly -

4. Jesus Himself

Let’s be true disciples of Jesus, obeying the commandments, being holy, being full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, blossoming and bearing much fruit for the King and His Kingdom. We trust that some of our fruit here will relate to Israel and the Jewish people as we pray for their blessing, their protection and salvation.

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