Friday, December 18, 2009

The Minor, Trivial Biblical Stuff, Part 1: Of Tallitot in Jesus' Time

Just as I have mentioned in this thread over at Catholic Answers Forums, by "minor stuff" I mean the small, 'trivial' things related to the Bible that never make it in serious high discussion - things such as the Israelites' houses or clothing habits or other such mundane things. The nitpicker that I am, I shall also critique some popular depictions of Biblical life.

You've probably noticed it by now, but this series will be taken from my posts in the CAF thread. Still, I plan to revise some things and to write some blog-original parts along the way - which I shall later post in the thread. ;)

Without further ado:

Anyone who has watched his fair share of recent Jesus movies or looked at some recent Biblical art would note that there has been a surge as of late to emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus and His contemporaries - countering the blond, white Jesus that characterized a number of Biblical art of centuries ago (IMO this is a good thing). One of the ways in which this is emphasized is by showing one of the more recognizable symbols of Judaism - the prayer shawl, aka tallit (Hebrew) or tallis (Yiddish). This of course led to the Pharisees, often painted as holier-than-thou, play-acting legalists scrupulous about the Law, being shown to tout their own tallitot, as in the picture at right.

This might come as news for many people, but from a historical point of view, it is actually more likely that the tallit as we know it today developed AFTER Jesus' time; i.e. showing modern-day-ish tallitot in a 1st-century context is an anachronism.

First of all, we must first see why the tallit exists in the first place. In Numbers 15:38-39 and Deuteronomy 22:12, the Israelites are commanded to add tassels to the "four corners of [their] garments" as a remembrance of God's commands; the tallit is a way to keep this in an age when most articles of clothing do not have four corners. Ever notice the tassels at the edges of a tallit? They are the tzitzot (sing. tzitzit).

Next, we shall examine the items of clothing at the time of Jesus. Based from what we know, clothing of the period basically consisted of a tunic (Hebrew haluq, Greek chiton) and a large cloak (Hebrew tallit or me'il, Greek himation) draped over and around it, both either made of linen or wool.

Despite the popularity of depicting 1st-century Jews as being dressed very much like Arabs, evidence points out that there was actually not much difference from what other peoples in the Empire were wearing at the time. Surviving fragments of tunics we have, for example, had clavi, a pair of narrow vertical stripes that ran down the length of the tunic. These stripes were actually one of the instantly recognizable characteristics of Roman-period tunics. Many depictions of Romans usually depict clavi running down their tunics (higher-class Romans sometimes dyed them in certain colors to indicate their status, such as purple). The clavi proved to be popular enough that it stayed in fashion for some time. If you've ever seen a deacon's dalmatic and noticed stripes, know that that is a descendant of the clavi.

(As an aside, open-air museum Nazareth Museum apparently did their research well here; many of their tunics have the clavi! Very good for them.)

To get back on the subject, one shape that cloaks took were rectangular - four corners; just the perfect item to place the tzitzot in! It is even said that these were one of the ways to recognize a Jew in public at the time - a Jewish cloak would have fringes on each of its corners.

It is opined however that not all Jews at the time wore tzitzot on their mantles, as non-Jewish writers do not mention them and no fringes were attached to the cloaks found in the Cave of Letters (though it is believed that tzitzot were removed from these before burial). It could be that only the sages/rabbis and the observant, and perhaps even a number of other common folk actually wore them - the obligation was not considered to be universal. Others, such as urban Jews who have 'blended into' Greco-Roman culture, would have completely forgone this (one tradition exempts the Roman toga and other such gentile clothing from the commandment). Indeed, one of the most noticeable things in the frescoes which adorn the 3rd-century Dura-Europos synagogue in Syria is that while some of the clothing are pretty much identical to just about most people wore at the time (clavi'd tunic+mantle) almost no one is clearly depicted as having tzitzot on his cloak. See for example the depiction of the worship of the golden calf at left.

Of course, one main difference between the tallit-cloak of old and the tallit-shawl of today is that the tallit today is just something worn only on special occasions, like prayer (though Orthodox Jews do have the tallit katan designed to be worn under one's clothes). Cloaks in ancient times, however, were part of normal dress; it was the overgarment, protecting you from the weather. It is taken off at house or at work, but at other times you wear it lest you be considered 'naked'; it could even double as a blanket at night (hence the Mosaic law requiring the return of a cloak taken as a pledge before sunset; Exodus 22:26).

So how did we come by the shawl-ish tallit?
The tallit as it is now serves a purpose: so that the commandment of tzitzot would never vanish from Jewish life in the absence of four-cornered garments.

In the Talmudic period (ca. 200-500 AD), in both Palestine and Babylonia, it was apparently the custom to wear a cloak with tzitzot during prayer (note that we must however distinguish between 'mantling' and 'covering the head'). This is especially exceptional for Babylonia because clothing customs there at the time did not have mantles; the basic items of clothing in the Sassanid Era consisted of tunics and trousers. This in part may have contributed to the view of the tallit as a special, ceremonial garment.

As centuries passed and fashions changed, blanket-like cloaks completely fell out of fashion and public wearing of the tassels disappeared. There were even concerns that the commandment might be forgotten and be lost to oblivion and thus it was advised that Jews should purposely wear a cloak-like garment to necessitate the attachment of the tzitzot. The size of the tallit increasingly shrunk as the years went by, giving us the 'prayer shawl' we all recognize today.

To sum: it is correct to say that 1st-century Jews wore tallit, however it is incorrect and anachronistic to say that they wore 'prayer shawls'.

Ever wondered what the stripes on the modern tallit signifies?

The commandment requires "a thread of blue" (ptil tekhelet), said by the rabbis to be made out of an animal called hilazon, be included in the tassels. As time passed, the use of the blue thread gradually dwindled. One source attributes it as due to the Romans seizing control of the dyeing process (the tekhelet dye itself was rare, which made it very expensive). The story goes that Romans made it hard for the Jews to obtain tekhelet with edicts limiting its use to the upper-class and its production to imperial dye-houses, driving the Jewish dyers underground. As a result of this many substitutes - such as the cheaper indigo dye - sprung up. The Bar-Kochba period dyed yarn found at the Judean desert were probably such a counterfeit. Eventually however, the source of the dye was lost and as a result Jews since then have worn only plain white tassels on their tzitzit. The stripes on prayer shawls, often black, but also blue or purple, are therefore believed to symbolize the lost tekhelet.

Are there any mentions of the tzitzot in the Gospels?

Jesus directly mentioned the tassels in Matthew 23:5: "[the Pharisees] make their phylacteries wide and their edges/fringes (Greek kraspeda) long", a reference to the fact that at that time, the length of the tzitzot were not fixed and thus could be of various lengths depending on the person - those who were 'strict' in observance of the law favored larger ones hanging on their cloaks.
Another possible mention of tzitzot is when the woman with the issue of blood touched "the edge/fringe", the kraspedon, of Jesus' cloak (Matthew 9:20).


Samual said...

In Jewish community the tallit has its own importance of wearing.They are usually very light and inexpensive.It is most common for a Jewish male to begin wearing the tallit at the age of 13 when celebrating his Bar-

David Gabrieli said...

In Israel, wearing the classic wool tallit is a traditional custom on the occasion of Jewish festivals and functions.