What is the Prayer Shawl/Tallit?
A Prayer Shawl is known in Hebrew as Tallit and henceforth we will refer to it as such. The Tallit is worn by Jewish males over their clothes.
When is the Tallit worn?
The Tallit is worn during the daily morning prayers in the week, on Shabbat and on festivals.
What does the Tallit look like?
The Tallit has the appearance of a large white blanket with a few black stripes running lengthwise on both the right and left side of the Tallit. There are knotted fringes attached to each of the four corners of the Tallit which are actually the whole reason for wearing the Tallit.
Where does the Tallit originate?
In the days of the Bible and even after, people would wear four-cornered garments and in the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy, the Jewish people are commanded to attach special fringes to the corners of their garments. The Oral Law later gave instructions on how to tie the fringes, who should wear them and when.
Already by Talmudic times the Tallit was referred to as a prayer shawl. Nowadays, it is not the accepted practice to wear four-cornered mantles so Jewish men wear Tallitot (plural of Tallit) so as to fulfill the commandment of placing fringes on the corners which, when looked at, are meant to remind one of G-d and His commandments.
In ancient times, the Tallit was also used as a garment, bed-sheet and burial shroud; even today Jewish men are often buried in their Tallit. There is proof that in the second half of the first century the Tallit was already beginning to change and was becoming more like the Tallit that we know today.
What customs are associated with the Tallit?
The Tallit is often given by a bride to her groom- in Sephardic circles, a Tallit will often be used as a canopy at the wedding and it is also common for a Sephardic groom to bless his new Tallit under the canopy. In some circles boys wear Tallitot once they reach thirteen- the age at which they are considered men in Jewish law. Others wear them only when they get married.
On a different note, Jewish people are buried when dressed in shrouds which are covered by a Tallit after one of the fringes has been cut off.
Tallitot are also worn during the Selichot prayers in Ashkenazic communities by the prayer leader. On Yom Kippur, a Tallit is worn from the Kol Nidre prayer until after the Aravit service.