There is a lot happening this week with our Torah reading. This is Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat we pause to remember Amalek and those, throughout history who have hated Jews for no apparent reason. It was enough that we were vulnerable and different, that made attacks on the weakest and infirm possible. On this Shabbat we remember that the only real recourse we have against those who have this causeless hatred of our people, is to be on our guard and always be prepared to do battle against them, as Joshua does in our Maftir and Saul does in the Haftara.
This is also the Shabbat before Purim. As Shabbat ends tonight, we will gather not only to read the Megillah but to also dress in costume and let ourselves engage in all manner of silliness. All too soon it will be Pesach and we will have some serious religious work to do, but for now, we can dress up and act out all in the name of good religious fun.
But, in the plain vanilla world of the Parsha, we had a Torah reading that would be greatly appreciated by those observing Fashion Week in the Garment District in New York City. Last week the top models in the country walked in shows sponsored by the greatest fashion houses in this country and around the world. Buyers from all over came to see what was in style for the coming year and begin to make the purchases that will show up in showrooms and department stores this coming fall. In the Torah, we see God as fashion designer, setting out the patterns for the clothing for the High Priest and for all the others who would officiate in the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary that is being constructed.
Why all the fuss about clothing? Because clothing does make a difference. If you suddenly come across some rather large teens in a dark alley, you may feel afraid until you realize they are dressed in the uniform of Boy Scouts. If you are feeling ill, a nurse in uniform can go a long way in helping you begin to feel better. I was in the airport in Atlanta with thousands of people walking in every direction. Suddenly, a group of soldiers entered the main hall and everyone stopped what they were doing to applaud the soldiers, thanking them for putting their lives on the line and defending our country. Clothing can and does make a big difference in how we look at others and how they look at us.
And it applies right down to Temple Emeth here in Delray Beach. It applies to the way we dress for prayer in synagogue. It always fascinates me that many Jews make such a big deal over head coverings when, according to Jewish law, there is no Halacha, no law at all that commands men to have their heads covered. In fact, Jewish law only requires women who are married to have their heads covered out of modesty. Somewhere in the thirteenth century Jews started to wear special hats that eventually evolved into Kipot. We don’t know when or where the custom started. Some scholars suspect that kipot evolved out of the special “Jews Hats” that some medieval communities forced their Jews to wear. Whatever the start of kipot may have been, it has become almost a standard of Jewish practice today and no man should pray without a kipah on his head.
The only real Jewish garment for prayer is the Tallit. A Tallit is any rectangular piece of cloth with special fringes at each of the four corners. The fringes consist of 8 strings and 5 knots and are called Tzitzit. The gematria of the term “tzitzit” equals 600 and if you add the strings and knots you get 613, the number of Mitzvot. We wear the Tallit so we can look at the tzitzit and remember to do all the mitzvot. Seeing the tzitzit is so important that we do not require a Tallit at night, since we cannot see the fringes in the dark!
Some of you know that I am a big supporter of women also wearing a Tallit. There is no Jewish requirement for women to wear a Tallit. It is one of the positive mitzvot that must be done at a particular time, so women are exempt from this mitzvah; exempt, but not forbidden to wear it. The exemption stems from a time when women’s time was not their own. They had responsibilities to the home, the family and to their chores that came before other time bound mitzvot. In Jewish history, there are not many women who chose to wear a Tallit, but there were some who did so, and nobody told them they could not wear it.
Since the middle of the 19th century, when modern denominations of Judaism began, there was a strong backlash against any changes in Jewish Law. Somehow it became fixed that women should not wear a Tallit. In studying the history of this, it has always seemed to me that it was a way to keep women away from serious involvement in ritual matters. They were not allowed to wear a Tallit and without a Tallit they could not lead or participate in services. So, for over 100 years women were kept away from serious religious practice.
If you ask an orthodox Jew about this kind of segregation of the sexes, he might say (I am less sure of what orthodox women might say) that women have their own special role to play in Judaism. Women’s spirituality is based in the home and men’s spirituality is based in the synagogue. They are two equal but separate kinds of faith. I feel that in a modern world where men should be doing more to help raise a family and do the housework, then women should also be free to express their spiritual feelings in synagogue, on an equal footing with the men. And that means women should be free to wear a Tallit.
What complicates this matter is that women are exempt from the mitzvah of Tallit. It would be unfair to suddenly “require” women to wear a Tallit in shul. A requirement such as that would instantly create a whole new category of sinners in Judaism. It is not going to happen. There is no reason a woman should be required to wear a Tallit to come on the bima for an aliyah or to lead the service. If a woman should choose to wear a Tallit, then that is a decision that needs to be made with much thought and consideration.
Tallit is not a ritual that can be taken lightly. If a woman should want to wear a Tallit she should commit to it for a serious length of time. It is not something one wears for a special occasion but then opts out the following week. It takes time to get used to wearing a Tallit, and to feel the difference in prayer as one gets over the sense that “everyone is looking at me as if I am strange for doing this”. In many cases, women have chosen not to wear the same kind of a Tallit that a man would wear. To be a proper spiritual garment, it should, like a man’s Tallit, reflect our feelings of individuality in prayer. Men may personalize the kind of Tallit they wear, the color of the Tallit and the kind of Atarah, the neckband that can personalize their Tallit. Women today have their own types of Tallitot, made of more feminine material, in softer colors and reflecting better their spiritual needs. I have seen women make their own Tallitot, sewing the hems and tying their own fringes as a way of connecting with the meaning behind the ritual. I have seen grandmothers work on a Tallit with their granddaughters, incorporating the colors and style of each one into the new Tallit. I have seen women ask close friends and mentors to help tie one of the tzitzit to give that corner added significance. Under the atarah of the Tallit my sister wears, is a bowtie that our father used to wear. When she wears her Tallit, she is reminded not just of the mitzvot, but of our father, who taught all of us the meaning of the mitzvot.
If you are sitting near a woman who is wearing a Tallit today, ask her about the Tallit. There is often a story behind how it was made and why she chooses to wear it. I ask those women who are regulars here at Shabbat services to think about the spiritual influences in your life, and if there is a way to translate that learning into a Tallit that you might be proud to wear. Ask in the Sisterhood Gift Shop if they can find some examples of women’s Tallitot that you can see to get an idea about what a Tallit in your life might mean to you. What would the men in your life say if you wanted to wear a Tallit? What would your daughter say? What would your granddaughters say? Contemplate what a Tallit would mean in your life and think about what your mother might say, if you were to tell her? Many of the women in the last generation before us would have loved to contemplate what we are considering but it was just too far beyond their reach. We live in different times and I suspect they would be proud of how their daughters have chosen to express themselves Jewishly.
And as for the men, who ARE required to wear a Tallit in shul, there is no reason you have to settle for the plain small Tallitot that we keep in our lobby. Even a man’s Tallit can be an expression of his spiritual feelings and his own personal spiritual journey. Ask your children and grandchildren to think about what kind of a Tallit might reflect their appreciation for the spiritual guidance you have given them over the years.
The Tallit is a very powerful and meaningful ritual in Judaism, as much today as it was in past generations. The only difference is that we can extend it to the women who now pray and study by our side. I ask our women here today, don’t say, “Why should I wear a Tallit?” consider instead, “What could a Tallit mean to me?” Start that discussion, with your family, your friends and your Rabbi. It could be the beginning of an important spiritual journey and a closer relationship with God.
What we wear does matter. Think about it and follow your heart toward God. May our awareness of the Mitzvot lead us to God, and may we place before us a reminder of where our faith is taking us as we say…
AMEN AND SHABBAT SHALOM