Does a tallit prayer shawl have to have stripes?

tallit Jewish prayer shawl examplesStripes are not required for a tallit, although they are strongly traditional in some communities. In Ashkenazi Jewish communities –communities that trace their roots to Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages—prayer shawls traditionally have black or blue stripes. The stripes call back to the blue dye used to color one of the tzitzit strings in ancient times. In Sephardic Jewish communities, whose Medieval roots lie in Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and the Middle East, tallits are traditionally all white.

If you’re making a tallit and want stripes, you’ll have difficulty finding a suitable fabric with stripes to buy. Not only do the stripes on fabrics tend to run in the wrong direction for a tallit, but also because tallit stripes tend to be positioned only along the far edges of the garment rather than throughout.

So if you want stripes, what can you do? If you weave, you could weave your own design, of course, and I think we’ll see more people weaving their tallits as that craft’s popularity grows.

If you don’t weave, and that includes most of us, you can add stripes with embroidery, applique, fabric paint, inset strips of fabric, or other technique.

tallit atarah with silk paint stripes and Star of DavidAn option I like is to add stripes to the atarah, the neckpiece, rather than to the tallit fabric itself. Because the atarah is smaller and narrower than the full tallit, you can embellish it in less time or you can take the time you do have to lavish the design with more attention and detail. It’s a modern variation on an ancient tradition.

Maria BywaterMaria Bywater is the author of Sew Jewish: The 18 Projects You Need for Jewish Holidays, Weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvah Celebrations, and Home. She teaches hands-on Judaica sewing workshops.

[Images: Tef2010 by Koosg | Shulamit Magnus at WOW Prayer | Detail from Lesley and Rachel Detained. All images are from Wikimedia Commons. For the last two images, the source is Women of the Wall and the author is Michal Patelle. All three images are from Wikimedia Commons and are used under an Attribution 3.0 Unported license.]