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The Hem of the Garment
by Mike Keating on Wednesday, 23rd of April 2014

The Hem of the Garment


I have recently purchased a traditional Jewish prayer shawl from Israel. The Prayer Shawl, (aka. tallis, tallit, talis) is a religious symbol, a garment, shroud, canopy, cloak which envelops the Jew both physically and spiritually, in prayer and celebration, in joy and sorrow.


Anyone attending an orthodox synagogue today will see that the men are all wearing prayer shawls. It is a very important part of Jewish life.  Learning about this sacred garment will teach many exciting lessons from other Bible stories, even in the New Testament!


It is used at all major Jewish occasions: circumcisions, bar mitsvahs, weddings and burials. It protects the scrolls of the Torah when they are moved.


It inspired the Jewish flag. Three separate people had the same idea. They just unfurled the prayer shawl and added the Shield of David and created the flag of Israel. The dead are wrapped in it when they are buried.


The wearing of the "tallit" (pronounced tal-eet), also called the "tallis" or "prayer shawl," was commanded by God in Deuteronomy 22 :12 and Num.15:37-40; "Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord." 


In biblical times the Jewish men wore the prayer shawl all the time - not just at prayer


1. Prayer Closet

TALITH contains two Hebrew words; TAL meaning tent and ITH meaning little. Thus, you have LITTLE TENT. Each man had his own little tent. Six million Jews could not fit into the tent of meeting that was set up in the Old Testament. Therefore, what was given to them was their own private sanctuary where they could meet with God. Each man had one! His Prayer Shawl or Talith. They would pull it up over their head, forming a tent, where they would begin to chant and sing their Hebrew songs, and call upon God. It was intimate, private, and set apart from anyone else - enabling them to totally focus upon God. This was their prayer closet!


2. Ruth and Boaz

Jewish weddings are sometimes performed under a prayer shawl held up during the ceremony by four poles called a chupa or huppah. In Mid East culture they cast a garment over one being claimed for marriage. In Numbers 15:38 the word translated border or corner is a Hebrew word which can also be translated wings as it is some seventy-six times in the biblical text. In Psalm 91 we are able to "abide under the shadow of the Almighty" and "under His wings." For this reason, the corners of the prayer shawl are often called wings.


The prayer shawl is also called a skirt.  In Ezekiel 16:8, the Lord speaks to Jerusalem and likewise says, "and I spread my skirt over thee, and covered thy nakedness," and In Ruth 3:9, She found herself at the feet of Boaz, and as he awakened, he was moved with her vulnerability. Women were not to do things of this nature in those days, but in complete honesty and openness she said to him, spread thy skirt over thine handmaid; for thou art a near kinsman Ruth was saying, “Take me under your WING. Cover me, is a term of intimacy.” Boaz was an honourable man and did the honourable thing. They were married, and she became his bride. Here she was, a Moabite woman from a foreign country, grafted into the nation of Israel. She had the right to be covered by her Jewish spouses Talis. This is a symbolic expression of marriage.


It is interesting to note that a similar custom still prevails at an orthodox Jewish wedding, when the bridegroom covers his bride with his tallit, his prayer shawl, with its tassels at each corner, signifying that he is taking her into his care. The skirt of Boaz would doubtless be edged with the fringe and tassels that indicated his status. This request by Ruth was for his protection and his care as symbolized by his personal fringe - his status symbol.


3. A Status Symbol

The hem of a Jew's garment was not, as in modern clothes, a simple fold of the cloth, sewn down to prevent the edge from fraying. It was a decorative feature that made a statement about the status and importance of the wearer. The people of other nearby nations also had this custom. In texts found in Mesopotamia, references indicate that the removal of the fringe of a man's garment was the equivalent of removing part of his personality. To cut off the hem of a wife's garment was regarded as divorcing her. Tablets have been found with the impression of a fringe as the mark of the individual, a personal seal or signature.


In New Testament times, ordinary people only wore a tallit on special occasions, if at all. It was the Pharisees who seem to have worn it regularly and, apparently in some cases, often for show. Jesus expresses no disapproval of the custom itself but he does condemn the extra-long fringes that they affected to display their piety [Matthew 23:5]. Thus the hem or fringe of a garment indicated the rank or personality of the wearer. 


When David spared Saul's life, he took away evidence that he had him in his power: "Then David arose, and cut off the skirt (hem) of Saul's robe privily," 1 Samuel 24:4. Why did David do this, and why did his conscience smite him for having done it? Was there some special significance in what he had done? In fact the act of cutting off the skirt (fringe) of Saul's robe was of very great significance, which Saul was not slow to recognize. When the shouting began next day Saul said: "And now, behold, I know well that thou shalt surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in thine hand" (1 Sam. 24:20). David had robbed Saul of his status symbol, the fringe of his robe that identified him as king. The fringes on the garment were a status symbol.


4. Mantle

The Prophet Elijah passed his mantle on to Elisha in II Kings 2. Many believe that this mantle was actually his Talis and was symbolic of the power of prayer that Elijah had saturated that mantle with. This mantle that Elijah left behind as he was taken up by a whirlwind into heaven, was what Elisha struck and parted the waters with. Elijah's mantle was a status symbol.


It will be remembered that Jesus castigated the Pharisees for enlarging their fringes (Matt. 23:5), the inference being that they were thereby trying to magnify their importance.  Despite this, he must sometimes have worn one himself as the story of the woman who touched the hem of his garment suggests [Luke 8:43, 44]. What was the significance of the hem of His garment and how did she know touching it would heal her? Other people, too, were healed by touching the borders or tassels of his clothes [Mark 6:56].


5. The Hem of His Garment

"But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings," Malachi 4:2


One of the best known miracles of healing that Jesus performed was the occasion when a woman who had suffered from a haemorrhage for twelve years came up behind him and touched the hem of his garment, Matthew 9:20 The woman was, in fact, reaching for the tassels on Jesus' prayer shawl. In Hebrew, these tassels, which are attached to the corners of the prayer shawl, are called tzitzit. Why should she stoop to touch the fringe? Why not his arm, or his feet?


As the prayer shawl was placed over the head, it formed his own tent. WINGS of the garment were formed when the arms were held out.  For this reason, the corners of the prayer shawl are often called "wings."  During the first century there were several traditions associated with the tzitzit concerning Messiah. One was that these knotted fringes possessed healing powers. Certainly the woman with the issue of blood knew of these traditions, which would explain why she sought to touch the hem (the wings) of Jesus' prayer garment. The same word used in Numbers 15:38 for corner is used in Malachi 4:2 for wings. With this understanding in mind, an ancient Jew under the prayer shawl could be said to be dwelling in the secret place of the Most High and under His wings (Ps. 91:1-4). The lady with the issue knew that if Jesus were the promised Messiah, there would be healing in His wings (fringes).  That this was the opinion of many other people is revealed by the crowd who sought his healing powers, "that they might only touch the hem of his garment: and as many as touched were made perfectly whole," Matthew 14:36.


When one realized the significance of this concept to the first-century Hebraic mind, it becomes clear why this woman was instantly healed. She was expressing her faith in Jesus as the Son of Righteousness with healing in His wings and declaring her faith in God's prophesied Messiah!


Later in Jewish history, the tassels were incorporated into the Jewish prayer shawl, called the tallit, which is worn by many Jews today. On each corner of the prayer shawl are long tassels, or tzitzit, knotted five times to remind Jews of the five books of Moses. The four spaces between these knots represent the letters of God’s name, YHWH. And the knots along the prayer shawl edges use exactly 613 knotted strings, representing the 613 laws of the Torah. The anointing is located in the tassels. From the head to the tassel is no hassle, but the power for a spontaneous miracle.


May God help all of us to find our own prayer space full of God and his promises!


- Ps Mike