What is a Prayer Shawl? | Definition and Significance

A prayer shawl is a prayer garment worn by the Jews in obedience to God’s commandments. Does a prayer shawl apply to Christians as well?

Fast fashion nowadays varies from headdresses to sparkly pointed shoes. Fashion clothing and accessories whether store-bought or handmade, are popular gifts to someone. One clothing accessory that piqued my interest was during a blind gift-giving celebration. Blind gift-giving means something from a group’s wish list is assigned to you without knowing the recipient of the gift. The one assigned to me was a prayer shawl. 

When I looked it up, the search results were usual shawls worn and adorned by women. Starting then, my interest to know more about a prayer shawl inspired me to fulfill a perfect gift from our group’s wish list. Prayer shawls are sacred cloth rooted in Jewish religious tradition with a meaningful purpose for men and women alike.

Prayer Shawl Meaning

What is the Meaning of a Prayer Shawl

A prayer shawl, or tallit in Hebrew, is a prayer garment worn by Jewish men in the Old Testament. The Jews wear it whenever they pray in the synagogue or during a holiday. The prayer shawl signifies obedience to God’s commandments. But, prayer shawls are not only worn when praying. Many religious people practice wearing prayer shawls throughout the day. 

What differentiates a prayer shawl from a regular shawl accessory is that its four corners are adorned with tassels or fringes. These tassels are called tzitzit, which bears the numerical value of 600 in its Mishnaic spelling. The tassels in a prayer shawl must have eight threads and five knots. 

Adding the numerical values 600, 8, and 5, gives 613, which translates to the number of commandments God in the Old Testament. Hence, wearing prayer shawls means remembering to adhere to God’s commandments.

Prayer Shawl for the Jewish

Wearing the tallit, or a prayer shawl is first associated with the Jewish community, especially with Jewish men. A prayer shawl for Jewish is usually hand sewn and is made from silk or wool. It is also long enough to cover most of the body

Jewish prayer shawl also accounts for the number of tassels attached as it is a symbol of their obedience to God. For Jewish people, a prayer shawl is a religious symbol that embraces them whenever they pray. The prayer shawl is also worn by the Jews during special occasions such as Jewish circumcisions, marriages, and funerals. To this day, the  Jews still wear prayer shawls, especially when praying in synagogues. 

Prayer Shawl for Christians

For most Christians, prayer shawls are unpopular, but not unheard of. Christians who wear prayer shawls believe that Jesus has worn one. They reason that Jesus grew up in a Jewish home and culture. 

In modern days, prayer shawls are usually hand-sewn by Christian women. These make as gifts in times of grief and sorrow. In the practice of the Christian faith, wearing a prayer shawl is not mandatory. Unlike the Jews, wearing prayer shawls for Christians is not mandated. Christians make prayer shawls and follow the number of tassels of the prayer shawls worn by Jews.

Origin and History of Prayer Shawl

As mentioned earlier, the wearing of prayer shawls originated from the Jews. Historically, Jewish men started to wear prayer shawls after Moses instructed them. Moses told them to make tassels on the corners of their garments with a color blue cord on each tassel. This instruction came from God himself. Since then, the Jewish community, especially men, wore prayer shawls. 

Like what God told Moses about the number of tassels and the color of the tallit, the Jews followed them religiously. A source of garments in the early times, prayer shawls are made of wool or silk. This tradition goes on for hundreds of years and is even practiced by the Jews today.

Prayer Shawl Meaning

What Does the Bible Say About Prayer Shawls?

Prayer shawls are not explicitly discussed in the Bible. In the first five books in the Bible, the prayer shawl or tallit is described as an instruction from God. 

God said in Numbers 15:38-40, that the tassel in the garment is a remembrance of His commandments. In the Old Testament, there are a total of 613 commandments given by God to His people. The number of tassels on prayer shawls is symbolic of the total number of God’s given commandments. 

In Deuteronomy 22:12, a similar scripture says, “You shall make yourself tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself.”

In the Bible, God instructed the Israelites to make and wear prayer shawls as a reminder to keep the Lord’s commandments holy.

Significance of a Prayer Shawl

As spoken by God through Moses, wearing prayer shawls is a significant act for the Jews. . This generation-long practice has a significant impact on one’s spirituality. Both Jews and Christians who wear prayer shawls can have a better sense of connection with God. Let’s take a look at the symbolism of each physical element of a prayer shawl.

Symbolism and Color Meanings of a Prayer Shawl

God required that the fringe or tzitzit of prayer shawls must be on each corner, at the hem of the garment. In the early days of the Bible, wearing a fringed-hemmed relates to royalty status. As depicted in 1 Samuel 24, David spared Saul’s life when he found him in the cave but cut off the hem of Saul’s robe. 

Later in the story, in 1 Samuel 24:5, David becomes despondent by cutting off Saul’s robe. He understood the significance of the hem of a royalty’s robe, as Saul is God’s appointed leader. Cutting off the hem of Saul’s robe is an act of dishonoring God. Wearing prayer shawls with fringe-hemmed garments relates to being closer to God. The one who wears it can feel closer to God, being as God’s chosen people, a royalty status as one of His children.

In Numbers 15:38-40, God required having a blue color of cord in each tassel of the garment. Early prayer shawls worn by the Jews are of white and blue color. But modern prayer shawls vary in color and style of the wearer’s personal preferences. 

In the Bible, the color blue along with white, purple, scarlet, and gold, also relates to royalty status. The significance of these colors is in the Bible Scriptures. One is in Ezekiel 23:6, which says “clothed in purple, governors and commanders, all of them desirable young men, horsemen riding on horses.” 

Also, Esther 8:15 says, “Then Mordecai went out from the presence of the king in royal robes of blue and white, with a great golden crown and a robe of fine linen and purple, and the city of Susa shouted and rejoiced.”

How is a Prayer Shawl Worn?

In Jewish practice, Jews wear their prayer shawl throughout the day. Yet, some Jews wear their prayer shawls only during prayer time or special holidays. A prayer shawl for the Jews is not worn usually as any other piece of clothing. In historical practice for the Jews, the prayer shawl is worn with reverence. It starts with holding the prayer shawl before you and saying a special blessing or prayer before wrapping the shawl over the shoulders. 

A special blessing said before wearing a prayer shawl may be like: “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, who hallows us with mitzvot, commanding us to wrap ourselves in the fringes.”

Some believers practice holding the prayer shawl over their heads before the shoulders. Once the prayer shawl is wrapped around the shoulders, the prayer shawl must not touch the skin. This is because prayer shawls should be on top of the outer garments. It is also important to know that the tassels should be visible. The purpose of making the tassels visible is to remember God’s commandments.

Should Christians Wear Prayer Shawls?

Christians, having Jesus Christ as their ultimate Savior, are not bound by the “laws” in the Torah. Thus, the strict wearing of prayer shawls is not imposed on Christians. While Christians don’t need to wear prayer shawls, it is also not prohibited to wear one. 

Wearing prayer shawls by Christians is not a matter of right or wrong. It can be a special act of being closer to God. Prayer shawls can make prayer time more personal for Christians. One can take comfort with a garment made holy when communicating with God in prayer.

Prayer Shawl Meaning

In Summary

Prayer shawls mean prayer garments worn by the Jews in the early times. The Jews wear them throughout the day. Some only wear them when they pray in the synagogue or gather for a religious holiday. Wearing prayer shawls for the Jews has been an important tradition of remembering God’s commandments and keeping them holy. 

Wearing of prayer shawls by Jews transcends generations and is still practiced today. Christians have also picked up on the tradition and embraced the practice. Although not mandated by Christianity, some Christians take comfort in having prayer shawls. 

For Christians, a prayer shawl is a popular hand-sewn token given to someone. This is true especially for Christian women while one is grieving or in pain. Prayer shawls can help one to feel secure in times of prayer. One can feel as if God is closer while wearing the garment and tassels that come along with it. With prayer shawls, one can make their time with God more personal when praying.

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Alex Shute
Alex Shute, MBA
Alex is a family man and entrepreneur based in Los Angeles. His passion is to serve the global Church and bring people of diverse backgrounds together to learn & grow.

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