Weaving an ancient Jewish tradition

It has been 23 years since Harriet Lyons first helped to organize a weaving class at Winnipeg’s Shaarey Zedek Synagogue and made her first tallit, the Jewish ritual prayer shawl traditionally worn by men, and increasingly by women, during morning services.

Tasselled prayer shawls

WINNIPEG — It has been 23 years since Harriet Lyons first helped to organize a weaving class at Winnipeg’s Shaarey Zedek Synagogue and made her first tallit, the Jewish ritual prayer shawl traditionally worn by men, and increasingly by women, during morning services.

That first tallit was a gift for Lyons’ daughter on the occasion of her bat mitzvah. Since then, Lyons has woven several other prayer shawls for family, friends and community members, mainly in recognition of milestone events in their lives.

In the process, Lyons has become so expert in this ancient textile craft that she now regularly teaches tallit weaving classes at the synagogue.

The tallit is one of the most recognizable symbols of Judaism. Derived from the Hebrew-Aramaic word for “to cover,” the tallit is a rectangular cloth with ritual fringes attached to its four corners. These fringes, called tzitzit, serve to remind the wearer about the 613 mitzvot, or commandments, that are prescribed in the Torah.

The tzitzit are attached to the tallit fabric with a series of intricate knots.

By draping the tallit over their shoulders during prayer, Jews symbolically demonstrate their willingness to fulfil these commandments. It is the presence of the tzitzit that makes the tallit a holy object. Without them, the tallit would be an ordinary piece of cloth.

This cloth can be made from wool, silk, cotton, linen or any natural or synthetic fabric. It cannot, however, be made from a combination of wool and linen, as this mixture is prohibited in Jewish law.

The reason for this prohibition has long been debated and discussed, but is generally accepted as a hok, a law for which there need not be a logical explanation.

Most tallits also have a neck band, called an atarah, attached to them. Typically, the special blessing that is recited before the donning of the tallit is embroidered into the atarah.

Since Shaarey Zedek Synagogue first began offering its classes — initially with the guidance of the Manitoba Weavers and Fibre Artists — more than 130 Winnipeggers have learned the art of tallit weaving. In total, they have created more than 300 individual tallits.

The majority of these have been made for young men and women about to commemorate their bar or bat mitzvah. In conservative congregations, the tallit is worn for the first time at this coming-of-age ritual. Tallits also are often used by Jewish brides and grooms as a wedding canopy, commonly referred to as a chupah.

Most of the weaving students have been women, although some men and some boys have taken the class as well.

“Our weavers range in age from 12 years old to 87 years young,” Lyons says. “People attend the class not only to weave for a bar or bat mitzvah but also to weave a tallit for a husband, wife, friend or just for themselves.”

Importantly, she adds, it is not necessary to be innately artistic or creative in order to make a tallit.

“Tallit weaving does not require any hidden talents, but only dedication, determination and love for the recipient of the tallit,” she says.

Lyons holds her classes once a week for eight to 10 consecutive weeks twice a year, in the fall and in the spring. Each session is capped at eight students to allow them the maximum opportunity to master the craft. The weaving is taught on portable table looms so that the students can take their creations home and work on them between classes.

“In our classes we stress the importance of family involvement,” Lyons says.

“We want the weavers to include family members in the weaving process of the tallit, be it in choosing the colours or in weaving in rows of yarn.”

“I always smile when I see the wives, husbands, sons, daughters and grandchildren sitting in the sanctuary wearing a tallit that was so lovingly woven for them, just for them,” Lyons adds.

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