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

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.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

A nurse gets a swab ready at a temporary COVID-19 test clinic in Montreal, on Friday, May 15, 2020. Health Canada has reversed course on home test kits for COVID-19, saying it will now review applications for such devices. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson
Alberta declines Ontario’s request to send health-care workers

Alberta is “not in a position” to send health-care workers out of… Continue reading

Meghan Huizing has been selected by Red Deer Catholic Regional Schools as a finalist for the Alberta School Boards Association (ASBA) 2021 Edwin Parr Award. (Photo courtesy of Red Deer Regional Catholic Schools)
Red Deer Catholic names finalist for Edwin Parr Award

Meghan Huizing from St. Gregory the Great Catholic School in Blackfalds has… Continue reading

GrammaLink-Africa members are participating in the Stride to Turn the Tide campaign until June 30. (Contributed photo)
Red Deer group walking to raise money for African grandmothers

A group of central Albertans will be walking every day until the… Continue reading

Westerner Days could be in line to have patrons in attendance this summer as the province teased reducing COVID-19 capacity limits on outdoor events. File photo by ADVOCATE staff
Province provides hope for attendance at summer events

The province has given a positive update to organizations that hold summer… Continue reading

Red Deer Public Schools will not pilot the new draft curriculum at its elementary schools. (File photo contributed by Red Deer Public Schools)
UPDATED: Red Deer Public Schools says no to piloting new curriculum

Alberta Teachers’ Association support school boards

Downtown Iqaluit, Nunavut, is shown after 2 p.m. sunset on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020. Nunavut has declared an outbreak of COVID-19 in Iqaluit after 12 new cases were reported overnight. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Emma Tranter
COVID-19 outbreak declared in Iqaluit as infection numbers rise after first case

COVID-19 outbreak declared in Iqaluit as infection numbers rise after first case

Three vials of the Moderna COVID-19 Vaccine are pictured in a new coronavirus, COVID-19, vaccination center at the Velodrome-Stadium in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Michael Sohn, pool
Pfizer supply bolstered as Moderna cuts delivery, Ontario turns down Trudeau’s help

Pfizer supply bolstered as Moderna cuts delivery, Ontario turns down Trudeau’s help

Lights on an internet switch are lit up as with users in an office in Ottawa, on February 10, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
Analysts say CRTC ruling will help regional carriers with new limits on Big Three

Analysts say CRTC ruling will help regional carriers with new limits on Big Three

In this May 26, 2018, file photo, people listen to Michael Franti perform at the BottleRock Napa Valley music festival in Napa, Calif. Canadian music festival organizers hoped this summer would mark a return to concerts, but as COVID-19 cases rage on many have already dropped off the calendar. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Eric Risberg
Facing the music: Summer concert festival organizers see no path ahead in pandemic

Facing the music: Summer concert festival organizers see no path ahead in pandemic

FILE - Ali Stroker accepts the award for best performance by an actress in a featured role in a musical for her performance in "Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma!" at the 73rd annual Tony Awards in New York on June 9, 2019. Stroker teamed up with middle grade author Stacy Davidowitz for a new children's book "The Chance to Fly," published this week. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP, File)
Singer with disability shines in Ali Stroker’s new kids book

Singer with disability shines in Ali Stroker’s new kids book

Retired Ohio sheriff and tiny K-9 partner die the same day

Retired Ohio sheriff and tiny K-9 partner die the same day

Musicians play Sikh hymns during Vaisakhi celebrations at Guru Nanak Darbar of Long Island, Tuesday, April 13, 2021 in Hicksville, N.Y. Sikhs across the United States are holding toned-down Vaisakhi celebrations this week, joining people of other faiths in observing major holidays cautiously this spring as COVID-19 keeps an uneven hold on the country. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)
Sikhs mark toned-down holiday amid continuing virus concerns

Sikhs mark toned-down holiday amid continuing virus concerns

Have an opinion you'd like to share? Submit letters to the editor through our website, via email or the postal service. (Heather Colpitts/Black Press Media)
Letter: MLAs who are against tougher restrictions have no plan for consequences

The group of UCP MLAs pushing to end lockdowns are exacerbating what… Continue reading

Most Read