by Nina J. Mizrahi (Northbrook, IL)
I didn’t wear a tallit until my first year of rabbinic school when I lived in Jerusalem. It never occurred to me to wear one until I saw other women wrapped in tallitot during prayer. I sensed their closeness with the Divine. A yearning to share in this experience, to be enveloped by the wings of the Shechinah, arose from the depths of my soul. Soon after, I remember shopping for my first tallit at Yad Lakashish, which means “lifeline for the old.” The tallit was made by Jerusalem’s elders, giving them “a sense of purpose, self-worth and connection…through creative work opportunities…” This added meaning to my Shehecheyanu moment.
Returning from the Old City to my apartment, I unpacked and examined my new tallit. Aware that this was a significant moment in my spiritual life, I recited the Shehecheyanu, followed by the bracha for donning a tallit, kissed the two sides of the atarah (neckband), and then wrapped myself from the head down. It was as if I were encasing myself in a sacred cocoon, imagining that I would emerge as my authentic self and be ready to commence my rabbinic studies.
At first, having no words for that moment, I stood silently in this sacred, intimate space. At some point, powerful, unsummoned memories brought me to tears as I recalled how my father, zichrono livracha, would wrap me in his tallit. I like to think that his deep faith in God, woven into the very fabric of his tallit, was now woven into mine. I bathed in the warmth of the memory of these sacred snuggles, feeling deeply loved, protected and safe. My heart overflowed with profound joy, flowing first to my father, then spilling into the universe, forming a deep connection to something greater than myself.
So, there I was, a Jewish woman studying in Jerusalem, standing alone in an apartment that had been converted from a bomb shelter, wearing my tallit, holding its four corners in my hands. It was a lot to take in, and I considered how the mitzvah of tzitzit requires us to look at the strings, knots and twists of the tzitzit with intention and a sense of sacred obligation.
Committing to the mitzvah of wearing a tallit is both humbling and empowering. Since that first moment in Jerusalem forty years ago, I have wrapped myself in a tallit for prayer and hitbodedut (a solitary, intimate form of prayer offered by pouring one’s heart out to God). I have wrapped my tallit around or held it like a chuppah over the heads of individuals, couples, families, lay leaders, teachers, and students as a way of welcoming, honoring, blessing, and celebrating.
In Ahavat Olam, a prayer recited before the Shema, we gather the tzitzit and, imagining being united in peace, we say,”V’havienu l’shalom m’arba kanfot ha’aretz v’tolichenu komemiut l’lartzeinu — Bring us to peace from the four corners of the earth and lead us upright to our land.”
Decades after my ordination, I attended Shabbat services in a small community where tradition was woven together with new rituals. Just before the Shema, everyone stood up and handed the tzitzit on one corner of their tallitot to someone on their left and another corner to someone on their right. What a beautiful statement about the importance of joining together in our prayer and in our lives, which is not an easy thing in our complicated world. Collected into one, we chanted words that the medieval Jewish mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria (known as the ARI) is said to have recited before praying each day:
Hareini mekabel alai (Behold, I hereby take upon myself
et mitzvat haboreh (the instruction of the creator)
v’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself”)
Whether or not wearing a tallit is part of your tradition or practice, it is a symbol of the transformative power of Chesed — acts of loving kindness. We read in the Book of Psalms (89:3): “The world is built through chesed.”
Acts of chesed precede all others because they alone are unconditional and unmotivated. We read in the book of Psalms (89:3) that “The world is built with chesed” (Psalms 89:3) — acts of kindness.
Rabbi Menachem Creditor, a social justice activist and founder of Rabbis Against Gun Violence, wrote a beautiful song about this verse when his daughter was born right after 9/11:
I will build this world from love…yai dai dai
And you must build this world from love…yai dai dai
And if we build this world from love…yai dai dai
Then God will build this world from love…yai dai dai
I’d like to invite you to wrap yourself in your tallit (or one that you can borrow for a moment). As you wrap yourself in a sacred snuggle, I encourage you to try sending compassion first to yourself and then to others, possibly beginning with those for whom you have positive feelings, and then to those with whom you are struggling.
You may find your own words or adapt the following phrases as you see fit. Begin by setting your intention for the recipient of your meditation and repeat this meditation silently:
May …I/ you/ they……..be safe
May …… I/ you/ they…..be happy/content
May ……my/your,/their life unfold with ease
Click here for a beautiful lovingkindness meditation offered by Sylvia Boorstein, author, psychotherapist and Buddhist teacher.
May you be blessed by who you are and may you always bring blessing to others.
Rabbi Nina J. Mizrahi, a spiritual leader for 35 years, gleans wisdom from ancient and contemporary sources to inspire personal growth, with the purpose of understanding the mystery of being alive and human and celebrating life more fully. If you’d like to read more of Rabbi Mizrahi’s work, visit her website. And if you’d like to reach out to her, you can write via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.