There is a ministry that some churches are participating in where they make prayer shawls. However, they aren’t quite getting it. The shawl isn’t the point. The tassels are.
Numbers 15:37-41 (HCSB)
37 The LORD said to Moses, 38 “Speak to the Israelites and tell them that throughout their generations they are to make tassels for the corners of their garments, and put a blue cord on the tassel at each corner. 39 These will serve as tassels for you to look at, so that you may remember all the LORD’s commands and obey them and not become unfaithful by following your own heart and your own eyes. 40 This way you will remember and obey all My commands and be holy to your God. 41 I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God; I am Yahweh your God.”
The church groups mean well, but they are making the shawls and not the tassels. Fringe doesn’t count. The tassels are to remind you to keep God’s commandments. When this commandment came, God said simply to affix the tassels at the corners of their garments. This way the person would see them.
Later, the Jews made a special garment that has the tassels. This is still not the “prayer shawl” – it is for everyday use if you are an Orthodox man. It is called a “tallit katan” and is a four-cornered garment, kind of like a poncho. It has a hole in the middle to put your head through. It is put on in addition to regular clothing. They have a separate prayer shawl just for special prayers. It can be a range of sizes, as long as it has four corners and each corner has the prerequisite tassel. The tassels are not just any tassels – there are very exacting rules about the length, color, and number of cords in them and how they are knotted.
The tassels are “tzitzit” and the shawl is a “tallit”. A tallit without the tzitzit is not a prayer shawl – it is a piece of cloth. Even if one of the tassels is frayed, the whole thing is invalid as a prayer shawl.
I like the prayer shawl ministry – it lets the other person know that people are thinking about them. They get a tangible reminder of the love that others have for them. Plus, a blanket is like a big hug. Every time they feel lonely, they can take this shawl and wrap it around themselves and feel better. This is great – but it isn’t a prayer shawl in the Jewish sense. Perhaps there needs to be another name for these Christian “prayer shawls”, or a distinction spelling out that they are not the Christian version of a Jewish prayer shawl. They are not used for prayers in the Jewish sense, but to let someone know that they are being prayed for.
Jesus wore a tallit with tzitzit, as any other Jewish man of the time would do. Notice it mentioned in this story –
Matthew 9:20-22 (HCSB)
20 Just then, a woman who had suffered from bleeding for 12 years approached from behind and touched the tassel on His robe, 21 for she said to herself, “If I can just touch His robe, I’ll be made well!” 22 But Jesus turned and saw her. “Have courage, daughter,” He said. “Your faith has made you well.” And the woman was made well from that moment.
Sometimes “the tassel on His robe” is translated as “the hem of his robe” but this is inaccurate. She is reaching for the tzitzit, the visible reminders of following God’s commandments. They are holy things, unlike the hem, which means nothing at all. Lest we get into idolatry, the tassels are not something to worship. They point towards God, and are a reminder to always serve God through doing good deeds.