Many years ago, my parents gave me a tallit – a prayer shawl – to mark a very special occasion.
When I first got the tallit, it was clean and new. I would wrap myself in it and feel, somehow, safe and comforted, as if enfolded in loving arms. Over the long years, I came to value that feeling.
I would sometimes imagine that one day I would be buried in that tallit, my body enshrouded, one corner of the tzitzit (fringes) removed to render the garment ritually unfit. (After all, the dead are not able to praise God.) And that was a comforting thought, too, that of spending eternity enveloped in the embrace of my beloved tallit.
Over the years, as I spent more time in the synagogue, my tallit began to show signs of wear. Some of the knots – those without religious significance – began to unravel. A few stitches started to come loose here and there. This did not bother me; after all, the loose threads, worn spots, and gradual darkening of the fabric meant that my tallit was being used, not sitting folded up in its bag in the back of the closet. There were a few tear stains, bittersweet reminders of sad days when I sought the consolation of prayer. Even these, I treasured.
I sometimes debated with myself. Should I take it and have it dry-cleaned? The decorative knots redone? Minor repairs? Or was part of the garment’s charm the fact that it bore the stigmata of long, loving use?
Was a tallit like a Velveteen Rabbit among ritual objects? If I used it and loved it long enough, would it become Real?
Two years ago, during our trip to Israel, I purchased a new tallit for myself – a souvenir of Old City Jerusalem. It was (and is) snowy white with black and silver accents, a remembrance of the sacred
precincts where I bought it and to which we turn in prayer every day. I wear it only on special occasions: Shabbat and holidays. That, I figure, will slow down the inevitable accumulation of wear and tear.
Nevertheless, despite having that bright new tallit to hand, on weekdays I still utter the ancient benedictions and enfold myself in my old, worn tallit. And it still comforts me, almost forty years on.
But there are times I wonder. Would that tallit want to be buried with me? Or would it be happier with its loose seams tightened, freshly knotted, cleaned and ready to begin life anew?