This is a photo of my granddaughter wrapped in the tallit (prayer shawl) I made for her naming day ceremony. I have been making tallitot (plural of prayer shawl, in Hebrew) since 1993 and I guess it's about time I talked a little about this work.
This particular prayer shawl measures 44 inches wide and is 72 inches in length, not counting the 12 inch decorative rayon fringe that is sewn on to either end. The fabric is silk charmeuse and I dyed it, using Dupont french silk dyes. The letters that you see are the Hebrew alefbet (alphabet) done in the most ancient form of that script, found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The letters seem simple, but they were created using the quills from bird feathers, so the form follows the function of the writing tool.
I found this calligraphy in a wonderful book, "The Hebrew Letter - Calligraphic Variations" by Ismar David. I enlarged the letters to three inches in size and used gutta resist to outline each letter before applying the silk dye. I find this process to be quite nerve racking! If there is one break in the gutta, dye spreads all over the place and the piece is ruined. I, quite literally, find myself holding my breath while applying the gutta around each letter, and again later, when filling in each letter with silk dye.
The dye dries very quickly, but I have found that it is a good idea to let the dye cure for a week or so before I steam it. It seems to give me a more permanent coloring and fewer dye molecules drift around to backstain the silk when I get to the rinsing process. Rinsing comes after 3 hours of steaming in a verticle tube. The fabric is wrapped in cloth and newsprint and rolled around a 50 inch long plastic tube which hovers over a vat of steaming water enclosed by a metal housing. This sets the dye. This is a lot of work.
Next, I take the fabric to the dry cleaners, ask them to put it in a special bag when they submerge it in the solvent, and the gutta resist is removed, leaving a very smooth and beautifully designed piece of fabric. This makes me very happy.
While the fabric is going through all of this, I can work on making the atarah. The atarah is the neckpiece of the tallit. Its' only purpose is to tell the wearer which end is the top. It is, therefore, "the crown" of the garment.
If you look carefully at the embroidery, you will see that it is based on the first lines of the first story of the Bible. Bereshit means "In The Beginning" in Hebrew. Therefore, the figures are of Adam and Eve, the sun, moon and stars, fish, animals, flowers and the Tree of Life as well as the symbol of temptation, the snake.
Each figure is embroidered in a separate hooping on my Janome 9000 embroidery machine. I have first drawn each picture, scanned it in the special scanner which turns it into stitch data, and saved it to my PC. After that, I can save it to a special memory disc which fits into the sewing machine, and will then embroider the image in whatever color thread I choose to use. This is an amazing process and I am in awe when it all works right!
As with any multi-step process, there is a lot of room for errors in any part of the dance. sigh. The fabric has to be hooped correctly, in the exact spot that you want for the embroidery. The whole thing must have adequate stabilization to prevent the fabric from pulling in while the needle pierces it hundreds of times at a rate of 600 stitches per minute. The tension in the bobbin and the top of the machine have to match. And, the needle must have a large eye so the thread won't shred, knot or break. All of which happens with enough frequency to make me want to SCREAM some days.
Some days my machine just wants to flake off. Tune out. Spit up. Freeze. These are the days when I just have to let it have its' tantrum and I let it alone. I do something else and pretend I am not bothered. (but I am!)
Anyway, at some point it all comes together and I can hem the dyed silk, sew on the embroidered, beaded and satin bound atarah and finish by afixing embellished corners to the tallit.
A tallit is a prayer shawl. It is just what it says. It is a garment worn for prayer. In Synagogues and observant Jewish homes around the world, it is worn every morning for the full participation of communion with G-d. Each corner of the tallit is adorned with 4 doubled strands of kosher yarn, usually wool, but sometimes silk or rayon, that are tied in a ritual macrame which relates to the numerology of the Hebrew name for G-d. It is also a reminder of the central prayer of Judaism, "the Shema."
The Shema: "Hear, O Israel, The Lord, Our G-d, The Lord is One."
I'll explain, in English, what the Hebrew word for the name of G-d in the Shema, means. The Hebrew reads from right to left and is, "Yud-Hey-Vav-Hey". Each letter has a numerical equivalent. Yud = 10, Hey = 5, Vav = 6 and Hey = 5 again. If you add these numbers, you get 26. The word for G-d = 26. Add the 2 and the 6 and you get 8. G-d = 8. This symbology is tied into the tsitsit, the ritual fringe.
This is how you tie the macrame for the ritual fringe;
start with-2 double knots, then wind one long string around the remaining pieces of yarn, 7 times,
another double knot, then wind the string 8 times,
double knot, 11 times, double knot.
If you add up the number of windings at this point, 7 + 8 + 11 = 26. The 2 + 6 = 8 = G-d.
The last set of windings of the tstsit is 13, followed by the final double knot (which conveniently keeps it from raveling). This last set is related to the last word in the Shema,"Ehad" which means, "One".
The Hebrew for this word is "Ehad", Aleph = 1, Chet =8, Dalet = 4. 1 + 8 + 4 = 13. (1 + 3 =4)
Therefore, within the windings of the tsitsit, we have a sentence:
"G-d is One".
That is the reason the tsitsit are on the tallit. It serves as a visual reminder that everything is G-d. It all comes from the same source. There isn't anything that isn't G-d. And, if you can remember that and make it part of your day, part of your consciousness, then perhaps you will remember to treat everyone and everything as sacred.
If taken seriously, this would end war.
The final thing about all of this that I find so interesting goes back to the numerology. Numerology is a hobby of mine and I am always adding up the numerical equivalent of words to see how they relate to persons, actions, and states of being. Remember when I said that the Hebrew word for G-d in the Shema = 8? Well, the English word for God in numerology is, G = 7, O = 6, D = 4. Add it up. 7 + 6 + 4 = 17. 1 + 7 = 8. God = 8. Same as the Hebrew, but a different word. Very cool. It gets more interesting.
In numerology, the number 8 is defined as "material satisfaction".
What does our Bible teach us about G-d? G-d wanted to create something physical. G-d wanted a reflection of what was only a dream, a tangible, knowable something that would exist in form. Form has limitation, but when something has form, it becomes knowable. Creation is the way G-d gets to know the dream. And, since we are given form, we are part of G-d and can learn and know, too. The possibility within "material satisfaction" is always present as a way to understand more deeply. This is the gift given with each birth, a built in, hard wired innate aspect of Divine Order.
As I wrote previously, the word, "Ehad" in the Shema equals 13 and 1 + 3 = 4. The number 4 is defined as "Order, Limitation and Service". So, "G-d is One" is also a way of saying "material satisfaction is order, limitation and service". Think about what that means to you.
In English, the numerology for the word "One" is; O = 6, N = 5, E = 5, making a total of 16. Add 1 + 6 = 7. The numerological attributes of the number 7, often considered a holy number, is "Understanding and Analysis".
"G-d is One", or, "material satisfaction is order understood." If G-d wanted to understand what Is/Was/Will be, then you can understand where your own desire for that same thing comes from.
We are not separated from our Creator. We are of our Creator.
Isn't it amazing? I hope I have made this clear enough to understand the way I understand it atthis time. There is mystical import to everything that exists and that ancient yearning to know and understand is built right in to every breath, every step, and every dream you make.
That's why I started to make tallitot. They are doorways into prayer.
To see a couple more of the tallit I have made, go to my website -
Remember these words of Maya Angelou: "Not everything you do is going to be a masterpiece, but you get art there and you try and sometimes it really happens. The other times you're just stretching your soul."