Friday, August 31, 2012

Fringe benefits

I wrote yesterday about a beautiful prayer shawl or tallit that fiber artist Felice Sachs made for Ellen Shaikun, using blouses that belonged to Ellen's late mother.  I was privileged to be present when Felice and Ellen brought the last and most important part of the tallit into being.

That's the tzitzit, the ceremonial fringes that are attached to each corner of the prayer shawl.  Deuteronomy instructs, "Make tassels for yourself on the four corners of your garment which you use for protection."  Obeying this command, Jews tie fringes to their shawls following strict procedures that Felice calls "ritual macrame."

The first step is to put a hole in each of the four corners of the tallit to hold the fringes.  Most tallit simply have punched circles, as shown above.  But Felice put a buttonhole salvaged from the blouses in each corner.

To make the fringes, you buy a kit with special wool yarn, usually made in Israel, cut to specific lengths.  For each corner you make a bundle of four strands, with one extra long strand called the shamash, the "leader" or "protector."  You thread the four strands of yarn through the punched hole, even it out (the shamash will hang much longer than the other seven strands), and tie a square knot with the two sets of yarn.

After the knot is tied, you hold all the strands together in a bundle, separate out the shamash and use it to wrap around the bundle.  To begin, you make seven wraps around the bundle, then separate the strands into two sets of yarn, incorporate the shamash into one so you have four strands in each hand, and again tie a square knot.

You repeat these steps -- winding, then a square knot -- four times.  The second winding has eight wraps, the third has 11 wraps, and the last one has 13 wraps.  Finish off with a square knot and you're done.

Ellen wanted to tie some of the fringes, of course, and found it easier when Felice held the bundles taut; four hands work better than two when doing complicated wrapping and tying.  Each time a set of wrapping was finished, they would carefully count the wraps to make sure the number was correct.

The numbers of cords, knots and wraps are symbolic of many things from Scripture and tradition.  For example, the four fringes symbolize the four corners of the earth; winding symbolizes the unity of God; the number of cords and wraps adds up to the 613 commandments in the Torah.

No sooner had Ellen finished the last knot than she was off to synagogue for evening services, almost at the end of her eleven-month ritual of mourning her mother with daily prayers.  It was exciting to see her with her new tallit, wrapped again in her mother's arms.


  1. What a brilliant idea using the cuff's buttonholes. The symbolism in this piece is amazing. Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Thanks so much for explaining the process and the tradition. I love things like this.

    Oh, and for your teflon spatula problem, try taking some silicone caulk and putting it into the offending hole using the caulk gun or even by using a skewer to stick it down in there. Silicone won't mildew, and it will be there for a long time!


  3. Glen -- the problem is, no visible hole!! just a crack big enough for water molecules to seep in. I guess I could run a bead around the outside. hmmm.... thanks for the suggestion

  4. Beautiful in so many ways, for so many reasons.

  5. This is such a beautiful story. Mom sweet mom died 2 1/2 years ago. We were very close. I kept a few of her pieces of clothing. It has been too hard to "do something" with them. I can only imagine the comfort your friend must feel wrapped in her mom's cloths in such a special way. Thank you for sharing this.

  6. Fascinating. Thanks for explaining the symbolism!

  7. I have made many tallit ( plural of Tallis) in my time for each of the members of my family. Often a person's tallis is used as part of the ritual covering (chuppah) at weddings. And a person is usually wrapped in their tallis in death. The four corners also reference gathering Jews from the four corners of the world. I usually add a blue thread to my fringes.

    Another piece of arcane info- there is a prohibition against combining certain kinds of fabrics together. "Shaatnez is the biblical prohibition against wearing wool and linen together in the same garment. (Wearing one piece of clothing that is linen and another that is wool at the same time is permitted.) This prohibition against shaatnez is found in Deuteronomy 22:11 and Leviticus 19:19. A combination of any other materials does not create shaatnez. This explanation if from a chabad website that describes all the prohibitions. It is really pretty interesting.

    Mine are made all out of silk. If I knew how to send a picture I could send you some!

  8. Since I have met Felice, and know her to be a talented woman, devout and gentle, this post was special to me. I can see her creating this Tallit with love for her friend. Thank you for sharing this, and please say hello to Felice for me.