A tallit (also called “tallis” or “tallis gadol”) is a prayer shawl traditionally made of wool. Its most significant feature is the tzitzit (knotted tassels) attached to each of the four corners (Numbers 15:38) to remind us that those things which exist beyond the ken of what is visible and present also have reality.
Tzitzit: Visible Reminder
God does not want you to follow your physical desires wantonly, writes Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch, so he has given you a means in the present world whereby you will always have a visible reminder of Him – in the present as well as the Law which He gave in the past. This means is called tzitzit, from the root meaning “to appear in visible form.”
The injunction to tie tzitzit, Rabbi Hirsch explains, is because the essential purpose of a garment is to cover up the body’s animal element, leaving only those limbs bare which are primarily organs of human activity, namely the face and the hands. Tzitzit are thus the affirmation not our God-given mission, for God Himself gave the first man the first garment and taught him to conceal the animal part of himself (see Genesis 3:21).
The tzitzit must be on all four sides to remind you of the four directions of the earth and your own directions in the world, so that when you look to the east or the west, the north or the south, you keep God’s Law in mind.
But what are the fringes – the tzitzit – for? you ask yourself. By reflecting on the revelation of the Torah, you affirm the existence of God Himself. The tzitzit, therefore, are placed on the corners, not as an integral part of the garment, but as a reminder of God, “that you may look at it and remember all of the commandments of the Lord and do them” (Numbers 15:39).
More tallit and tzitzit articles: