Etymology of a prayer shawl

Usually when I speak at a conference or church, I wear a prayer “scarf” around my neck. Technically the ones I usually wear (or any that are various colors) are more commonly called a keffiyeh also known in Arabic as a shemagh, and are the traditional headdress worn by men in middle East counties. In Israel these scarves are generically called prayer shawls even though they are not necessarily worn by those who would be known to pray. They are also part of battle or war clothing. Let me explain to you how these scarves evolved and their roots in the Bible.

The Exodus took place ROUGHLY 3500 years ago, in the 890th year before the destruction of the Temple by the Babylonians likely in 421 BCE although this is controversial, as most have learned 586/7 BCE. The Exodus therefore dates at either 1310 BCE (or 1476 BCE). Either way, the idea of wearing these scarves dates back about 3500 years and has its roots in the Bible. In other words, Moses literally wrote the book on the prayer scarf 3500 years ago.

We find the instructions in the last paragraph of the Shema שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל “Hear, O Israel” which is a Jewish prayer that serves as a centerpiece of the morning and evening Jewish prayer services. Its first verse encapsulates the monotheistic essence of Judaism: “Hear, O Israel: YHWH is our God, YHWH is one.” Torah Observant Israelites were instructed to wear a prayer shawl and find refuge in Yahweh. The Tassles (tzitzit) remind you of who you are as IMAGE BEARERS that are no longer in slavery but are free to live redeemed and free representing Yahweh. This exodus or redemption motif becomes a major recursive theme throughout scripture.

The instruction is found twice in the TORAH, or the five Books of Moses. First in Numbers 15:37-41 and the more Jewish English Sefaria Community Transliteration is the best for understanding the dynamics of the Tallit:

“And Hashem (God) said to Moshe (Moses) saying: Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them [that they must] make for themselves tzitzit upon the corners (Kenaph) of the clothes for generations, and on the tzitzit give a string of techelet (BLUE). And they shall have for themselves tzitzit and they will see them and they will remember all of the commandments of Hashem and they will do them, and they will not stray after their hearts and eyes so that they shall not pursue after them. So that they will remember and adhere to all of my commandments and will remain holy to their God. I am Hashem your God who took you out of the land of Egypt to be for you a God. I am Hashem your God.”

The rabbis taught that in each tzitzit (tassle) there should be seven white threads and one blue thread. When the temple was destroyed this art of using the dye of the chilazon mollusk for the blue color was lost and Jews began crafting shawls in various colors. (Although not all Jews agreed that this was permissible). The idea is later reiterated in Deuteronomy 22:12. The number 22 is associated with the idea of completeness. This later might have become a wordplay when Jesus said be complete as I am complete pointing to the Shema and Torah. Interestingly before Deuteronomy was ascribed chapters this part of the Shema was still considered to be in the 22nd part of it. Here it is reiterated that Tzitzit should be worn on the tallit gadol (prayer shawl).

Another point of interest is that the Tzitzit shares its root word with the Hebrew for ‘lock of hair’, or ‘dreadlock’. For example, in the Ezekial 8:3 an angel grabs the prophet “by the tzitzit of [his] head;” he could be said to be “dragged by his hair.” (It is thought that this prophet was of the nazarite vow by which hair was a sign of what is sacred and set apart.) Their hair became their tassles. In other words, tzitzit are visible signs of your commitment to God or a vow to be set apart.

NOTE: (Kiddushin 34a) would imply that a woman could wear tzitzit but were not expected to which is based on an interpretation of “sons” of Israel. The problem is “sons” in Hebrew is usually gender neutral. But you may hear this and it is why traditional Jewish women don’t always wear tassles.

X44 Mission: Expedition 44 is a covenant community dedicated to cultivating a discipleship culture that is wholly devoted to King Jesus. X44 represents the modern-day remnant of those that are set apart. Therefore, I think it is fitting to wear a “scarf” that signifies a prayer shawl when I am teaching the Bible and have prayed that I be part of sacred space. So essentially Israel was instructed to wear these prayer shawls to remind them of everything God in their lives: their covenant, their family, their community, their law and that is why I also have chosen to wear one.

A major tenet of observant Torah practice is that A WHOLE PERSON IS A HEALED PERSON. Deuteronomy 22 is about SHALOM – balance, being completely whole, or healed from anything of the world.  DELIVERED – FREE – OF THE WORLD – SET APART. When you place your whole self on the Atar given to the Lord you pray that he would answer with a double portion which is actually innumerable. 44 Represents the double portion result from God of offering an all-in living sacrifice.

They were reminded of their covenant daily by the Shema, but even more so during festivals, communion of sacred things (temple and worship), weddings, funerals… and you ready for this… when they went to war. They would put their scarves over their heads to drowned out the world and find their place of peace and refuge in the midst of the worst turmoil and tribulation.

In Psalm 144:1 David says, “Train my fingers for war” which many people take as a battle verse, but it is sort of the opposite, David played the harp – The better translation may have been “May the Lord fight your battles as you worship Him.” Some know that the X44 emblem represents this verse. The line of the left shield or chalice is the 1 of the 44 and the right side is the 1 of the verse.

These scarves for 3500 years have been mobile prayer rooms.


If you go to Israel today you see people that look like they are flying… The prayer shawls take on a resemblance of flying WINGS. Remember the Deuteronomy 22 healing thing, it was believed that God protected you when you represented Him and kept Him at your heart. You lived a healthy or healed life.

Remember the story of The Woman Who Touched Jesus’ Garment in (Mark 5:21-34)? Perhaps you should read it again.

The Woman was bleeding for 12 years was healed when she touched what? The korner, the Kenaph or the Tassle of Jesus cloak.  Jesus was likely wearing his Tallit and she was healed… Power had left him….There is healing in the wings. Malachi 4:2, NASB: But for you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings; and you will go forth and frolic like calves from the stall.

WINGS have religious meaning. We might say, RISE TO THE FATHER which is a Metaphor for meeting Jesus.

When we die Jesus meets us, we rise to Him. We also aren’t totally healed until we meet Jesus. But these wings are a sign of that – CS LEWIS says that we get a picture or a MOSAIC of that healing here on Earth and Jesus says bring Heaven to Earth right here right now. We are His agents to bring Healing and meet Jesus intimately in sacred places which are representative of removing the world and focusing completely on Him: RISING TO THE FATHER.

So why do I wear this scarf? Because it signifies me as one who still believes that God wants to see His people live in freedom completely healed of this world, Risen to the father in constant communion. – The scarf is a visible picture of me and our x44 community and reminds us to claim each day as one that is healed and redeemed.



Comments are closed.