Summary: Exploring the Jewish roots of Christianity by studying the symbolism of the prayer shawl.

Last week we started a new sermon series entitled “The Beauty of the Prayer Shawl.” The purpose of this series is to help us understand a little bit more about the Jewish roots of our faith. Jesus told us that “…salvation is of the Jews.” Basically what he means is that there would be no such thing as Christianity if it wasn’t for the Jewish people.

Many of the familiar Bible passages and stories that we have heard repeated over the years contain deeper and fuller meanings when we can understand the Jewish influence and traditions behind them. We are going to take a look at a few of these passages today and more next week.

We began our study of the Jewish prayer shawl or tallit by looking at the different parts of it: the atarah (neckband or crown), the kanaph (corners or wings), and the tzitzit (tassels, or knotted fringe).

We read in the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy where God commanded all the men of Israel to wear the fringes on their garments through all generations. We discussed the missing blue servant strand and the snail who produced the dye for it – how it had disappeared for approximately 2000 years only to reappear today.

This morning we’re going to be taking a closer look at the tzitzit, which are the most important part of the prayer shawl.

To the Jew and to anyone with understanding these knotted tassels reveal God’s name, God’s Word, God’s double-portion power for every believer, God’s power, and His prophecy. We are going to look at the first two of these today (the revelation of God’s name and Word). The other 3 we will look at next week.

I. Hebrew Gematria

Now, you may take a look at the tzitzit and see the knots, the coils, and the strands and wonder how something so unassuming could reveal things so great and important. To understand this you must know a little bit about Hebrew gematria.

The God we serve is a God of words and a God of numbers. When it comes to revealing the deeper more mysterious parts of His nature and will, He often presents this information to His children in the form of numbers instead of words. This is what He did with the tzitzit. He revealed His name and His Word through the use of numbers.

To show you how this works, I must explain to you what gematria is. If you look at your insert you will find a chart entitled Hebrew Alphabet, Transliterations, and Numerical Values. Take a look at it while I try to explain.

In the Hebrew language there are no numerals (symbols that stand for numerical values). Instead each letter of the Hebrew alphabet has a numerical value attached to it. For instance, the first letter, ALEPH, has a numerical value of 1. But the eleventh letter, KAF, has a numerical value of 20, and so on. This gives the Hebrew language a depth that isn’t found in other languages. Each Hebraic word has a literal meaning, but it also has a numerical value, and numbers have great meaning in the Bible. (6 = man, 7= completion or perfection, 8=new beginnings, 40=judgment)

It is the applying of a numerical value to the Hebraic alphabet that is known as gematria or Jewish numerology. To show you how this works I have transliterated my own name into the Hebrew equivalent. Look at Illustration 1. (Available upon request)

I don’t know if there is an special meaning attached to the number 51, but it is a number made up of 50 and 1. 50 in scripture often refers to the Holy Spirit (Pentecost – when the Holy Spirit came to dwell with men occurred 50 days after Jesus’ Resurrection). The number 1 in scripture means unity. Now the literal meaning of “Amy” is “beloved,” and is French in origin. But one could say that the Jewish numerical value of my name means “unity with the Holy Spirit.”

A. The Tzitzit Reveals God’s Name

So, what does all this have to do with the tzitzit and God’s name? In Exodus 6:3 we read: “I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, but by my name JEHOVAH was I not known to them.”

Jehovah in Hebrew is pronounced Yaweh. Spelled YHWH. This is what is known by Jews as the unspeakable name of God. God is called many things and known by many names, but this name is the name that reveals God’s great power. It is the Hebrew composite that means “God who was, God who is, and God who will be forever!”

1. The Coils or Windings

For thousands of years men followed God without knowing or experiencing this part of His character. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob never did. But God sent incredible miracles to the generation of Israelites that He freed from Egypt. They saw first hand God’s power through the plagues He sent upon Egypt, through the parting of the Red Sea, through the cloud and fire that led them, through the manna that was daily supplied, and through many more miracles. So it was to this generation, through Moses that God commanded His name JEHOVAH be placed in the tzitzit. He put it in the tassels that were to be constantly before their eyes, so they would never forget what He did for them. And His name is found among the coils or windings.

a. Spaces Made By Coils

The first way He shows His name is very simple. There are four spaces between the knots of the tassel that contain the coils. (The coils are found in the four spaces.)

God’s unspeakable name, JEHOVAH, when written in Hebrew has 4 letters (YHWH). There is 1 coil space for each letter of His name. By simply looking at or feeling the fringe with his hand – the Jew was reminded that the God he served was Jehovah - the God who was, who is, and who always will be.

b. Number of Coils

The second way God reveals His name and nature is through the total number of coils or windings. Last week we mentioned that there were 7 coils in the first space, 8 coils in the second, 11 coils in the third and 13 coils in the last space.

Now here is where the Hebrew gematria starts to come in. There is a fundamental axiom of the Jewish faith known as the “Shema”. This self-evident truth is found in Deuteronomy 6:4. In Hebrew, they would say “Yahweh Ekhad” = God is one.

If we were to apply gematria to this phrase (Yahweh Ekhad) we would get something like Illustration 2 on your insert.

So by using Hebrew gematria, anyone seeing the coils or windings on the tzitzit are seeing the Hebrew words “Jehovah is One” written in numbers.

Another interesting thing to point out is that if you add all the coils together (7+8+11+13) you get a total of 39. Why is this important?

Though it can’t be proven in scripture, it is believed that Jesus was whipped 39 times. In the Bible, 39 is the number for disease. In the Old Testament there are 39 diseases mentioned. In 1 Peter 2:24 we are told that by His stripes we are healed. Therefore, by being beaten 39 times, Jesus essentially conquered every single disease known.

B. Tzitzit Reveal God’s Word

In addition to revealing God’s name, the tzitzit also reveal God’s Holy Word. And they do so through the knots.

1. Number of knots

The first way they do this is by the number of knots. There are 5 double knots on each of the tassels. Jews are taught that these stand for the 5 books of the Torah, also called the five books of Moses. Within these books you can find every law God gave to the Jews so that they could live a holy life. Those laws are God’s Word to His people and are the first five books of our own Bibles.

2. Gematria of Tzitzit Plus Knots and Strands

The second way God reveals His word is through gematria once again. The gematria of the word Tzizit is found in Illustration 3.

If we take 600 and add the 8 threads and 5 double knots of the tzitzit = 613. There are 613 commandments (laws) in the Old Testament.

The tzitzit was the Jews’ reminder of the 613 laws they were required to follow. They didn’t just have a passing knowledge of them – they memorized them – all 613.

David said in Psalm 119:11, “Your word have I hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You.”

John Hagee said, “The word you memorize is the word you utilize.” God’s word isn’t going to help you if you don’t have it in your heart. Think about it. The things that you have memorized are the things that you have spent the most time thinking about. If you spend time thinking about something, it’s eventually going to become a part of you and you will act upon it.

How many times before you act, do you stop and say, “Wait a minute I’ve got to look that up in the Bible?” We often don’t have the luxury of having a Bible close at hand before we must make a decision about something. Nor may we have the time to search out the answers. That’s why we are to memorize scripture. That’s why the Jews would memorize all 613 laws. They knew them so well that they became a part of their everyday life and actions.

The Prayer Shawl in Scripture

I’d like to show you some instances in the Bible where the prayer shawl is mentioned or utilized. Remember, the shawl was a daily part of life in Biblical times. Often the prayer shawl plays a part in the Biblical stories and events we’ve studied for years, and yet we didn’t have any knowledge of the prayer shawls existence or importance.

A. Tentmakers

Let me give you a few examples. In Acts 18:1-3 we read about the Apostle Paul and the Jews, Aquilla and Priscilla. (Read passage.) What does it say that their occupations were? – Tentmakers

Now I’ve always taken this statement at face value – that Paul, Aquilla, and Priscilla made the kind of tents that people lived in. But some things don’t quite fit with that interpretation.

We’re told that Paul was a Jewish Pharisee. That he was a great scholar who tutored under the famous rabbi Gamaliel. He zealously taught and practiced the Old Testament laws and persecuted and imprisoned followers of Jesus before his conversion.

Knowing those facts, it seems to me, that tentmaking is a rather odd choice of occupation for a man with his background and interests. But only if the tents he was making were the kind that people lived in. What if he made instead “little tents” (talloit) or prayer shawls? Remember we said last week that one of the meanings of the word tallit was LITTLE TENT. Another fact to support this idea is that the tzitzit or tassels were usually tied under the supervision of a rabbi, and Paul was a student of one of the most famous.

Likewise, when we look at Aquilla and Priscilla, we find that they were living in the city of Corinth. In biblical times Corinth was an extremely wealthy city. It’s homes and buildings were constructed of stone and marble. What would the people of Corinth need with tents to live in? They would more likely have a need for prayer shawls.

B. The Dead

Another instance where we find the use of prayer shawls is in the passages speaking of the dead. If you remember, I told you that the tallit was used in burial. The dead were wrapped in it and the neckband and tassels cut off.

There are two well-known passages that deal with death in the New Testament. In John 11: 43-44 the cloth that is wrapped around the head of Lazarus is mentioned. And in John 20:6-7, when Peter went into the grave where they had laid Jesus’ body, he saw the separate piece of cloth that had been around Jesus’ face folded and lying separate from the rest of the grave clothes.

I believe John makes separate mention of these two pieces of cloth because there was something important about them. They weren’t just a part of the linen swaddling of regular grave clothes. They were special. They were these men’s prayer shawls.

C. Ruth and Boaz

In Ruth 3:8-9, Ruth, at her mother-in-laws instructions, finds herself at the feet of Boaz while he sleeps, and when he wakes up and notices her, he is moved by her vulnerability.

Women were not to do things of this nature. But in complete honesty and openness Ruth says to him, “Take your maidservant under your wing, for you are a close relative.” The KJV says that “you are my kinsmen redeemer.”

Ruth said, “Take me under your wing.” The word wing used here is kanaph, corner. The same term used to describe the corners of the prayer shawl where the tassels are attached. She was asking Boaz to take her under the protection of his tallit – she was asking him to marry her and become her protector.

Boaz was an honorable man and did the honorable thing. He married Ruth, and she became his bride. She had the right to be covered by her spouse’s tallit. It is a symbolic expression of marriage. In some Middle Eastern cultures they cast a garment over the one being claimed for marriage.

In Ezekiel 16:8 Jehovah, God speaks to Jerusalem and says – “When I passed by you again and looked upon you, indeed your time was the time of love; so I spread My wing over you… I swore an oath to you and entered into covenant with you , and you became Mine.”

D. Jesus’ Triumphant Entry

Next we see the prayer shawl in Mark 11:7-8.

When we come to the scene of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem we also notice the word for clothing is the Greek word himation which is an outer cloak, robe, or vesture. Many scholars believe it refers to the prayer shawl or tallit. The disciples put their talloit on the back of the colt for Jesus to ride and others put fronds and talloit on the ground as a grand gesture of welcoming a king.

E. Hypocrisy of the Pharisees

Jesus referred to the tassels of the prayer shawls of certain Pharisees when He spoke of their hypocrisy in Matthew 23:5. He says that they are not more religious or holy by simply making the size of their tassels larger. They were proud and hauty and hypocrites for doing so.

F. Peter in Jail

And finally, in Acts 12 we have the story of Herod’s persecution of the saints. After having James killed, he has Peter seized and thrown in prison. The night before Peter was to be slain an angel appears in the prison cell. And the angel tells him to put on his sandals and garment (himation or tallit) and follow him.

These are just a few of the instances where the tallit has made an appearance in familiar Bible stories without Christians knowing or understand its significance. But its also made an appearance in some other stories where it betrays the great power it contains in its tassels.

Next week we will take a look at some of those stories as well as examine what part the tallit might play in the Second Coming of Christ.