Most prevalent in the Jewish faith, wedding prayer shawls are also an important garment in Middle Eastern, Buddhist and Christian marriage ceremonies. Embodying comfort, shelter and solace, the wedding shawl enfolds the couple in the protection of each other.
In some sects of Judaism, the tallit is a simple arm and shoulder covering that creates an intimate, private sanctuary between the wearer and God. Jewish religious texts liken the cloak to a tent that envelopes the physical body and the spiritual soul, so it is worn during prayer and celebration.
In addition to offering warmth and beauty to the home, it has many practical uses, notes the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, in Minneapolis, Minn. The church sends newlyweds a shawl with a card noting that it "can be used for making out, making up, making decisions, making time and many other important communication dimensions of being a couple."
Making a Wedding Prayer Shawl
Prayer shawls start with "the intention of the knitter to infuse healing, good thoughts and prayers of protection into the shawl," explains Sara White, About.com's Guide to Knitting. Prayers are recited over the garment while it is being created, when it is finished and when it is presented to the couple, which can occur before, during or after the ceremony.
When Diane Kaufmann, of the NW Synod of Wisconsin Resource Center in Chippewa Falls, Wisc., learned of her son's engagement, she began "thinking about praying for him and his future wife, and the idea was born to knit a prayer shawl out of happiness, with prayers for their marriage and future life together woven into it." She mailed fringing to relatives, asking them to hold the tassel and add their own prayer for the bride and groom. She completed the love-infused shawl just in time to present it to her daughter-in-law at the bridal shower.
Symbolic Patterns and Colors
Traditionally, the marriage shawl is a rectangular shape so that it can fit around the shoulders of two people. In some Jewish ceremonies, it may even serve as the canopy on the wedding chuppa. It is made from a range of meaningful colors and materials, although white wool is the most common, and it incorporates a variety of symbolic patterns and embellishments, such as charms, feathers, beads or fringes. Christian prayer shawls often feature the Trinity Stitch as a symbol of the union between man, woman and God, and the Love Knot.
Both the Jewish and Christian versions of Numbers 15:38 and Deuteronomy 22:12 command followers to attach tassels to each corner of the prayer shawl, with each one containing a strand of blue thread. Customs vary between communities, but the tying of the Jewish tzitzit is considered an art form. Using a macramé technique, the cords are knotted together in an intricate lacy pattern.
Jewish shawls also typically incorporate a blue or black stripe pattern at the ends and an elaborately embroidered band on the top. This crown, known as the atarah, often has a prayer inscribed in blue. The only taboo is mixing wool and linen, which is denounced as a shatnez in the Torah.
Jewish Ceremonial Customs
Depending on the customs, the Jewish tallit is presented to the groom by his father, father-in-law or bride-to-be. As described in the Book of Ruth, grooms sometimes wrap their brides in the shawl to signify their protective role in the relationship. Other ceremonial rituals enfold the couple in the "wings of God" as the rabbi recites the Sheva Brachot (Seven Blessings) and benediction.