Taking a break from elections and suffrage, I thought you’d like to read this guest blog from Michael Feldman, who lives with me and my fictional people. Thanks, Mike!

One of the key characters in Blue Thread is inanimate: a strand of blue thread. Why blue thread?

The blue thread is part of an old tallit (pronounced ta-LEET in modern Hebrew), or prayer shawl, a family heirloom which Miriam Josefsohn receives from Uncle Hermann. What is this shawl all about?

In the Bible’s Book of Numbers 15:38, the ancient Israelites are commanded to add fringes (tzitzit) to the corners of their garments. The ancients simply wore fringed robes or caftans. The Biblical edict goes on to require a thread of blue in the tzitzit (p’til t’chelet). Opinions vary about just which dye was to be used to make the blue color. Some think it was vegetable in origin, others claim it came from a certain Mediterranean snail.

a modern tallitWhen clothing fashions changed, many Jews began to observe the commandment by wearing a fringed shawl over their clothes during study or worship. We think the current shawl form began to take shape about 1000 CE. There are many schemes for knotting the fringes; some are quite ancient but none are specified in Numbers. A modern tallit can be made of wool, or silk, or even an artificial fiber. Colors and designs are as individualistic as the text on the optional atarah or neckband. The four corner fringes are what’s critical. Modern shawls (like the typical one illustrated here) often have some blue in them, but tend to omit the “official” blue thread from the fringe, because we really don’t know just what color it should be.

tallit katanSome present-day observant Jewish men wear a fringed poncho-like garment called a tallit katan (little tallit) constantly beneath their regular clothes. Sometimes they allow the fringes to hang outside their shirt, as a sign of observance.

The edict in Numbers makes no distinction between men and women. In the late Middle Ages, a prohibition developed against women wearing the shawl, but many earlier Rabbinical authorities, including the great 11th-century scholar Rashi, seem to have approved the shawl for both men and women.

In recent decades, many women have begun to don the shawl again for Jewish worship, but this would still have been uncommon in our Miriam’s time in 1912.

Rashi really did have a daughter Miriam, but we know little about her. Our story suggests she wore the shawl Miriam Josefsohn inherited 900 years later. We don’t know whether she actually did don a tallit, but it’s plausible she might have. Maybe—as our Miriam discovered—Rashi’s daughter Miriam even embroidered tzedek tzedek tirdof—pursue justice, only justice—on the atarah. A Miriam-to-Miriam connection through the ages.

 

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