Jewish Witch: The Witch in the Prayer Shawl – The Power of Sacred Garments

A few weeks ago I had a prophetic dream.

Wait, I should define “prophetic.” I don’t mean that a deity appeared to me in a blaze of blinding light and told me to go change the world. Prophetic is the term I use whenever I have a  dream that seems to have come from outside of me–a dream that has that startling little sparkle of the Divine. Prophets, as I learned from my Jewish community, can be ordinary people with a gift for leadership. Prophecy can be mundane, on the scale of a neighborhood, a household, a self.

When I dedicated myself to the Morrígan and then dreamed that an older woman was teaching me to dance in a crows’ hatching ground, that was prophetic, even if I didn’t ride into battle the next morning.

So: this dream I had. In the dream, I was digging through my belongings when I came across a box labeled “witch tools.” Intrigued, I opened it, and found that it was filled with hundreds of metal tapestry needles, the kind I use in my knitting to weave in the ends of a finished piece. I had a flash of recognition. Of course, I thought.

When I woke up, I had no idea what the dream meant. My dream self didn’t deign to tell my waking self what that flash of recognition was, so I spent the whole next day pondering it. Eventually I wondered if it had something to do with that prayer shawl I’d been thinking about knitting.

My Witch’s prayer shawl. The garment that would label me an oddball in one community and a blasphemer in another.

* * *

I should back up here.

One of the first things I learned about Witchcraft was that you were supposed to get yourself a robe. You know, for when it was too chilly to be in the buff. I looked at the cover of Wicca for the Solitary Practitioner, and then the robes in my mail-order catalogs. I grimaced. One of my very first decisions as a teenage Witch was that robes–at least, the quality of robes I could make myself or afford to buy–weren’t for me. What we put on our bodies, and the corresponding image that creates, holds a lot of power, and I couldn’t see myself being very powerful in a shapeless thing that would catch fire on candles.

And yet…it never felt quite right to do ritual in my street clothes. Sure, many of us Witches have some pretty fabulous wardrobes, and any public ritual will be chock-full of velvet cloaks and bird masks and jingling metal belts and hand-dyed scarves and layers and layers of skirts. Yes, I have a few articles of clothing that I like to wear for ritual: skirts that are good to dance in, scarves and sweaters that evoke a particular element. But it does feel a little unsatisfying to wear something to a Samhain ritual one night, and then to work a couple of days later.

Enter the tallis.

A woman praying with a tallis.

If you’ve seen Jewish men (and, increasingly, women) in worship, you’ve no doubt noticed the fringed prayer shawls draped over them. I won’t get into the theology behind the tallis here–you can Google it easily enough–but suffice it to say that putting on a tallis signals the beginning of ritual or prayer, putting oneself in a space conducive to sacred work. To me, the donning of the tallis is like the practice of grounding before magic: you clear away distractions, infuse yourself with what’s vital, and tune in to what’s calling you.

Over the past year, I’ve started thinking about the prayer shawl in terms of Witchcraft. I like the idea of having a garment I can slip on over my street clothes for morning and evening devotionals. True, a shawl might be hard to keep on if I’m dancing or drumming, but it’d be super nice for trance work on a cool night. There is, as always, the candle issue–I can too easily imagine shrieking and stomping on my beloved shawl as it burns into a mess of charred wool–but I like the idea of having one garment that I consistently wear while working magic. I like the thought of building up power in that garment, even if I can’t wear it for every single activity.

A couple of years ago I got some beautiful green lace-weight yarn, but couldn’t figure out what to do with it. I knit a test swatch for a dress, but decided the yarn was too thin to withstand ripping if I sat on a rough surface. It lay in my bin for awhile until I got a book on Estonian lace.

Shortly after, the idea of knitting a prayer shawl came to me. With my green yarn, in a delicate leaf pattern, and maybe fringe along the edges. I thought about the possibility of magical words and symbols, perhaps embroidered onto a ribbon that I could attach where the shawl would rest against my neck, a Pagan version of the Jewish atara.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a true tallis. There are specific criteria for a tallis that I have no intention of following. If most Jews found out what I was doing, they’d either laugh or be offended.

And other Witches? Sure, most might think it was cool. (I’ve received lots of praise for my lace knitting. I swear one of these days I’ll enter it in the county fair.) Or they might think it was weird, a stubborn holdout from a religion incompatible with what I was practicing.

Until I had that dream, the prayer shawl was an idle thought, a someday project. But now I feel a pleasant sense of urgency about it. The needles weren’t just telling me to work on it–they were telling me to finish it. Finish it and use it. Drape myself in green and work magic.

I’ve learned to be unapologetic about extracting useful tools from my heritage and my people. Tools for our craft are everywhere–we need only reach out and put them on.


Jewish Witch is published on alternate Tuesdays. Subscribe via RSS or e-mail!

About Asa West

Asa West practices Reclaiming Tradition Witchcraft and blends her practice with her Jewish heritage and Secular Buddhism. She blogs at asawest.wordpress.com, and you can find her zines at etsy.com/shop/RedTailWitch. She lives in Los Angeles, where she works as a librarian and priestesses at Reclaiming public rituals.

  • yewtree

    Oooh oooh oooh oooh love this!

    I have never liked robes, for various reasons, mostly to do with shapelessness, but also because they disguise the beautiful shape of the human body, which I thought was one of the things we honour in Wicca.

    But a prayer shawl — ooooh yes!

    Stoles, which may be related to the tallis, were originally worn by Roman imperial officials (and are thus pagan or secular in origin).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stole_%28vestment%29#Etymology_and_history

    I also like your definition of prophetic dreams.

  • http://dashifen.com/ David Dashifen Kees

    I never connected it to my Jewish roots, but I, too, have a longing for some sort on non-robe ritual dress. Sadly, I can darn socks and fix a button, but more complicated sewing tasks escape me at the moment so, while I have some ideas, I haven’t undertaken them yet. Good article!

    • http://asawest.wordpress.com/ Asa West

      Thank you!

  • Sunweaver

    I’m working on one right now! The pattern is called “Leto”(Ravelry link) and while the pattern says it’s meant to be Russian for “summer,” I’ve interpreted it as Leto, the mother of Apollo and Artemis.
    This project, for me, is about the process. Knitting it is a meditation on gentle Leto and her two holy children. Lace has always been a lesson in mindfulness for me because you’ve got to pay attention to it. You need to be present when you’re knitting lace.

    • http://asawest.wordpress.com/ Asa West

      Ooh, beautiful. And the name is such a wonderful coincidence! I agree that knitting–especially lace–can be a deeply meaningful mindfulness practice. I love the feeling of a completed pattern repeat slipping off the needle.

      • Sunweaver

        And I love how it looks like ramen noodles until you block it. It’s magick!

        Which pattern are you using? I did an echo flower shawl (Ravelry link) as a small shawlette a while back. It’s the only Estonian lace I’ve done. (Woo, nupps!)

        • http://asawest.wordpress.com/ Asa West

          Beautiful! The one Estonian project I’ve made so far is Knitty’s Aeolian Shawl (http://www.knitty.com/ISSUEspring09/KSPATTaeolian.php) and I love it. For this shawl, I think I may just use a pattern from the stitch library in my Estonian book and add a fringed border.

          Nupps what what! By the way, if anyone wants to hit me up on Ravelry, my username is my given name, which you can find at the Esty shop linked to in my bio. I haven’t posted any projects in forever, but maybe it’s time to work through my backlog.

          • Sunweaver

            Yeah. Nupps.
            I’ve sent you a message in Ravelry.

  • Rosamunde Woodward

    I purchased a handwoven green shawl through Novica that I have used for ritual work in front of others. Now that I’ve taken a step back from public life, it serves as a lovely altar cloth. <3

    • http://asawest.wordpress.com/ Asa West

      What a great idea! …but does it get candle wax on it? That happens to all the altars I build. And my carpet, too.

      • Rosamunde Woodward

        So far, so good! I mostly use tea lights, which are already rather self-contained. And then I only use them in holders, or on the smooth bamboo cutting board I put down on top of the altar cloth to act as a “working surface.” :)

        • http://asawest.wordpress.com/ Asa West

          Tea lights! That’s the secret. I tend to use a lot of tall candles, which seem to drip more.

  • An Elder Apprentice

    I enjoyed this post.
    Shawls are powerful!
    Many years ago I visited the Assyrian exhibit at the British Museum in London. At the entrance to the exhibit was a huge statue of a bull and the bull was wearing a talis , including specially knotted fringes, the tzitzit, carefully carved in the stone. The Assyrian exhibit consists of many hundreds of feet of elaborate bas-reliefs, taken from one or more palaces, showing scenes of Gods and kings, and a more than a few commoners, especially conquered tributary peoples. They were meant to impress the viewer, and did, when they were first carved and 3500 years later in a museum. How could I recognize the royalty or divinity, they wore the fringed shawl, commoners just had robes.
    I wonder what it is about a shawl, especially a fringed shawl that gives it such power?

    • http://asawest.wordpress.com/ Asa West

      That sounds amazing! I was in London about ten years ago, but didn’t get to visit the Assyrian exhibit at the British Museum.

      The one thing that strikes me about shawls is that, for some reason, they make me feel a little taller. I don’t know if that’s a thing (the vertical lines, maybe?) or just my own idiosyncrasy, though.

      • An Elder Apprentice

        Asa, it makes sense that the shawl would make you feel taller, the bit of pressure on the shoulders and the line. Perhaps a bit royal too.
        Perhaps think about the knotted fringes too as magical tools. The treaditional ones knots are hebrew letters and I understand there are traditions of Knot magic perhaps craft tzitzit with appropriate meanings. The four fringes among other things are meant to invoke the four directions.

        • http://asawest.wordpress.com/ Asa West

          Elder Apprentice, I never connected the tzitzit with knot magic! It makes perfect sense, though.That opens up a lot of interesting possibilities.

  • Haloes Angel

    Its cool that you can combine both religions comfortably :)

  • Tim McClennen

    What an interesting thought. I inherited a tallit from my grandmother. I don’t feel very much attraction to Judaism, but I certainly do feel a strong connection to my family. Perhaps I will start wearing it to ritual.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X