Tuesday, June 04, 2024


The background to how I began exploring the etymology of tallit טַלִּית is complicated, but perhaps more interesting than simply the bottom line. Therefore, I’ll tell it more like a story, and hopefully it will be fascinating to you as well.

It began when I was watching a video from the wonderful Jewish history YouTube channel by Sam Aranow. This video is called The Revival of Hebrew? (1879-1908), which focuses on the contributions of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and others in the modern revival of Hebrew.

To get a better perspective on the Hebrew language, Sam brought on Yair from the Che Languages YouTube channel. At 2:20, they mention words originating in Egyptian, Persian, Greek, and Latin. Many of those words I’ve written about here before. But one word caught my eye - tallit, which they claimed had a Greek origin.

I had never heard such a suggestion before. I was only familiar with the etymology provided by Klein:

טַלִּית f.n. Post-Biblical Hebrew 1 cloak. 2 prayer shawl. [Prob. from טִלֵּל (= he covered, roofed).]

In fact, I had mentioned that as a tangent on a post a while back:

The letters tzade and tet can switch between Hebrew and Aramaic, as can also be seen in the words tzel צל - "shade" and טלל - "to overshadow", the root of talit טלית.

But where was this Greek origin theory from?


It turns out that Yair had found the Greek origin for tallit on the Wiktionary page for טלית. The page provides two possible etymologies. One the one that I had heard, and the other claiming Greek origin:


Unclear. Suggestions include:

  • From the Aramaic root ט־ל־ל (t-l-l) (related to the Hebrew root צ־ל־ל (ts-l-l); compare צל (tsél)).

  • From Ancient Greek στολή (stolḗ, “garment”).

The only source given on that page was a 2001 post on the Avodah email discussion list by Rabbi Dr. Seth Mandel entitled Tallit/talles (a follow up from an earlier post of his and in response to a Philologos column). This is the relevant section from his post (links and italics are mine):

Furthermore, there is another, less well-known word in the Mishna which is certainly associated in meaning (remember, in the Mishna, tallet/t'lit does not mean exclusively "prayer" shawl). The word in most modern printed editions is vocalized itzt'lit: aleph, tzadi, lamed, tav, with some immot qriah thrown in as well. Look in Yoma 7:1 and Gittin 7:5. That word in the manuscripts is written in various ways: the Kaufmann ms. has estalet, with no yod at all, a segol under the aleph, then a samekh, then a tzere after the lamed (which has no dagesh). The Rambam own hand ms. of the Mishna also has the word without a yod before the tav, indicating the vowel is not a hiriq. That word, as the various spellings give away, is the Greek word stolé (also borrowed in English, by way of Latin, as meaning robe, commonly used as in mink stole). Aramaic and Leshon Hazal could not tolerate two consonants together beginning a word, and so a proclitic vowel was added to such Latin and Greek words, as also in words like itztadion (stadium) and many others. That Greek word, with the feminine Aramaic ending, was then estaleta/estalet or estalit. It seems clear that tallet was either a shortened form of this loan word, or some original Aramaic word from the root tll (which word is unattested) became influenced by the Greek loanword and its pronunciation. That would explain both tallet and t'lit: the Greek loanword had a short a vowel (commonly used as a reflex of the Greek omicron), so it either became a shva in Hebrew (and hence the Teimani form) or a pasah (which would require doubling of the lamed with a dagesh). Not only does a foreign origin explain the varying forms of tallet/t'lit

[He then goes on to explain why tallit is often pluralized as talleisim in Ashkenazic Hebrew, for more details, read the rest of his post.]

Mandel is claiming that the word tallit derives from the from the Talmudic word itztela אִצְטְלָא meaning “robe, cloak,” which in turn comes from the Greek “stole.” The English word “stole” has the same origin. It either means a long scarf or shawl, particularly used by women, or it can  refer to a liturgical vestment worn by Christians, which some say was influenced by the tallit.

It’s certainly an interesting theory, and Mandel’s explanation is certainly detailed and well thought-out. The words itztala and tallit could be connected linguistically, and certainly have a similar meaning. And the tallit was, as Mandel notes, a garment for general use - not only for prayer as it is today. But is the etymology his original idea, or did he base it on previous scholarship?

I intended to ask Rabbi Mandel directly, but sadly he passed away while I was researching the issue. But despite that loss, and hopefully to perpetuate his memory (and our shared love of Hebrew language history), I felt it was important to continue the search.

I first noticed that Rashi (Sanhedrin 44a, ד”ה איצטלא דמילתא) explains that itztela means tallit. That helps in identifying that the words have a shared meaning, but doesn’t necessarily speak to the etymology (and Rashi certainly does not make such a claim.)

I looked at more recent scholars for clues. Jastrow supports the טלל origin (not surprisingly, since he generally leans in the direction of Semitic roots for Hebrew and Aramaic words, even when more recent scholarship doesn’t justify it.) Kohut prefers a Persian origin (again, that seems to be his default preference.)

Ben Yehuda’s entry for טלית is interesting. The footnote (likely edited by Tur-Sinai) says that the origin of the word is unclear. It brings the טלל theory, but rejects it. (This makes Klein’s adoption of the theory surprising, since in general he follows the Ben Yehuda dictionary.) 

In support of this rejection, he quotes an 1890 article by the scholar David Günzburg in the journal Revue des Études Juives. In the article, “Origine du mot Talit”, Gunzburg explores a number of possibilities as to the etymology of tallit

Full disclosure, I wasn’t able to get a fully readable English version from online translation tools. If I’m not mistaken, he suggests a possible connection to the Latin trilix, meaning a three-threaded garment. That seems far-fetched, and I can see why Ben-Yehuda didn’t quote it.

But one claim of his did draw my attention. Just as Mandel had argued, Gunzburg also writes (page 18) that tallit is a masculine noun (not feminine as we use it today), which proves that it is a non-Semitic root. (In other words, the ת at the end is not a suffix, but part of the word.) But neither Gunzburg, nor Ben-Yehuda, offer a conjecture as to what that non-Semitic word might be.

Gunzberg didn’t, but Ginzberg did. I’m referring to the scholar Louis Ginzberg. I found a 1916 Festschrift for Adolf Schwarz, edited by the linguist Samuel Krauss. In the book, Ginzberg has a long essay (329-361) where he discusses the etymology of various Hebrew and Aramaic words. On page 359, he has a paragraph about the origin of tallit. He quotes Gunzburg, and accepts the non-Semitic origin of the word. He then goes on to propose that tallit derives from itztala

Here’s where it gets a little confusing. Ginzberg cites Krauss (the editor of the Festschrift). Once again, full disclosure - I’m relying on online translation for Ginzberg’s German. Here’s the original:

The translation seems to indicate that Krauss a) acknowledged the derivation from itztala but rejected it, and also b) accepted that explanation in another source. 

However, in Tosefet HeArukh (of which Krauss was one of the editors) the entry for tallit quotes Ginzburg in the Festschrift:

This entry also quotes Krauss (so maybe he didn’t write it? or it was written by committee?), and it says Krauss gives it an entirely different origin (the root טלא - “to patch”.) It also goes on to reject Kohut’s Persian origin (significant because one of the other editors was George Alexander Kohut, the son of the author of the Arukh HaShalem).

So it seems that Krauss was aware of the idea before Ginzburg. Did he come up with it only to reject it (a hava amina of sorts?), only to have Ginzburg remain convinced? Or was he quoting someone else?

I suppose more research needs to be done. And of course, the question remains: did Rabbi Mandel know about the theories of Krauss and Ginzberg? Either way, his scholarship is impressive. If he found their research, that must have taken a good deal of effort (certainly prior to the ease of internet searches which I benefited from). If he came up with it on his own, then he displayed creativity combined with serious intellect. 

And now I’m at the end of my journey. I started off being surprised by a claim in a video from 2023, and ended up finding debates from the turn of the 20th century. I hope you enjoyed the ride!

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