Despite its first reference in the Bible being to a time that is dated about 3,200 years ago, the Tallit was believed to have been used since around the year 1800 BCE or 3,800 years ago.
The talliot of this period were different than the ones we think of and use today. The original tallit was a large white rectangular garment with the tzitziot tied at the corners. Unlike modern tallitot, this was used as a bed sheet and a burial shroud.
The appearance of the tallit in the Bible from around 3,200 years ago comes from when the Jews spent their 40 years in the desert. While the commandment came from this period, there was no specification given on how to tie the fringes, or tzitzit as they are called.
During the period of the Temples, only Levites or Kohanim would wear the finer Tallitot. Scholars still debate how widespread the wearing of a tallit and tzitzit was during Biblical times. Scholars have however confirmed that the tallit resembling what we wear today was used at least as early as the 2nd century CE, if not earlier.
Even during this period, the extent of the usage of tallitot is debated. Those who wore tallitot only did so during the day as one could not view the tzitzit during the darkness of night. The wearing of a tallit during the period was so intermittent that some Jews of the period would even forgo the final verse of the Shema as the verse had dealt with the wearing of the tallitot.
Over the centuries, there were two critical changes in the customs of wearing a tallit. The first was the introduction of the tallit katan or “little tallit.” This tallit was worn as an undergarment and allowed Jews living in the Diaspora to don the tallit during the day without being too conspicuous in a hostile world.
The other major change was the reversal of the ban on donning the tallit at night. Since at least the 17th century, it has been common for a Rabbi or Hazzan (cantor) to lead evening services while donning the tallit.
The tallit we wear today may have roots of over 3,800 years ago, but it has gone through many evolutions.