Like many words used in Judaism, the word Tallit can find its roots from the Aramaic language. The word comes from the Aramaic root that means “cover.” A literal translation of the world Tallit would show that the word means cloak or sheet, but by the era when the Talmud was written, the word had already come to refer to the Jewish prayer shawl.
While the modern Hebrew word is Tallit, many Ashkenazi Jews will still refer to the shawl as a Tallis. This comes from the Yiddish pronunciation where the letter Tav is often pronounced with an “s” sound as opposed to the “t” sound. In both Hebrew the plural version of the word is Tallitot while the Yiddish plural is Taleisim.
While the Tzitzit of the Tallit are unique to Judaism, the basic shawl of the Tallit has routes in other cultures. The tallit is similar to the pallium that is worn today by senior priests of the Roman Catholic Church. The Tallit has also been compared to the Roman toga or the Arab Kefiyeh. The Tallit has been noted for its appropriateness for the climate of Western Asia where it could protect its wearer from the intense UV rays of the sun on a hot day. During the cooler nights, the Tallit found use as a scarf and helped provide warmth.
The Kabbalists believed that the Tallit was a special garment to be worn in the service of G-d. It has often been compared to Tefillin in that both are traditionally worn during morning prayer services. The Tallit is also traditionally worn during prayer services on Shabbat and holy days where the Torah is to be removed from the ark. If one is to be called up to the Torah, he or she is expected to be donning a Tallit. There are two types of modern Tallitot. When most people refer to a Tallit, they are referring to the “Tallit Gadol” or large Tallit. This is the prayer shawl that is worn during prayer services over normal clothing.
The other type of modern tTallit is the “Tallit Katan” or small Tallit. This is often an undershirt that has Tzitzit attached to the corners and allows observant Jews to follow the mitzvah of wearing the Tzitzit when not in prayer. Despite its reputation of being an undergarment, some Orthodox Jews elect to wear the Tallit Katan over their normal clothing.