The tallit, which can be spread out like a sheet, is woven of wool or silk, in white, with black or blue stripes at the ends. The silk ones vary in size, for men, from about 36 × 54 inches (91 × 137 cm) to 72 × 96 inches (183 × 244 cm). The woolen tallit is proportionately larger (sometimes reaching to the ankle) and is made of two lengths sewed together, the stitching being covered with a narrow silk ribbon. A ribbon, or a band artistically woven with silver or gold threads(called “spania”), with the ends hanging, and about 24 inches (61 cm) long by from 2 to 6 inches (5 to 15 cm) wide, is sewed on the top of the tallit.
From the four corners of the tallit hang fringes called tzitzit, in compliance with the laws in the Torah (Num. xv. 38).
The original tallit probably resembled the “‘abayah,” or blanket, worn by the Bedouins for protection from sun and rain, and which has black stripes at the ends. The finer tallit, very likely, was similar in quality to the Roman pallium, and was worn only by distinguished men, rabbis, and scholars (B. B. 98a; Midrash Genesis Rabbah xxxvi.; Midrash Exodus Rabbah xxvii.). The tallit was sometimes worn partly doubled, and sometimes with the ends thrown over the shoulders (Talmud references Shab. 147a; Men. 41a).
The Kabbalists considered the tallit as a special garment for the service of God, intended, in connection with the tefillin, to inspire awe and reverence for God at prayer (Zohar, Exodus Toledot, p. 141a). The tallit is worn by all male worshipers at the morning prayer on week-days, Shabbat, and holy days; by the hazzan (cantor) at every prayer while before the Ark; and by the reader of Torah.
A tallit is commonly spead over the canopy at the wedding ceremony.
In the Talmudic and post-Talmudic periods the tefillin were worn by rabbis and scholars all day, and a special tallit was worn at prayer; hence they put on the tefillin before the tallit, as appears in the order given in “Seder Rabbi Amram Gaon” (p. 2a) and in the Zohar. In later times, when the tefillin came to be worn at morning prayer only, the tallit was put on first, after a special benediction had been recited.