One of the reasons it’s important to understand the Jewish roots of our faith is that it helps us understand the meaning of what we read in the Bible. For example, what did Jesus mean when he mentioned that the Pharisees lengthened their tassels: "But they do all their works to be seen by men; for they...lengthen their tassels" (Matt. 23:5)?
In this case, the difference in wording is very slight. Where many translations put “and,” in Greek it actually says “but.” How does this change the meaning? “But they do all their works to be seen by men; for they...lengthen their tassels, but they love the place of greatest honor when reclining at dinner and the seat of greatest honor in the synagogues” (Matt 23:5,6). Did you catch the difference? When we translate the passage correctly, we see that Jesus is not criticizing the lengthening of their tassels. The problem is that the Pharisees’ other actions didn’t match this sign of religious devotion. “For they lengthen their tassels,” is something good, but then they sought honor for themselves, which is not good. As a result, by their ungodly behavior they canceled out what otherwise would be the meritorious action of lengthening the tassels. The problem is not with their tassels, but with their lifestyle. And without a matching lifestyle, the lengthening of the tassels is a sham. This is quite a different understanding of this verse than what many assume it’s about. But in the culture of Jesus’ day, this is the more likely meaning. People just haven’t understood it correctly because of an anti-Jewish bias that has been in the Church’s thinking for many hundreds of years.
So why would Jesus approve the wearing of tassels as a sign of religious devotion? It was in obedience to a commandment in the Law of Moses: “Speak to the sons of Israel, and say to them that they will make for themselves a tassel [tzitzit] on the corners [or edges or wings; kanaphim] of their garments…and they will put on the tassel of each corner a cord of blue [techelet—a bluish or purple color]” (Num. 15:38,39). And what was the reason God commanded them to wear these tassels? “And it will serve as a tassel for you and you will see it and you will remember all the commandments of the LORD” (Num. 15:39). They were to wear the tassels to remind them of the commandments of the Law of Moses. What this means, of course, is that Jesus and the disciples, who carefully obeyed the Law of Moses, also wore these tassels.
The earliest evidence from outside of the Bible that the Jewish people wore tassels comes from the Black Obelisk, a carved stone put up by the Assyrian king Shalmanezer III about a thousand years before the time of Jesus. This was the time of Jehu (841-814 BC), one of the kings of the northern kingdom of Israel. In fact, one of the panels on the obelisk shows King Jehu bowing down before the Assyrian king (see picture below). Jehu had brought tribute gifts to Shalmanezer, hoping that the Assyrians would help him fight against the Syrians in Damascus. Unfortunately for Jehu, it didn’t work out that way. The Assyrians later returned to conquer and destroy Israel. But we did get this nice picture out of their meeting. This, by the way, is the first known picture of a person mentioned in the Bible.
|Detail of the Black Obelisk with Jehu bowing down before Shalmanezer III
Jehu Obelisk Cropped by Steven G. Johnson / CC BY-SA 3.0
We can’t see what Jehu is wearing very well, because he’s bowing down on his knees. But we can get a good view of his servants who are carrying the tribute gifts (see picture below). They all are wearing pointy elf-like hats and pointy shoes, which must have been the fashion in those days. But we can also see that they’re wearing a fringed outer garment over their tunics. This is wrapped around and then up and over their left shoulders, where we can see—guess what—tassels sticking out.
|Detail of the Black Obelisk showing the servants of Jehu bearing tribute gifts
Another early picture comes from more than a century later, when the Assyrians destroyed most of the southern kingdom of Judah. It’s a relief from the Assyrian palace at Nineveh, the same city where Jonah the prophet preached, showing the destruction of a city of Judah (Lachish) and the people being taken into exile. The men of Judah are shown with rounded hats and long ear guards (see picture below). Fashions had obviously changed since the time of the Black Obelisk, or maybe it’s because of the season of the year, but the men from Judah wear only a simple skirt-like garment. And sure enough, coming out of its side is a long and wide tassel. Even a young boy is shown wearing the tassel.
|Detail of the Lachish Relief showing Israelites being taken into exile
Lachish Relief, British Museum 5 by Mike Peel / CC BY-SA 4.0
Traditional religious Jews still wear tassels today. During the day, they wear them on a little vest under their shirts (the tallit katan), with the tassels sticking out at the waist and hanging down over their pants. Other than this, tassels are most commonly worn on a prayer shawl known as a tallit. This is worn only during times of prayer.
Sometimes they’ll pull the tallit up over their heads while praying. Maybe you’ve seen movies in which Jesus is shown doing this. But this custom started long after the time of Jesus. In his day, Paul tells us that “Every man praying or prophesying with something on his head dishonors his head” (1 Cor. 11:4). So we can be sure that Jesus and the disciples prayed with their heads uncovered.
Besides, the prayer shawls used today were invented long after the time of Jesus. In his day, the tassels were still attached to the outer garment of their everyday clothing. They also still had the blue thread in their tassels, which is missing from most tassels today. Why don’t modern tassels have a blue thread anymore? Because in the Muslim conquest in the 7th cent. AD, the purple dye industry was destroyed, and that particular bluish or purple dye (techelet) was not available anymore.
If it was cold, of course, they might wrap their cloaks around their heads, as Elijah did on Mt. Sinai—not for prayer, but for warmth. “And it was when Elijah heard it that he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the opening of the cave; and look—a voice spoke to him and it said, ‘Why are you here, Elijah?’” (1 Kings 19:13).
In Bible days, this outer garment or cloak to which the tassels were attached was known by several different Hebrew names—me’il, salma, kesut, or aderet—which are usually translated as either robe, mantle, or cloak. There might have been some slight differences between them that are now lost to us today. But we do know that in Jesus’ day, the cloaks were made of a single rectangular piece of cloth that was wrapped around the body in different ways. How do we know that? From historical writings, ancient art, and actual cloaks from the time of Jesus discovered in caves near the Dead Sea.
For the poor, the cloak doubled as a blanket in cold weather. “If you ever take your neighbor's cloak as a pledge, you are to return it to him before the sun sets, for that is his only covering; it is his cloak for his body. What else will he sleep in?” (Exo. 22:26,27).
Why did God choose tassels on their cloaks as a sign of his commandments? Why not some other kind of decoration? As it turns out, tassels had an important meaning in the cultures around Israel in the time of Moses. This meaning was lost until some archeological discoveries were made at Mari in modern Syria, starting in 1933. Here the royal archives of a palace were discovered with more than 20,000 clay tablets from the time of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (about 1800 BC). The Mari tablets tell us all kinds of interesting things about that time, and help us understand many things in the Bible.
One thing the Mari tablets tell us is that in the countries around Israel, tassels on a person’s clothes were the sign of a high position in society: only the priests and the rich had tassels. The poor did not, nor did the slaves. But in Israel, God commanded that everyone was to wear tassels. Why? What did this mean? By having all of his people wear tassels, God showed that every one of his people was important, not just some of them.
But why a cord of blue? The dye for the color blue or purple was especially valuable. Today, with synthetic dyes, you can make any color. But in those days, it was very difficult to make a blue or purple color that would stay in the fabric. You could use berries or certain minerals, but they would wash out quickly. About the only way to make a blue color that would stay in the cloth was from a snail that lives in the Mediterranean Sea: the murex snail.
Fishermen would lower baited baskets into the water, and later bring up the snails. Then they would break open the shell and bring out a tiny little bit of the dye. It took tens of thousands of snails to make enough dye for a piece of clothing. This meant it was very expensive. As a result, it could only be afforded by kings, and so was associated with royalty.
Remember when they dressed Jesus in a purple robe, to make him look like a king? This was to make the false charge against him more believable—that he was plotting a rebellion to make himself king. ("And they clothed him in purple...and began to salute him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’" Mark 15:17)
Or what about Lydia, whom Paul met in the book of Acts? She was a seller of purple fabric. This means she was a wealthy merchant, who could help Paul with his ministry. ("And a certain woman named Lydia...a seller of purple fabrics..." Acts 16:14)
So why did God command the children of Israel to put an expensive cord of blue in their tassels? In the time of Moses, this same bluish or purple color was used in the curtains of the Tabernacle as a symbol of God’s royal authority. But he didn’t keep this color just for himself. The cord of blue in the tassels of every Israelite was a constant reminder of their connection with the Tabernacle and with the God who dwelt there. It was to remind them that they were not an ordinary people, but were God’s own special possession among the peoples, a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exo. 19:6). The blue cord was a daily reminder of their connection with the God of Israel.
Today, the tassels worn by the Jewish people are all tied with the same pattern of loops and knots. But in ancient times, each person’s tassels were tied differently. Let’s say we were in a meeting and it got hot, and we all took off our cloaks and put them on the side of the room. After the meeting, how would we know who the cloaks belonged to? By looking at the tassel, you could tell whose it was. The Mari tablets mention a prophecy sent to a king by a pagan prophet that included a lock of his hair and a piece of his tassel to prove his identity. By looking at the tassel, you could tell who it belonged to. A tassel could even be impressed as a signature on a clay tablet: you could do business with it.
This information helps us understand much more clearly many events in the Bible. For example, do you remember when Elijah went to anoint Elisha as a prophet? This is one of the things God told him to do on Mt. Sinai. We usually picture Elijah laying his cloak gently on Elisha. But in Hebrew it says: "And Elijah went over to Elisha and he threw his cloak to him. And Elisha left the oxen and ran after Elijah and he said, ‘Please let me kiss my father and my mother, and I will follow you'" (1 Kings 19:19-20). First, Elijah threw his cloak to Elisha. And then he must have turned around and hurried off in the other direction, because Elisha had to run to catch up with him. In all this, Elijah didn't say anything to Elisha. But Elisha knew exactly what it meant. How did he know? Elijah's cloak represented his personal identity and his prophetic authority. When he threw it to Elisha, and Elisha caught it or perhaps picked it up, it meant that he accepted God’s calling to follow Elijah.
Elisha must have given the cloak back to Elijah, because later Elijah used it to strike the water of the Jordan River, and it stopped flowing (“And Elijah took his cloak and folded it and struck the waters; and they were divided on one side and the other, and the two of them crossed over on dry ground,” 2 Kings 2:8). This was just before a chariot appeared and separated them, after which Elijah went up by a storm wind into heaven (2 Kings 2:11). But Elijah’s cloak had fallen off when he was taken up. So Elisha picked it up, and then he, too, struck the waters of the Jordan and they parted (“And he picked up the cloak of Elijah that fell off him; and he returned and he stood at the edge of the Jordan. And he took the cloak of Elijah that fell off him and struck the water and said, ‘Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah, even he?' And he struck the waters and they divided on one side and the other; and Elisha crossed over,” 2 Kings 2:,13,14). What did this mean? That the anointing of Elijah was now upon Elisha (“And the sons of the prophets that were in Jericho opposite him saw and they said, ‘The spirit of Elijah has rested on Elisha’; and they came to meet him and they bowed down before him to the ground,” 2 Kings 2:15).
Or what about even earlier, when Saul disobeyed the word of the Lord through Samuel, and Samuel said that memorable line to Saul, “Is there as much delight for the LORD in whole burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Look, to obey is better than sacrifice, to pay attention than the fat of rams” (1 Sam. 15:22). To obey the LORD is better than performing religious rituals. Why? Because if you don’t, “rebellion is like the sin of divination, and stubbornness is like wickedness and idolatry; because you rejected the word of the LORD, he has also rejected you from being king” (1 Sam. 15:23). Disobeying God is rebellion against God. And that’s just as serious a sin as divination. It’s as serious as worshiping false gods (idolatry). Because if you’re not obeying God, then you’re obeying something which is not God, and that’s very serious. And because of this, God rejected Saul as king.
So what did Saul do? “And Samuel turned to go and he [Saul] seized the corner (kanaf) of his cloak and it tore” (1 Sam. 15:27). Saul grabbed hold of one of the corners of Samuel’s cloak. What was in the corners? The tassels. He tore off one of the corners with its tassel from Samuel’s robe. So what did Samuel do? “And Samuel said to him, ‘The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and given it to your neighbor who is better than you” (1 Sam. 15:28). The prophet’s cloak was a symbol of his authority from God. When Saul tore it, this was a picture of his rebellion against God, attacking and rejecting God’s authority; and so God would also tear the kingdom away from him.
Or what about the time, several years later, when Saul, with 3,000 men, was chasing David in the desert (1 Sam. 24:1-22). If you remember the story, Saul needed to find what today we would call a rest room. But where can you have any privacy in the desert? There are hardly any trees or bushes to hide behind.
Sometimes we have the same problem with our tour groups in the desert. It’s very hot and very dry. So I tell them to drink water so they don’t get dehydrated. But after a while, water going in means that water has to go out. But where can we do that? There are no gas stations or restaurants in the desert, in fact, no buildings at all. So we take what we call a “wadi stop.” The men go over behind a hill or a rock on one side and the women go behind a rock or a hill on the other side.
Once we were way down in the southern deserts of Israel in a very flat area. There was only one tree as far as you could see with a couple of bushes by it. So we told the ladies to go over there, and the men would do their business on the other side of the bus. No sooner had the ladies bared their bottoms than several military tanks suddenly emerged out of their tank traps doing some kind of military exercise. And if that weren’t enough, at the same moment a handful of military jets flew by very low overhead. When I looked up at the jets, I could see every one of the pilots looking down at the ladies with their jaws hanging open. The ladies, of course, were even more shocked, and scurried quickly back to the bus. We sure got a good laugh out of that one.
Saul was in a more rocky area than that, so he was able to spot a cave he could use for a rest room. I’m sure he took off his cloak and went inside to do what he had to do. But he had no idea that David and his men were hiding, or actually living, inside that same cave. While Saul was busy, David snuck up and cut off the corner of his cloak: “And David got up and he secretly cut off the corner (kanaf) of Saul's cloak” (1 Sam. 24:4). What was on the corner? One of the tassels.
David’s men said to him, now’s your opportunity to kill your enemy! But David said he would never harm the Lord’s anointed (1 Sam. 24:6). In fact, he even felt bad about cutting off the corner of Saul’s cloak (1 Sam. 24:5).
When Saul was finished, he had no idea what had happened, and picked up his robe and walked out. But a short time later, David came to the entrance of the cave and called out to him: “See, the corner of your robe in my hand” (1 Sam. 24:11). I could have killed you, but I didn't. I’m not your enemy! Saul said: "And now look, I know you will surely become king" (1 Sam. 24:20). Why did he say that? He saw David holding the symbol of royal authority in his hand. And he realized it wouldn’t be much longer before he had all the rest. ("And now look, I know that you will surely be king, and the kingdom of Israel will rise up in your hand," 1 Sam. 24:20.)
Or what about in the parables of Jesus? Do you remember the story of the Prodigal Son, the boy who ran away from his father and wasted his inheritance? (Luke 15:11-32) This was a really difficult child to deal with. Can you imagine if one of your children came up to you today and demanded their inheritance? What would you say? ‘I’m not even dead yet, and you want your inheritance?’ This was a tremendous insult to the father. But the father did it anyway: he gave the boy his inheritance. And sure enough, the boy wasted it all and ruined his life. But what then did the father do when the boy finally returned home? He put a ring on his finger and gave him his best cloak to wear: the one with the expensive tassels on it (“But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him,’” Luke 15:22). If we were to put that story into the modern day, we would say that the father gave him the keys to the car and the credit card. What was the meaning? To show that the son was accepted back again completely, not as a servant, but as a son and an heir, just as if he’d never left.
Or what about the cloaks the people put under the feet of the donkey Jesus was riding on Palm Sunday (Matt. 21:8). Why did they do that? To keep the donkey’s feet from getting dirty? I don’t think so. The donkey’s feet were already dirty. No, those cloaks with their tassels were a symbol of the individual identity and authority of each of those people. It’s the same as if they had gotten down on their knees and said, “I accept you as King Messiah. I’m willing to follow wherever you lead.”
Do you remember the woman with the flow of blood, who tried to touch the tassel of Jesus' garment (Matt. 9:20-22)? Her story is really a very sad one. Because of that blood, she was what the Jews call a zavah: she was in a state of ritual uncleanness. A zavah makes anything unclean she sits on or lies on, or even that she leans on. So let’s say that the zavah woman sat on a chair. Anyone else who sat there or touched it also became unclean (Lev. 15:26-27). This was a one-day contact uncleanness (Lev. 22:4-6). It meant you had to take a ritual bath, and then wait until evening to be clean again. This was a real inconvenience. Who would want to come visit you if they knew they would become unclean like that? Of course, all women went through a similar condition for a few days each month (Lev. 15:19-23). But she had been unclean for twelve years! This was not good news for her social life! That’s why she spent all she had on what’s usually translated “doctors” (Mark 5:26). But these were not like doctors we have today: they were more like native healers or witch doctors.
For example, they would take you to their temple, perhaps a temple of the Greek god Asclepius, and make you walk at night through a long, dark tunnel, deep underground. You couldn’t see anything while you were walking. But unknown to you, there were openings in the roof of the tunnel, with people waiting up there. When they heard you walk underneath, they would suddenly pour water down on your head! I guess that’s what they call shock therapy. Or they might have you sleep in a room filled with snakes. I don’t see how that would help you. She wasted all her money on “cures” like these, but instead of helping her, she only got worse.
But then she heard about the ministry of Jesus. And she got the idea to secretly sneak up and touch his cloak (“for she was saying to herself, ‘If only I touch his cloak, I will be saved,’” Matt. 9:21). How could his cloak help her? There was a tradition among the Jews that when Messiah came, the “wings” or corners of his cloak would have healing power. Where did they get this idea? From Malachi 4:2, “The sun of righteousness will arise…and healing will be in his wings (his corners).” The rabbis, just like Christians today, associated this “sun of righteousness” with the Messiah (Exo. Rab. 31.10). This implied that when Messiah came, his “wings” or “corners”—that is, the corners of his cloak—would have healing power. It was a symbol of Jesus’ identity and his authority. She believed that if only she could touch his cloak, she would be healed.
There was only one problem with her plan: at the time he was always surrounded by crowds. If she tried to get close to him, she would have to press up against many people in the crowd, making them unclean. Doing such a thing was socially unacceptable! No nice person would even think of doing such a thing. But she was desperate. Her condition had so humiliated her and ruined her life that she was willing to do something socially unacceptable, because she believed that if only she could touch the corner of his cloak, she would be healed.
So she snuck up behind Jesus as best she could, and reached out and took hold of one of the corners of his cloak (“And look, a woman who had been bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the tassel of his cloak,” Matt. 9:20). And sure enough, she felt the power of God go through her: she was healed! So she turned around and tried to leave as quickly as she could. But Jesus noticed that something had happened. He felt power go out of him. So he began to call out, "Who touched me?" (Luke 8:45).
Just imagine the situation of this woman. She thought she could carry out her plan secretly. But now Jesus knew what had happened and was looking for her! How embarrassing! If he found her, what she did would be exposed to the crowd and everyone would despise her! If Jesus was anything like the other rabbis, he might even rebuke her publicly! That's why, when she finally confessed, she "came trembling and fell down before him" (Luke 8:47). She was humiliated before all those people!
The last thing in the world she expected to hear were the kind words of Jesus: "Daughter, your faith has saved you; go in peace"! (Luke 8:48). Some translations say, “your faith has made you well.” But in Greek it clearly says “your faith has saved you.” What faith was that? Her faith that Jesus’ tassels were the “wings,” the corners of the Messiah. Her faith had brought her not only physical, but also spiritual healing.
Even today, the rabbis talk about coming to God as coming “under his wings.” Where do they get that from? It’s based on that beautiful verse from the book of Ruth, when Boaz blesses Ruth for accepting Israel and Israel’s God: “May the LORD reward what you have done, and may your wages be peaceful from the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to seek refuge” (Ruth 2:12). Those who come to faith in Jesus come under the wings of the Almighty. As David said in Psalm 91:4, “With his feathers, he will cover you, and under his wings you will seek refuge.” What a beautiful picture this is of those who come in faith to Jesus! Jesus accepts us while we are still unclean, he heals us, and he sends us out with a blessing.
We can’t touch the tassels of Jesus’ cloak today. But we can do something very similar to contact his identity and his authority. What is it? To pray in Jesus’ name. Just like the tassels of ancient times, the name of Jesus—Yeshua—represents the identity and authority of the Messiah. And there is healing in his “wings.” When we pray by faith in his name, we make contact with his power: As he said in John 14:14: "If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it."
Do you need to touch the tassel of Jesus’ cloak today for something in your life? Maybe you’re like that woman, trembling because you’re not sure if he will accept you or not, not sure if he will answer your prayer or not. But the Bible clearly tells us that he will accept you, if you come to him in faith. And not only will he deal with that problem in your life, he’ll send you out with a blessing. Amen? All you need to do is ask.
Let’s pray: Lord, we thank you for the tremendous love you show your people when you help us with difficult situations in our lives. You know the problems we’re facing right now. In fact, you are the one that brought us to this point where we cannot see the answer, where we cannot see the solution, and in fact, it looks completely impossible to us. But you’re the God of the impossible. And when you do the impossible, no one else will get any of the glory. Only you. And Lord, when you overcome the impossible in our lives, we’re going to give you all the glory. In Jesus' name.
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