In the sequence of the gospel readings today at Mass, the passage from Mark 6:56 sent me to research Jewish culture and traditions at the time of Christ. Why were sick people pressing upon Jesus trying to touch His clothing to be healed?
Biblical scholars tell us that some translations need more accurate rendering. It was not simply the hem of His ordinary garment which the woman with the issue of blood reached out to touch. More correctly translated in some versions, it was the fringe, or tassels on His Prayer Shawl. As a Rabbi, Jesus would have worn one most of the time over his ordinary clothes and around His shoulders. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all mention this. Definitely Jesus would have worn it when He “went apart alone to pray” or when He taught in the Synagogues. It was called a “Tallith.”
When I was traveling in Israel, I bought a modern one which was quite elaborate. A Tallith today is made of silk or wool, usually white, interwoven with threads of blue, gold, and silver. Each color has some significance. The “zizith” are the fringes or tassels of entwined threads at the four corners of the shawl which the people were reaching out to touch for healing. Smaller tassels are in series of 10 representing the 10 Commandments. Often a representation of the tablets of the Commandments is embroidered on it, as well as the 7 stick candelabra. Hebrew words from the Torah, for instance “The Lord our God is one God” and other quotations are embroidered on it. The tassels at the ends are blue or purple and longer than the others. A Rabbi or Messianic Jewish friend might tell us more about the spiritual and traditional significance of the designs.
In the Old Testament in Numbers 15:37- 41 and Deuteronomy 22:12 God commanded Moses to initiate the custom for the men of Israel with specific instructions how they should be made and what would be their significance. The tassels at the corners were to remind them to keep the Commandments of the God. They became the symbol of Jewish obedience to the Law. Jesus condemned the Scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites in Matthew 23:5 for making their tassels overly long to publically display their piety while their actions didn’t measure up.
In Israeli society then as well as now, there was little alone time because people lived so crowded together. Jesus often felt the urgency to separate Himself from the crowd, even from His disciples, to listen to His Father. When a Jewish man wanted to pray, he could do so anywhere and anytime by putting his Prayer Tallith around his shoulders or over his head. Immediately, whether there was a crowd around him or not, he was “praying in secret” as Jesus said. Some biblical scholars say that “entering into your closet to pray” could also have referred to creating a private place for prayer by putting on the Prayer Shawl.
These days in our society privacy is at a premium as well. Our cities are crowded and at home we are often surrounded by family members. Friends, work associates, and the general public press in upon us when we are away from home. Quiet time to pray is hard to come by. Nevertheless we can and should “pray without ceasing” throughout the day under any circumstances. God is always with me and in me by His Holy Spirit, and Christ indwells the believer. I am never separated from Him. However, some people may find it helpful during their private prayers to use some tangible symbol to make such time special. Some people may light a candle. It can be a reminder to approach the presence of God in silence and with a spirit of reverence and awe.
Of course there is nothing magical about putting on a prayer shawl of whatever kind when I set aside a regular time for prayer. We don’t have to use an authentic one such as Jewish men, and women too, use today during prayer. It can be a scarf around my shoulders or a veil over my head, as a symbol that I am separating myself from distracting things around me as I devote myself to prayer. When Susanna Wesley, mother of 18 children (including her famous preacher and hymn writer sons, John and Charles Wesley) wanted privacy for prayer, she pulled her work apron over her head. Whether she was in the kitchen or the bedroom, her children, even the youngest ones, knew and respected her quiet time with God.
However we reach out to touch Jesus for healing, wisdom, strength, or provision of our daily needs, the promise is “Draw near unto God and He will draw near to you.” (James 4:8) No matter what crowd is pressing around us, how our circumstances push us to the wall, how we long for personal space, how much we desire healing and wholeness of body, mind, or spirit, we can touch Jesus. “The Lord is near to all who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth. He will fulfill the desire of those who fear Him; He will also hear their cry and will save them. (Psalm 145:18, 19)END