What's the story behind sick people pressing upon Jesus trying to touch his clothing to be healed? The passage from Mark 6:56 sent me on a search for Jewish culture and traditions at the time of Christ.
Biblical scholars tell us that some Scripture 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 clothing and around His shoulders. The Synoptic 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.”
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 people were reaching out to touch for healing. Smaller tassels are in series of 10 to represent 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 could 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 give specific instructions to the men of Israel how certain items should be made and their significance. The tassels at the corners were a reminder to keep the Commandments of 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 publicly display their piety while their actions didn’t measure up.
Some biblical scholars suggest that the word translated “tent” in reference to the apostle Paul's occupation to support himself while preaching so that he would not be a burden to those who heard his good news actually means the making of Prayer Shawls. Not tents in the sense of durable cloth sewn together to provide a place of temporary living outdoors. “Tentmaking” was also the occupation of Priscilla and Aquila mentioned in Acts. Jewish society at that time would not have been a ready market for such a commodity as collapsible shelters.
(Still other scholars believe that Paul and his friends were constructing the temporary booths that were required for the Feast of the Tabernacles called Sukkot. So the jury is still out on the precise meaning of their occupation.)
In Israeli society then as well as now, there was little time alone because people lived so crowded together. Jesus often felt the urgency for privacy, 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 described it. Some suppose 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 whatever the circumstances as the apostle Paul wrote.
Christ indwells the believer. God is always with me and in me by His Holy Spirit. 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 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 the distractions around me while devoting 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.
In whatever way 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 as did the woman in the crowd. “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).