The Jewish Prayer Shawl and Arabic Keffiyeh

When he spreads a sudra over his head he should say: ‘Blessed is He who crowns Israel with glory’

- Berakot 60b, Talmud
tallit keffiyah - rabbi binyamin batzry sheikh muhammad hassan.jpg
Rabbi Binyamin Batzry (Tallit) and Sheikh Muhammad Hassan (Keffiyeh) both wearing headgear traditional to thier peope

This extract from the Talmud (Berakot 60b) mentions an ancient Jewish headdress, the “Sudar” / “Sudra”, translated by Jastrow as “a scarf wound around the head and hanging down over the neck”. It is accepted by most scholars that the ancient Israelites wore headgear similar, if not identical, to the keffiyeh still worn by Middle Eastern Jews to this day.

Yemenite Jew at the beginning of the 20th century, with a wrapped Keffiyeh/Sudra

Yemenite Jewish family

While it is common knowledge that Middle Eastern Jews and Arabs share similar headwear, it may surprise some that the Palestinian Keffiyeh has tassels. These tassels could have been added for aesthetic reasons, but this post will suggest they are a link to a much older tradition:

Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them, that they shall make themselves tassels (tzitzit) on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and they shall put on the corner tassels a blue (tekhelet) thread.

– Numbers 15:38

Since Talmudic times, or earlier, Bnei Yisrael fulfilled this commandment by attaching tassels to their prayer shawls (or Tallit in Aramaic). Compare the Ashkenazi Tallit below to the Palestinian Ghutrah/Keffiyeh worn by Yasser Arafat; while the two garments were found at opposite ends of Earth, their likeness is uncanny.

The final Lubavitch Rebbe (the leader of a chassidic dynasty that began in Russia) wearing a traditional Jewish prayer shawl; note the long corner tassels

Yasser Arafat's Keffiyeh / Ghutrah has long tassels on each corner, just like Jewish tzitzit

A Jew knows it is time to perform the morning prayers, when he can distinguish between the blue and white threads in the tassels of his prayer shawl.

When one can distinguish between [dark] blue [thread] and white [thread]

– Berakot 1:2

The Mishnah quoted was redacted around 220 CE, yet surprisingly we find a similar expression in the Quran 400 years later:

until the white thread appears to you distinct from the black thread

– al-Baqarah 2:187

Today this is understood metaphorically as “the white thread of dawn and the black thread of night“, but there could be an additional understanding lost over the passage of time.

According to Islamic tradition Muhammed was in regular contact with scholarly Jews (Abdullah ibn Salam, being one), these Jews prayed at set times (which, in a pre-clock era, were calculated by changes in light). The Quran’s use of Mishnaic language, verbatim, should not be attributed to chance, as it is improbable that Muhammed and his Jewish followers were not aware of this Mishnaic teaching.

Rather, one should deduce that both Jews and Muslims detected daybreak in a similar fashion, excuse the pun, with the remnants of this ancient custom being preserved in the tallit and keffiyeh.

Expanded on an article by Rabbi Ben Abrahamson

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One thought on “The Jewish Prayer Shawl and Arabic Keffiyeh

  1. jews are layers don’t bleave them you Muslim are in the Truth.

The Jewish Prayer Shawl and Arabic Keffiyeh