Balashon has a very interesting and extensive post on the etymology of tallit טַלִּית ‘prayer shawl,’ prompted by watching a video called The Revival of Hebrew? (1879-1908):

To get a better perspective on the Hebrew language, Sam brought on Yair from the Che Languages YouTube channel. At 2:20, they mention words originating in Egyptian, Persian, Greek, and Latin. Many of those words I’ve written about here before. But one word caught my eye – tallit, which they claimed had a Greek origin.

I had never heard such a suggestion before. I was only familiar with the etymology provided by Klein […] But where was this Greek origin theory from?

It turns out that Yair had found the Greek origin for tallit on the Wiktionary page for טלית. The page provides two possible etymologies. One the one that I had heard, and the other claiming Greek origin: […] From Ancient Greek στολή (stolḗ, “garment”).

The only source given on that page was a 2001 post on the Avodah email discussion list by Rabbi Dr. Seth Mandel entitled Tallit/talles (a follow up from an earlier post of his and in response to a Philologos column). […]

Mandel is claiming that the word tallit derives from the from the Talmudic word itztela אִצְטְלָא meaning “robe, cloak,” which in turn comes from the Greek “stole.” The English word “stole” has the same origin. It either means a long scarf or shawl, particularly used by women, or it can refer to a liturgical vestment worn by Christians, which some say was influenced by the tallit.

It’s certainly an interesting theory, and Mandel’s explanation is certainly detailed and well thought-out. The words itztala and tallit could be connected linguistically, and certainly have a similar meaning. And the tallit was, as Mandel notes, a garment for general use – not only for prayer as it is today. But is the etymology his original idea, or did he base it on previous scholarship? […]

I looked at more recent scholars for clues. Jastrow supports the טלל origin (not surprisingly, since he generally leans in the direction of Semitic roots for Hebrew and Aramaic words, even when more recent scholarship doesn’t justify it.) Kohut prefers a Persian origin (again, that seems to be his default preference.)

Ben Yehuda’s entry for טלית is interesting. The footnote (likely edited by Tur-Sinai) says that the origin of the word is unclear. It brings the טלל theory, but rejects it. (This makes Klein’s adoption of the theory surprising, since in general he follows the Ben Yehuda dictionary.)

In support of this rejection, he quotes an 1890 article by the scholar David Günzburg in the journal Revue des Études Juives. In the article, “Origine du mot Talit”, Gunzburg explores a number of possibilities as to the etymology of tallit. […]

Just as Mandel had argued, Gunzburg also writes (page 18) that tallit is a masculine noun (not feminine as we use it today), which proves that it is a non-Semitic root. (In other words, the ת at the end is not a suffix, but part of the word.) But neither Gunzburg, nor Ben-Yehuda, offer a conjecture as to what that non-Semitic word might be.

Gunzberg didn’t, but Ginzberg did. I’m referring to the scholar Louis Ginzberg. I found a 1916 Festschrift for Adolf Schwarz, edited by the linguist Samuel Krauss. In the book, Ginzberg has a long essay (329-361) where he discusses the etymology of various Hebrew and Aramaic words. On page 359, he has a paragraph about the origin of tallit. He quotes Gunzburg, and accepts the non-Semitic origin of the word. He then goes on to propose that tallit derives from itztala.

More details and links at Balashon; the OED (entry revised 2021) says “< post-biblical Hebrew ṭallīṯ, ṭallēṯ cloak, prayer shawl, of uncertain origin, perhaps < Hebrew ṭallēl to cover, to roof,” for what that’s worth. I like the idea of its having a Greco-Aramaic origin, but I am completely incompetent to judge plausibility; I welcome all thoughts on the matter.


  1. The entry for the word in John Huehnergard’s Appendix of Semitic Roots (originally 2000, entry not revised since then) in the AHD:

    To be(come) dark, shaded; *ṯill‑, shade, shadow.
    ᴛᴀʟʟɪᴛ, from Mishnaic Hebrew ṭallît, cover, shawl, from ṭillēl, to cover, from Aramaic ṭallel, to cover, denominative from ṭəlāl, shade.

    This root is here in the SED online, with cognates.

  2. Your Hebrew enthusiast might be busy celebrating Shavuos, so we might not get to hear from them until the end of the week. Regarding the use of טלית in masculine form, I’ve heard Dr. Marc B. Shapiro discuss this. Perhaps in this lecture https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jliSj5C5aEY or this one https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VguvG6xE3Hw or elsewhere.

  3. Thanks!

  4. Thanks, I hadn’t seen the Shapiro clip before. For those interested, it’s at 12:07 in this one:


  5. I was curious about what Kohut’s Persian proposal actually was. It’s on the page previous to the one that Balashon linked to. He suggested that טלית ‘tallis’ would be from Arabic طيلسان ṭaylasān, ṭaylisān, from Persian تالسان tālisān, تا لشان tālišān. There is an unusually full Wiktionary entry for the Arabic word and its etymology here.

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