The controversy surrounding the actions of a Judean woman to touch Jesus’s garment makes us to consider deeply what kind of clothing Jewish men wore during the era. It seems there’s a disconnect between what the book of Mark and the books of Matthew and Luke say about whether the woman touched the “hem” or any random part of Jesus’s cloth. Had the woman touched another part of the garment other than the “hem”, could she have healed?
These actions have raised heated debates (refer to the Sanhedrin), because the Jewish tradition (i.e. The Mosaic Law and the Covenant), in the first place, forbade women from touching and talking to men who were clearly not their husbands, sons or fathers. Second, Jewish men had a higher social standing than women; hence, both genders weren’t equal. Third, the woman was a social outcast (leper), because she suffered from a rare kind of disease — chronic bleeding. Jesus raised her up from a kneeling position and talked to her; He treated her as an equal!
In Jewish terms, both Jesus and the woman transgressed against the laws, tradition or customs. This is despite the fact that the woman was healed. Hence, their actions were revolutionary, because they went against the established customs. This debate has brought into sharp focus what kind of cloth Jesus wore during the historic incident. This article examines the types of garment Jewish men wore during the first-century, and relates that to how they must have a part in the healing of the Judean woman. Let’s take a look.
There are four possible items a typical first-century Jewish man wore, according to Harper’s Encyclopedia of Bible Life.
- The tallit (cloak) – This rectangular garment has tassels (tzitzit) on every corner of the rectangle or square, and the material with it’s made is usually fine and seamless.
- The chaluq (tunic) – The material, which make up this garment is wool or linen. It’s usually a tight garment, which almost makes contact with skin.
- Headdress – it could be a towelhead, kerchief or a bandana that covers the head, shoulders and back of the neck.
During the first-century, Jewish men most often wore a tallit over chaluq, especially in public. The tallit covered the body from the shoulder all the way down to the ankle. The garment functioned as a protection against weather conditions. The tzitzit, even though served as a decoration, was made in compliance with the Mosaic Law.
What the Gospels say About What Part of the Jesus’s Cloth the Woman Intended to Touch
Now that we’re aware of how the Jewish men of Jesus era dressed, let’s examine what the book of Mark meant by stating that the woman intended to touch the “clothes” of Jesus. The books of Matthew and Luke give different accounts of what the woman’s true intentions were. The latter state that she intended to touch the “hem” of Jesus’s garment. (Refer to Matt. 9:20 and Luke 8:44). The word “hem” is kraspedon in Greek. When you look up that word in Strong’s Concordance, it’s the 2899th word, and means a margin i.e. either a tassel or fringe.
If we refer to a specific Mosaic Law, which defines the purpose of the tassel in the tallit, we can get its significance. Consider the following verse from the book of Numbers 15: 37-41:
Again the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel: Tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a blue thread in the tassels of the corners. And you shall have the tassel, that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the LORD and do them, and that you may not follow the harlotry to which your own heart and your own eyes are inclined, and that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy for your God. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God: I am the LORD your God.
We get a similar content from the book of Deuteronomy 22: 12:
You shall make tassels on the four corners of the clothing with which you cover yourself.
Hence, the tassel (tzitzit) is very significant; it acts as a constant reminder of obedience to the commandments and the covenant. And because Jews wore the tallit all the time, the presence of the tassels made it difficult for them to forget the Lord’s covenant when they came across temptations. The Lord commanded Israelites to wear the tzitzit, not the tallit – but it’s difficult to see how one can wear tassels without the cloak.
What’s the significance of the cloak, then?
Well, the Jews attach numerical value to almost anything, and so the tallit is not an exception. Every word created from the Hebrew alphabetical letter bears a numerical value. For example, God’s unpronounceable name in Jewish is a four-letter word YHWH. When you translate the word to English, it becomes LORD.
The Hebrew number system assigns a value of 13 to one (echad). The number system informs the number of windings when knitting the tassel. The knitter uses the catch phrase “the Lord is one” as a guiding principle to knit every tassel, which must contain four winding sets (7+8+11=YHWH,+13=echad). A double knot separates each of the 39 windings.
The Bottom Line…
The tassel is a highly significant part of the Jewish fabric, because it’s underlain by the covenant and the Mosaic Law. Could it be a pathway through which God’s power flowed from Jesus to the woman suffering from chronic bleeding? Was she too aware of this fact? Were the woman to touch another part other than the hem, could she have healed? The cloak has a numerical value just as any other thing. While the Gospel books don’t make a direct mention of the tassel, the books of Matthew and Luke indicate that the woman intended to touch the “hem”, which in this case was the tassel.