The truth about tassels: Healing those on the fringe

Jesus heals a blind man in this 19th century work by Václav Mánes. In the Gospels, many who sought to be healed by Jesus aimed to touch the tassels on his cloak, a sign prophesied in the Old Testament in Zechariah 8:20-23.

Jesus heals a blind man in this 19th century work by Václav Mánes. In the Gospels, many who sought to be healed by Jesus aimed to touch the tassels on his cloak, a sign prophesied in the Old Testament in Zechariah 8:20-23.

Handwriting can be laborious. Generally, if something is going to be written down, it needs to be important to the narrative. Otherwise, it’s just extra work. It’s for this reason that sometimes even small, incidental details in the Gospels can be very significant.

Gary Michuta

Gary Michuta

Take, for example, how Matthew recounts the healing of the woman with hemorrhages. He simply notes that a “… woman suffering hemorrhages for twelve years came up behind him and touched the tassel on his cloak. She said to herself, ‘If only I can touch his cloak, I shall be cured’” (Matthew 9:20-21). Jesus recognizes what has happened and responds, “Courage, daughter! Your faith has saved you” and the woman was cured.

As you can see, Matthew’s description is pretty bare bones except for one detail that doesn’t seem to have any bearing on the episode: Jesus’ tassels. Wait a second! Tassels? Why did Jesus’ garment have tassels? Jesus was an observant Jew, and the Law of Moses said that the Israelites should put tassels on the corners of their garments:

“The LORD said to Moses, ‘Speak to the Israelites and tell them that they and their descendants must put tassels on the corners of their garments, fastening each corner tassel with a violet cord. When you use these tassels, let the sight of them remind you to keep all the commandments of the LORD, without going wantonly astray after the desires of your hearts and eyes. Thus you will remember to keep all my commandments and be holy to your God” (Number 15:37-39).

These tassels were affixed to the four corners of the garment by a cord. Their function was to be a tangible reminder for the Jews to keep God’s commandments and be holy. Catholics and Orthodox also use religious objects for a similar purpose: namely, to inspire devotion to God and the desire to live a holy life. Jesus embraced this commandment to wear tassels, even though he castigated the Pharisees for “lengthening their tassels” out of pride (Matthew 23:5-6).

But why was it significant that the woman wished to touch Jesus’ tassels, as opposed to touching some other garment? The answer may be found in Zechariah 8:20-23, where it is prophesied:

“… There shall yet come peoples, the inhabitants of many cities; and the inhabitants of one city shall approach those of another, and say, ‘Come! let us go to implore the favor of the LORD’; and, ‘I too will go to seek the LORD.’ … In those days ten men of every nationality, speaking different tongues, shall take hold, yes, take hold of every Jew by the edge of his garment [literally, “tassels”] and say, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’”

The woman with the hemorrhages wasn’t alone. Later in Matthew we find that:

“When the men of that place recognized him [Jesus], they sent word to all the surrounding country. People brought to him all those who were sick and begged him that they might touch only the tassel on his cloak, and as many as touched it were healed” (Matthew 14:35-36).

Zechariah saw that one day those on the fringe of Jewish society (i.e., gentiles) would come and implore “the favor of the Lord” by grabbing on to every Jew’s tassel. The gentiles wishing to touch only the tassel on Jesus’ garment certain evokes Zechariah’s thoughts.

It’s important to also note that Jesus not only approved of using physical objects to remind us to live a holy life, but also that he was very comfortable using material things to affect spiritual benefits. There are dozens of examples in the New Testament where Jesus and his apostles heal using some physical medium such as by touching (Matthew 20:31-34), by smearing mud (John 9:6), and even by face cloths and aprons that had contact with the apostles (Acts 9:11-12). The same is true for the sacraments of the Church where God uses physical things (i.e., water, bread, wine, oil, etc.) as visible signs of invisible graces.


Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.