My decision to become a Bat Mitzvah began in part with a fashion accessory. Does that make me Bat Mitzvah Barbie?
I’m just kidding. Those of you who know me also know that I will never be mistaken for a Sex and the City character when it comes to fashion or accessorizing. But I do want to talk about a particular Jewish ritual item that helped inspire me to enter this process — the tallit, or in Yiddish, tallis.
A tallit is a fringed prayer shawl. Among Orthodox Jews, it’s a requirement that men wrap themselves in a tallit when they pray. Among Reform Jews, it’s considered optional and may be worn by men or women during prayer.
The roots of the tallit tradition come from a passage in Numbers and Deuteronomy where adult Jews are instructed to add fringes to the four corners of their clothing.
And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes in the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of blue. And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them….’ (Numbers 15:37-9)
At my synagogue, a minority of men typically wear tallitot and an even smaller number of women wear them. But my husband Sam always wears one, and when our daughter Becca became a Bat Mitzvah, we presented her with the tallit Sam had received at his own Bar Mitzvah ceremony.
Over the past decade, I’ve eyed the people wearing tallitot in services and thought that I would like one. It seemed like it might help foster a reflective state of mind — reinforce on a visceral level that I was leaving behind all mundane matters of work, errands, and so on. In wrapping the tallit around my shoulders, I would be wrapping myself in a more elevated and thoughtful (spiritual?) mindset.
I suspected that a tallit would increase my feeling of belonging to the community of Jews there in the synagogue on that given day. It also would be a statement to myself, “I didn’t just drop in or drift in here. I am here in this service and this congregation on purpose.” Like a beginning runner deciding to invest in good running shoes, having my own tallit would signify a commitment to continue attending services on an ongoing basis into the future.
There was also the lingering feminist-rebel part of me that liked the idea of being able to diss the Orthodox Jewish world and say, “Yeah, women can wear tallitot too!”
Now, in Reform Judaism, there’s no test you have to pass to wear a tallit. No one quizzes you at the door of the synagogue and says, “Young lady, do you have permission to wear that tallit?” So I could have just stopped in at Afikomen, our wonderful neighborhood Judaica store, and bought myself a tallit. These days they make all kinds of beautiful multi-hued, silk-screened tallitot – with images of flowers or rainbows or Jerusalem or what-have-you – and not just ones with the traditional white-with-dark-stripe design.
But it didn’t feel right.
I felt like I needed to earn my tallit. It shouldn’t be something I simply bought, like an iPod or pair of shoes. I needed to understand the structure and meaning of services, not just mumble and stumble my way through them. I needed to understand more about the religious part of Judaism.
In short, I needed to feel like I knew at least as much as the kids being given tallitot at their Bar and Bat Mitzvah services.
So… at the end of this process, I am promising myself a tallit.
And yes, as you guessed, the design that I chose for the image at the top of this blog is a a tallit. It’s a photograph of my husband’s tallit — not the one he gave to our daughter, but the one he uses these days and keeps in his closet near his ostrich leather boots and his 49 neckties.
As I mentioned, I’m not the one around here with the accessorizing issues. :-)