A tallit order

I took advantage of an unexpectedly free afternoon on Sunday to look for a tallit at Afikomen, the East Bay’s wonderful Judaica store.

Some traditional striped tallitot at Afikomen

The tallit is the rectangular fringed shawl worn by many Jews during prayers.  Its roots lie in the books of Numbers and  Deuteronomy, where the Israelites are told to put fringes on the four corners of their garments as a reminder of God’s commandments. Back in Biblical times, it was apparently common to wear rectangular tunic-type things, and so this directive applied to general clothing. By the middle ages, fashion had moved a bit past tunics, so Jews started wearing special four-cornered fringed undershirts or fringed prayer shawls.

When I started this blog, I wrote about how the tallit was part of the inspiration behind my Bat Mitzvah process. I wanted to wear one but felt like I needed to “earn” it by learning more about the religious side of Judaism. Thus… becoming a Bat Mitzvah.

Pastel and light-colored tallitot -- or are they table linens?

Buying a tallit feels like the reward at the end of this process — dessert at the end of dinner. I get to treat myself, look around, pick something that feels really beautiful to me.

(There’s even a connection to my Torah  portion, which describes the skilled artisanship that went into building the tabernacle. There is a concept in Judaism called

chidur mitzvah

, or beautification of a commandment, which encourages us to add an artistic element to observing Jewish laws. That’s the basis not just for the craftsmanship of the tabernacle and the Temple, but also for ornate silver kiddush cups, hand-crafted menorot and now my tallit.)
Who ever guessed that it would be a mitzvah to buy a really beautiful item of clothing? Time to go shopping!

Now, Afikomen has a really wide selection of tallitot. That made the prospect of choosing one fun, but also a little excruciating — how to choose? One threshhold question that I’d been holding in the back of my mind for months was:  

Traditional or modern?

Traditionally, tallitot have been white with dark blue or black stripes. (Like what you see on the masthead of this blog! And also the inspiration for the Israeli flag.) But the designs and fabric actually don’t have any religious significance. The key requirement, from a religious point of view, is to have four corners with specially-knotted fringes. So in recent years, there’s been a blossoming of creative, modern tallitot.

There are ones in pastel color schemes. Silk-screened and batik ones. Ones with images of the Jerusalem skyline, or nature. All sorts of different fabrics, from wool to silk to organza.

I’ve felt torn as I thought about this from time to time, and wished I could buy two. I like the feeling of continuity and belonging that would come with a traditional dark-striped one, as well as the idea of having a tallit that would tap into the visual theme of this blog. On the other hand, I love the individuality and vibrancy and creativity of the more modern designs.

When I got to Afikomen, I felt a rush of those conflicting impulses. But then things started to sort themselves out. I quickly decided against a whole slew of tallitot that had pale pink stripes or pastel embroidery — they reminded me of table linens, and I’ve never been a pale pink kind of personality. I also decided against a bunch of organza/tulle/silk ones that were absolutely lovely, but looked too much like regular scarves you might buy at Nordstrom’s.

There was one tallit that drew my eye the moment I entered that corner of the store. It had dramatic burgundy applique poppies, and lighter orange stripes on a white background. The names of the four matriarchs – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah — were embroidered in the corners. I kept glancing over at it as I fingered other ones. Then some parents with 13-year-olds joined me in the tallit corner, and I found myself clutching the poppy tallit possessively: There was only one of it, and what if someone else decided to buy it before I could make up my mind?

I figured that counted as making a decision. So I bought it. And looking at it, I realized it was a blend of both things that I wanted: It’s distinctive and individual, yet no one would ever mistake it for a plain scarf. The material and the stripes clearly say “tallit.”

My choice!

I’m not sure you can really get a good visual sense of it from this picture, although you can see the “Sarah” embroidered at the bottom. I’ll post a photo of myself wearing it after the big day.

Meanwhile, Afikomen’s tallit section was right next to its kipa (yarmulke) section. For some reason, a kipa doesn’t exert the same emotional pull on me that a tallit does. For Reform Jews, both the tallit and kipa are optional, so I don’t need to wear one if it doesn’t speak to me.

There was one kipa that did speak to me, though. It was a “green” kipa, made of recycled materials.

And it said very loudly: Run away!

What I will not be wearing as a Bat Mitzvah / Photo by Ilana DeBare, courtesy of Afikomen

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14 Responses to “A tallit order”

  1. James Richardson Says:

    What are the knots on the fringes for?

  2. Ilana DeBare Says:

    This is arcane. Basically, the knots are there because the Talmud says they should be there. Various commentator have come up with different numerological justifications for the numbers of knots.

    Wikipedia says that Rashi “bases the number of knots on a gematria: the word tzitzit (in its Mishnaic spelling) has the value 600. Each tassel has eight threads (when doubled over) and five sets of knots, totalling 13. The sum of all numbers is 613, traditionally the number of mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah. This reflects the concept that donning a garment with tzitzyot reminds its wearer of all Torah commandments.”

    But then other commentators say that Rashi did the math wrong.

    You can find Wikipedia info on the knots and fringes, known in Hebrew as tzitzit, at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tzitzit. If you Google tzitzit, you can also find lots of Jewish web pages with detailed directions on how to tie and knot your own tzitzit. I am not doing that. :-)

  3. rachel Says:

    I went through a similar process twice – first on my conversion and then on my Bat Mitzvah. I knew that for my conversion, I wanted a traditional type tallit, complete with the blessing on the atarah.

    My conversion tallit is the Zalman Schachter B’Nai Or tallit, with strong colours interspersing black stripes. It’s very ‘me’ (I’m not a pastel person either!).

    My Bat Mitzvah tallit is a little less traditional – it too has the names of the 4 matriarchs at each corner, but has beautiful, strong-coloured embroidery of birds and plants on it (as well as some stripes) – one of Yair Emanuel’s creations. I will use this tallit every time I lead a service.

    I love beautifying the commandments!

  4. James Richardson Says:

    Ilana, oh I love this. Thank you!
    Ok, I must tell you I have a tallit that I got at B’nai Israel in Sacramento. It’s the basic one with blue stripes. I hope this does not offend, but I like to use it in my prayers. This will probably really offend, but I fiddle with the knots during prayers kinda like a rosary. That’s not really theological; it’s more about the fact that my fingers need to be doing something. And I have an interfaith wardrobe: I have a Muslim prayer scarf given to me from a friend who did a hitch in Afghanistan and a Tibetan Buddhist prayer shawl given to me by one of the Lamas when he visited the state Senate. The Tibetan shawl, gleaming white, has frays in the lower middle of each end; each fray represents a prayer by the maker of the shawl.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      No offense at all, Jim! Kinda cool if you ask me.

      There is also a history behind the blue stripes. When the Torah talked about the commandment to wear fringed garments, it referenced a thread in the fringe with a certain blue dye. But after Biblical times, no one really knew exactly what shade of blue or what the dye was made from, so the rabbis said to use white or plain-colored fringe rather than use the wrong kind of blue. Apparently the blue or black stripes are kind of a memorial to the missing blue thread.

      Also, some people believe they have now identified the right kind of blue dye and so some tallitot (very few) are sold with that particular blue in the fringe. Afikomen had something like 50 different tallitot for sale, but only one with that blue thread.

  5. Anna Mindess Says:

    Ilana, I think you picked the perfect one. It looks traditional and modern and it’s really gorgeous.

  6. Sam Schuchat Says:

    Jim, I have had several tallitot since my bar mitzvah, and I can assure you we ALL fidget with the strings and knots!

  7. Patti Says:

    You know, Ilana, you can have more than one… winter, summer, High Holidays, kids’ (eventual far off in the future) weddings, etc. etc.

    I went for white on white for my conversion, and I have an open-work crocheted kippah that’s white and gold. I did have my eye on a gorgeous tallit with beads in the fringes, and stripes of organza and silk ribbon, but the mid 3 figures price tag was a bit daunting. I still think about that one… maybe if I ever do the bat mitzvah thing myself…

  8. Linda Lewis Says:

    I have just finished weaving a tallit and found it a very interesting learning experience. I wanted to satisfy the tradition requireements yet create a piece that was more than a piece of fabric.
    I enjoyed reading your post and the associated comments.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Wow! Do you have a photo of it that I could post on the blog? And — did you design it yourself or are there tallit-weaving kits??? Is weaving something you’d done before this?

  9. Abby Caplin, MD Says:

    I love this post! Thank you, Ilana.

  10. neorachana Says:

    I made a tallit before I converted that I saved until afterwards; the members of the Rosh Hodesh group for my congregation were making them about the time I started getting serious about studying with my rabbi. I didn’t think I would ever have a bat mitzvah.

    I then made a second one for my bat mitzvah.

    I love both of them, neither are traditional in anything but the tzitzit.

    I’ve also made several for the congregation.

    Making tallitot is pretty common in our congregation and it’s a great experience; studying the construction and tying the fringes.

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