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