As newlyweds, my husband and I belonged to a traditional Conservative congregation…one in which women were welcome to sit side-by-side with the men, but didn’t generally participate on the bimah. I don’t recall ever seeing a woman wearing a tallit. A few years later, we relocated to be closer to family, and went in search of a synagogue ‘home.’ We settled on the nearest venue with a solid preschool to nurture our growing brood. Luckily for us, it would turn out to be a warm, wonderful, and truly egalitarian brand of Conservative shul. At the first services, I noticed that a fair number of women chose to wear a tallit…something I did not yet feel comfortable doing.
In fact, I waded in slowly. Not having gone to Hebrew school as a child, I took part in an adult b’nai mitzvah (group bar/bat mitzvah service) a year or two before my eldest daughter became bat mitzvah. It was, I reasoned, my obligation to put in the same work I was expecting of her. I had no idea how rewarding that preparation would be…or just how much I would come to love tying tzitzit or reading Torah for the congregation. In preparation, we took a refresher on much of the Shabbat prayer service and learned to read the trope symbols that spell out the music of Torah and Haftarah. For me, the musical element opened the door to interpreting the Hebrew characters that used to swim in front of me. Somehow, hearing it had never been as meaningful as reading it for myself. Of course, I still read the translation, as I’m not fluent in Biblical Hebrew, but the very act of reading Torah holds meaning for me.
The more surprising takeaway was that of an accidental career. One of the many guest instructors who shared their expertise with the b’nai mitzvah class was a talented sewing and needlepoint artist. Having completed numerous ornate and inspiring talitot, she encouraged each of us to create our own tallit, and taught us how to tie the tzitzit in kosher fashion.
Being somewhat handy with a needle and thread, I designed an ambitious exercise in self-expression, combining my Celtic and Jewish identities in a beaded Tree of Life tallit. (I regretted my hubris after weeks of stiff-necked late nights culminated in a near all-nighter spent stitching.) But after a year of practice, and hours of needlework, the long-awaited occasion finally arrived. With a little trepidation, I recited the tzitzit blessing, swung my tallit over my shoulders, and took my place before the open Torah scroll. Reassured by its weight, I wore it like a security blanket that first time. Having worn it for a number of years, it’s purpose shifts from occasion to occasion, but I never fail to find safety under the atarah (neckband), or to feel joy at gathering the tzitzit to kiss the Torah. During a long High Holiday service, I might find myself absently tracing the beadwork, or pulling it up tight while the Rabbi discusses some current event too awful for words. However I wear it, I find the tallit garment to be a physical reminder of the holiness (and wholeness) we are all seeking.
Unlike most other elements of Judaism, there aren’t a lot of rules about a tallit (I’ll review those elsewhere). But having designed and sewn nearly 1,000 of them, I can say I’ve learned a few things since the first one.
- Style matters. If it doesn’t fit your aesthetic, you’ll never feel comfortable wearing it. Like your favorite party dress or pair of shoes, putting it on should make you happy. The bimah is not the runway, so shoot for something timeless or unique that you will still love next year…or next decade.
- Tallit sizing is entirely subjective. What feels too small to one wearer might feel too large to another of the same physical size. One person might want a scarf, while another prefers a blanket. Take a moment to decide how you will wear yours, and check measurements if you have specific needs.
- Fabric is more than color or pattern. Considering weight and texture are important if you’re someone who is picky about clothing. If you’re easily overheated, a sheer or lightweight natural fiber will work well. If you’re always cold, a heavier or more generously sized tallit might be more appropriate.
Whether buying for a young bat mitzvah, an adult anniversary, replacing an old tallit, or simply adopting the custom for the first time, considering how it will be worn is everything in finding a good match. Ultimately, a tallit choice is about creating a personal prayer space.