Posted on April 16, 2013
When a young man comes of age as a member of the congregation and of the Jewish people, one of the outward signs is the mitzvah of tzitzit, i.e. a bar mitzvah tallit. According to the Talmudic Sages, ideally a mitzvah should be performed in an aesthetic manner – zeh Eili ve’anveihu. Our aim is to help the young man find a bar mitzvah tallit that feels just right on his shoulders – on his bar mitzvah day and for many years to come.
If you’re looking for a traditional tallit, ensure it is made of wool, which looks nicer, lasts longer and is the material of choice from a halachic standpoint. When comparing prices, keep in mind that the same tallit made of a synthetic material (generally acrylic) will cost at least 30% less than a wool tallit. Most tallits are either all wool or all acrylic, but there are a few out there made of an acrylic/wool blend.
The more expensive type of wool tallit is made of a denser weave and sometimes includes special features such as wool corners and stain-resistant fabric. Many parents want a traditional-looking tallit, but want it personalized for their son. They may want to have a special atara (neckband) sewn on or have the bar mitzvah boy’s name embroidered on the tallit. Personally, I discourage name embroidery on the tallit, but certainly it’s very appropriate to have a name embroidered, in Hebrew or English, on a tallit bag.
Thinking of buying a handwoven tallit? Although handwoven wool tallits are common, you will also come across cotton and silk. Gabrieli is the only tallit maker I know of that works with all three materials. Their wool and cotton look very similar, although the cotton is a bit thinner and smoother in texture. A handwoven silk tallit is not the sheer silk of a silk blouse, because thick silk yarns are used. Compared to wool and cotton, a handmade silk tallit is somewhat thinner, more details and has higher sheen.
As noted above, the age-old wool tallit is invariably white with black stripes. Some Sephardic Jews have a custom of opting for a white tallit with white stripes, which has a very distinguished and elegant. Off-white and ivory handwoven tallits look traditional, yet unique and distinctive at the same time. White with blue stripes seems to be a popular choice among bar mitzvah tallit buyers, possibly because it is not too eccentric, yet adds a bit of color and flare.
What is the right bar mitzvah tallit size? That depends not only on the bar mitzvah boy, but on the type of congregation he belongs to as well.
In most Reform congregations, people wear the type of tallit that sits on the shoulders and hangs in front, but does not cover the back. This comes in Size 18, Size 24 and Size 36. Those numbers refer to the width. A Size 18 is narrow, just 18 inches wide, a Size 24 is medium and a Size 36 is wide. The Size 36 can be cumbersome on a boy. If he is still short, say under 5 feet tall, he’ll need a custom size. We get this type of request fairly frequently, and have several options available.
In some Conservative and all Orthodox congregations, people wear a full-size bar mitzvah tallit, worn in the traditional fashion – over the shoulders, with the corners pulled down the front and two-thirds of the tallit covering the back and hanging down to the waist (or sometimes even down to the legs).
If you wear the tallit this way, you’ll want a Size 45, Size 50, Size 55 or Size 60, depending on the bar mitzvah tallit wearer’s height.
Of course the best piece of advice is to have the young man try on different bar mitzvah tallit sizes and decide which works best for him. If you’re unsure which size a given tallit is, measure it from top to bottom (from the edge with the neckband to the edge opposite it that hangs down in back). If it’s around 24 inches, it’s a Size 24, if it’s around 36 inches it’s a Size 36, 45 inches is a Size 45, etc.
Generally tallit clips are relatively inexpensive, around $10 a set, but I have also seen spectacular sterling silver tallit clips and 14 karat gold tallit clips that run anywhere from $200 to $1,200. The most common designs include Jerusalem motifs, the Ten Commandments (Luchos Habris) and the Star of David. If you go for vibrant colors, try a set of Choshen tallit clips.
Upon giving a bar mitzvah tallit to his son, Rabbi Menachem Creditor penned an insightful “meditation.”
“Maybe once you wear this tallit, perhaps on a day when no one else is watching, you and I will be able to talk about how it felt,” he writes. He shares with his son “an understanding gained over time that a tallit is not only an object of beauty. Jewish hands have sometimes trembled holding our holy objects.”
He mentions the custom of wearing the tallit over one’s heads during prayer, adding, ” A tallit helps you see with your eyes closed.”
“I give you this tallit,” Rabbi Creditor concludes, “with a heart full of hope and full of anticipation for the person you are becoming.”
The essence of the tallit is the tzitzit. In his book of responsa, Az Nidberu, Rabbi Binyamin Zilber zt”l writes that all of the mitzvot ennoble the person who fulfills them, but some, namely tzitzit, are one of the main ways to undertake the yoke of Heaven.
He cites the Rambam, who notes that the mitzvah of tzitzit causes one to carry out all of the other mitzvahs in a comprehensive manner.