Despite our Tallit Size Wizard, we still get a lot of tallit sizing questions. This week we received an inquiry from a visitor to our webstore who thought our sizing chart was all wrong.
Let me ask a question on sizing: You show the sizing as height first and then width. Are you sure that the height is first? The height should be longer than the width.
I know it's counter-intuitive, but actually the width of a tallit is always longer than the height.
The reason is that a tallit worn traditional-style, draping down the back, is designed to be worn such that much of the width is propped up on the shoulders. A medium size tallit is 73 inches (185 cm) wide, i.e. from one fringed side to the other. Obviously nobody's shoulders are 73 inches wide, but rather in the neighborhood of 14 our 16 inches.
So the vast majority of that width is bunched up on your shoulders. Some people just fold each side in half, so that the tallit extends across most of the upper arms as well.
Just to be very clear, the height, therefore, means the edge with the atara (neckband) down to the opposite edge parallel to the floor when worn. This measurement is generally the more critical factor in tallit sizing. Typically people want a tallit to hang down to around mid-thigh in back (not including the tzitzit), although some people will go down a size to make the tallit very manageable, and some people will go up a size to make it long and elegant. In most cases, the difference from one size to the next is 4 inches (10 cm).
In discussing sizing, I used to speak of length and width, but once an engineer debated with me which should be called the length and which should be called the width. I realized that it's a bit ambiguous, so I switched to "height" and "width."
This ambiguity regarding tallit length and width is actually mentioned in halacha.