Dear Rabbi Fried,
I was visiting religious cousins in Israel and brought my tallis with me, and when I wore it one of their kids said I shouldn’t wear it. He called it a “necktie tallis” and said I don’t get the mitzvah by wearing it. That was painful for me to hear because this was the tallis given to me by my late grandfather for my bar mitzvah and, as much as I’ve worn a tallis, I’ve used it ever since. Could you please let me know if what I was told is correct, and what would be the reason? Maybe, once we’re at it, it would be good to understand a little more what the mitzvah of a tallis is all about.
And you thought Judaism had no strings attached!!
Sadly, your cousin is correct. Very unfortunately, untold numbers of well-intentioned, unsuspecting Jews go through their entire lives without ever fulfilling the mitzvah of tzitzis, which is the source of wearing a tallis. This is because the size doesn’t conform to the specifications necessary and it’s not being worn properly to fulfill the mitzvah. Furthermore, in most cases, the strings of the “necktie” tallis were not properly made in a way, or tied into the garment, which would fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzis.
As we have mentioned numerous times in these pages, the details of mitzvot do, in fact, matter. The world says that “the devil is in the details,” and we say that “God is in the details”!
Many have asked if God really cares if a mitzvah is done with precisely this or that size object, with these or those specifications? The answer is, a resounding YES! Each mitzvah was given with very precise particulars, and, without fulfilling those requirements one has not yet achieved the desired result. Every mitzvah has a profound impact on the individual performing it, upon the world and upon the upper spiritual worlds.
I think an appropriate analogy would be sending an email that never reached its destination because one period was left out of the address. The sender is so upset; it was so critical that the message reached the recipient on time to finish a deal … is it fair that it shouldn’t arrive and the whole deal was lost over a single dot? We all know that it’s not a question of fair; without every dot, dash and letter the email simply will not reach the intended destination and will not achieve the desired effect.
So, too, with mitzvot. The Al-mighty, with His infinite wisdom and understanding of the inner workings of an individual and the physical and spiritual universes, perceived precisely what it would take, with each mitzvah, to achieve the desired positive impact. If one doesn’t dot his or her i’s and cross the t’s, the spiritual email will not be delivered to its requisite inbox in heaven.
There are a range of opinions with regards to the minimum size of the “tallis katan” or tzitzis worn under the shirt all day. This range emanates from a statement in the Talmud (Menachos 40b), which states the garment needs to be the size for it to be able to cover the head and the majority of the body of a minor. There are disputes among authorities what age of a minor the Talmud is referring to, as well as the meaning of the majority. The most prevalent custom is 16” wide by 32” long, not including the hole for the head. (See Mishna Berurah 16:4.) This would cover most of the front and back sides of the torso. These minimum sizes apply to the large tallis as well.
With regards to the wearing of the large tallis, Jewish law requires it to be donned in the way of “ituf,” or “enwrapping” oneself. This means putting the tallis over one’s head and the majority of the body, pulling the entire bottom section with the strings toward the left, at least for the blessing and holding it that way for about four seconds.
This is obviously only possible if the tallis is large enough to do so. To simply put it on one’s neck like a scarf would not fulfill the mitzvah, even it the tallis is very large. (See Mishna Berurah 8:3.)
After the blessing, some take it down from the head and leave it covering the upper section of the body, while others leave it covering the head throughout the prayer service. This brings one to the awe and fear of heaven while performing the prayer service.
The strings of the tallis need to be woven with the intent of using them for the mitzvah. They need to be inserted and tied into the four-cornered garment with that intent as well. The optimal strings to be used were handmade for that purpose.
I always buy my tzitzis from a very holy Jew in Jerusalem from whom I’m confident the strings were woven and tied with the proper thought and intention.
I know it will be difficult to change from that which you received from your grandfather, as that tallis carries much sentimental value. You can certainly hold on to it for the memories contained within it. But for the sake of the mizvah it’s time to graduate from your bar mitzvah days and go to the next level, to be ensured to fulfill the mitzvah as required.
And, I add with a wink, when you do so it will do much good for the soul of your grandfather as well, whose inspiration led you to wear a tallis in the first place!