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Bar Mitzvah Preparations: The Tallit - The Prayer Shawl
Orthodox Perspective by Rivka C. Berman

Ashkenazi custom expects adult men to wear tallitot (Yiddish: Talleisim) during prayer. When a bar mitzvah boy wears one for his aliyah it’s a visual cue to his new adult status. In the Syrian, Judeo-Spanish, and Spanish/Portuguese Sephardic tradition, a boy wears a tallit from the time he begins attending synagogue, even at age five or six. Sephardic boys of Moroccan descent will wear a tallit after their bar mitzvah Even if a boy has been wearing a tallit for years, some families will purchase a new tallit for the bar mitzvah boy so he will be able to say the Shehecheyanu blessing for new items.

Most synagogues have spare tallitot for boys and others to wear when they receive an aliyah or lead prayer services. Whether a tallit is purchased for a bar mitzvah boy will depend on his family’s custom.

Wearing a tallit is mitzvah derived from the verse: “Speak to the Children of Israel. They should make for themselves tassels on the corners of their garments” (Numbers 15:38-40).

You’ve heard the old instruction “tie a string around your finger so you won’t forget”? Tzitzit tassels serve much the same purpose. They are to act as a reminder of our responsibilities as Jews.

Until four-cornered outer garments fell out of fashion, the tzitzit were tied onto everyday clothing. Today, Jewish males wear a special four-cornered garment, a tallit katan, all throughout the day. Tallitot are supposed to help wearers keep their minds focused on prayer and serving God.

The tallit is worn during morning services, even if the Torah will not be read. (A bit of trivia: the only time the tallit is worn at night is at the Kol Nidrei service.)

Size wise, a tallit should be large enough to cover a small child and still permit him to walk. A tallit should be draped shorter than the clothing it covers, by at least four inches, so it does not drag on the ground (Kimmel 80-83).

Choosing a Tallit
Options abound. Bear in mind that the goal is to create a prayer shawl that inspires holiness and focuses the mind.

How to Put on a Tallit
First, untangle the tzitzit tassels. Check that they aren’t torn, because damaged tzitzit do not fulfill the mitzvah that is the tallit’s whole purpose. Until tzitzit are in good shape, the tallit should not be worn.

Unfold the tallit. Hold it horizontally so the neck band (called the atarah, literally “crown”) is at shoulder height. Then say the blessing: Blessed are You, L-rd, Our G-d, Ruler of the Universe, who has sanctified us with your commandment and commanded us to wrap ourselves in tzitzit.

Afterward drape the tallit around yourself, covering your eyes, before arranging the tallit neatly around your shoulders. To be enveloped in a tallit is a literal fulfillment of the tallit mitzvah as stated in the tallit blessing. It also creates a private space, a moment of focus, before public prayers.

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