May 072013

In my line of work, usually the questions customers email to me are fairly run-of-the-mill. Questions like, “Can I switch the atara on the Gvanim Tallit?” or “How do I have sidebands added to a Prima A.A. Tallit?” But occasionally I get a more piquant question, like this inquiry from Michael G.:

If I grew up Ashkenazi and want to tie the tzitzit in a Sephardic way, is that inappropriate? One friend said yes and the other no. The mitzvah is having tzitzit, but I am not sure.

Here’s my reply to Michael:

Malchut Talit with Netted Fringes

Malchut Tallit with Sephardic tzitzit

Thank you for your inquiry. I’m not qualified to answer your question  you should really try to get in touch with a good rav  but I’m going to put in my own two cents anyway. I would side with your friend who says no. Maintaining Jewish customs passed down through the generations should not be taken lightly. On one hand Sephardic tzitzit tying might be right for you, but when you look at the big picture it’s important that the Jewish people have a binding framework and don’t just follow the customs that appeal to them.

Just this week I was helping my son learn Mishnayos from Maseches Pesachim. In the fourth chapter there’s a series of cases where the Mishnah tells you there are two different customs and everyone must follow the local custom. Questions like: Can you work on Erev Pesach? Can you work on Tisha B’Av? Should you light candles for Yom Kippur?

The commentators explain that there is a good justification for each custom, it’s not just a case of being stricter or more lenient. And I think that applies to a certain extent to your question about tzitzit tying customs.

On the other hand, there is also value in creating your own personal pathway in Avodas Hashem. I know a redhead American with a Tennessee accent who decided he wants to follow the Rambam and Yemenite customs. He even wears traditional Yemenite attire. (He works as a realtor in Jerusalem, so as you can imagine, it’s a bid odd seeing him get into a car with with a client, wearing his robe and long peyos.)

And I have a neighbor in my building who is as Sephardic as they come. He never steps foot in the Ashkenazi shul across the street and he prays with a strong Baghdadi accent. Then one day his father came to visit and I saw the grandsons take him to shul and hand him a Nusach Ashkenaz siddur. That’s right: When my neighbor was a young man he went and “converted,” becoming Sephardic.

There are plenty of examples like that, and perhaps even more instances of Sephardim taking on various Ashkenazi customs. And who am I to judge them  especially since I myself adopted a special set of customs (the Gra, as per Maaseh Rav) over a decade ago.

So you see you really should consult with someone who knows you and is has a thorough understanding of halacha.

Michael also sent in a second, related question. If you’ve read this far into the post, you might find his other inquiry of interest as well.
On a Tallis Gadol, how would you tie them according to Sephardic custom  7,8,11,13 the way I tie Ashkenazi, or 10,5,6,5? I tied one corner of my tallis katan 10,5,6,5 and the shamash was much longer than the others. Any insight would be greatly appreciated.
On a tallit katan, the prevalent Sephardic custom is to tie 10-5-6-5, although many have a custom of tying Sephardic style 7-8-11-13. On a tallit gadol it’s almost never done 10-5-6-5.

Regarding the Shamash string, it’s always going to come out long when you tie 10-5-6-5. The manufacturer has to make it long enough to meet everyone’s needs, they don’t make a special set for 10-5-6-5. In fact usually the Shamash comes out a bit long, no matter how you tie.

I have a special set of ceramic (zirconium oxide) scissors. Of course most people don’t (unless they happen to be a tzitzit professional or a diehard angler), so to read about the issue of cutting tzitzit, see Long Tzitzit on Short Boys, Cutting Tzitzit and the fourth question listed in Tzitzit Tying Questions.

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