Nov 282017

We get a lot of customers who are regulars at their local Chabad shul, but are not necessary Lubavitch themselves. They often follow Chabad customs, but not always down to the fine details. This week we received an inquiry from a prospective ger who seems to be debating whether to go with a bona fide Chabad tallis, or maybe a slight departure from a true Chabad tallis instead.

Shalom Ben,
Quick question. I am in the conversion process with Chabad for about 6 months now and I think I am ready to buy my first “real” tallit. I have been looking at your Chabad wool ($94) but I wanted to get your opinion before I purchased. What would you recommend for a Chabad ger? I dont want to make a huge initial investment but I also do not want something that would not be in lines with Chabad tradition or that would get looks at beit kinneset-know what I mean. I guess you can say I am looking for the “middle of the road” tallit that is true to tradition but not a huge cost. Any suggestion would be appreciated. Todah Rabah

I explained to him that there are a lot of options for him to choose from.

You’ve probably noticed that there are different levels of adherence to Chabad customs, I wrote. Any of our standard black-striped talleisim should fit in fine in a Chabad shul.

Chabad talleisim are unique in several ways:
  • unique striping pattern with more striping than most talleisim (except Yemenite)
  • no atara
  • silk lining
  • double tzitzit holes
  • Chabad tying
For example, some customers want a Chabad tallis, but with cotton lining (which stays in place better and is less prone to tearing), and have us sew on a fairly plain atara (neckband). Others might go with a regular black-striped tallis, but they will select the Chabad tying option, even with single tzitzit holes. The tzitzit tying might sound like a minor matter, but really it’s not, since the tzitzit are the essence of the mitzvah.
See also:

The History of the Chabad Tallit

Nov 282017

Before entering Mauthausen, Eliyahu hid his precious tefillin by carefully tying them to his leg. At the selection, someone whispered to him to lie about his age and profession. Eliyahu, a 15-year-old yeshiva student, told the camp commandant that he was a 28-year-old tailor. “I was sent to the right, to life, while the other boys my age were sent to the left, to death.”

When sent to the shower, Eliyahu miraculously managed to hide his tefillin under a rock. “That was the last time I was ever separated from my tefillin. I kept them with me throughout the war, and afterwards. Today, I take them with me wherever I go.” He pointed to the small velvet bag lying on the counter.

“Dressed in nothing more than thin pajamas, we slept that night in the snow. It was our mattress, our blanket, and our food. Back home, a maid would polish my shoes. Now I had no shoes. Not far from us were what appeared to be five small huts. When I woke up, I was horrified to discover they were really five enormous piles of frozen corpses. There was no fuel to burn them.”

Prayer: Take Me

“The first morning in that hell, I donned my tefillin and begged God to take me. I could not stand the suffering. But although I was no better than the others, God wanted me to remain alive.”

Eliyahu remained alive, and continued to don his tefillin and recite a quick prayer each morning before setting out to work. He had to be careful – if the Nazis were to discover him with the tefillin, he would be immediately shot.

If the Nazis were to discover him with the tefillin, he would be immediately shot.

“The camp commander took tremendous pleasure in torturing the prisoners. Afterwards, he would return to his house, located on the camp premises, and, together with his wife, listen to classical music, to Mozart!”

Head tefillin worn by another Jew on the same death march to Gunskirchen

Eliyahu recalled the special Divine providence in hiding his tefillin: “Twice a day, at roll call, the SS soldiers would surround us and check us with their dogs. Although these dogs always stopped to smell my leg, the one where the tefillin were tied, the Nazis never discovered my tefillin. I can only describe it as a miracle. There is no other explanation.”

Eliyahu spent some eight weeks in Mauthausen.

“The allied forces were closing in. One day, there was a selection. Most were sent to the crematorium. I was selected for life. Life? We were forced to march for 12 days in the heavy rain until we reached our destination, Gunskirchen. Of the 33,000 who left Mauthausen, 20,000 arrived in Gunskirchen.

“I had been positive there could be no place worse than Mauthausen. But I was wrong. Gunskirchen was much, much worse. The first thing the Nazis did upon our arrival was to set three huge German shepherds on my friend Chaim. They tore him to pieces.

“Gunskirchen was not a work camp. We did nothing all day, except remove the dead bodies from our barrack and wait for time to pass. A few times a week the Nazis would give us a bit of food and water.”


Eliyahu recalls his last day in the camp: “It was a Friday night. We were locked in our barrack, and had heard that the Germans placed explosives around it. They wanted to kill us and hide all the evidence. People were dying like flies, and I knew that if the Germans didn’t explode the barrack, I would die of hunger. I said to my friends, the Klein brothers, ‘If you’ll join me, let’s escape together.’ We began climbing over bodies to make our way toward the door.

“In front of the door, I saw a man named Yitzhak lying on the floor. He had converted to Christianity prior to the Holocaust. I bent down and asked him, ‘Do you want to return to the Jewish people?’ Although he was already unable to speak, his eyes told me that he did. My friends were upset with me. But I couldn’t leave him like that. I said the Shema with him. He died at the word ‘echad’ – one.

“We somehow found the strength – don’t ask me how – to break the door open and escape that death-filled room. Of course I had my tefillin with me. Once we were in the forest, we threw off our lice-infested prison pajamas and put on SS uniforms that we had removed from dead soldiers.

“Suddenly, we heard the sound of a car traveling. When we saw it was an American jeep, we emerged from our hiding place and stood at the side of the road. Three soldiers jumped out of the jeep, their guns trained on us, and requested that we show them our documents. Documents? We didn’t even have clothes, let alone documents!

“I didn’t have documents, so I showed the soldiers my tefillin. At first they thought it was a hand grenade! But then one of them recognized they were tefillin. He asked me, ‘Du bist a Yid?’ (Are you Jewish?)

“The Jewish soldier immediately phoned his commander and informed him that he had found the camp they had been looking for. ‘Please save the 35,000 Jews that are left there,’ I begged. ‘Most of them are on the verge of death. If you don’t get there quickly, most will die. Every minute is crucial.’

“The army immediately sent medical care to Gunskirchen, and in doing so, thousands of lives were saved. My tefillin saved my life, and the lives of thousands of Jews, because in their merit, the American army arrived at the camp quickly,” Eliyahu concludes with deep emotion.


Nov 282017
Are undershirt tzitzit and t-shirt tzitzit kosher? A year or two ago I came upon a batch of t-shirt tzitzit that had a halachic problem. Since then I have learned to be very wary when I buy from wholesalers, because I’ve discovered that the problem can come up unexpectedly, even with highly reputable manufacturers.
For a garment to require tzitzit, it has to be more open than closed (see Shulchan Aruch O.C. 10, 7). So you lay it flat on a table and measure from the corner up along the side to the stitch line that rests on your shoulder. Let’s say it’s 31 inches. (Ignore the sleeve, i.e. pretend as if it’s closed.) You then have to make sure that the sides are open from the corner at least 16 inches up before the beginning of the stitches that close it along the sides.
There’s also a quick way to check it if you don’t have a tape measure handy: Press your finger right at that point where the open section meets the closed section. With your other hand, grasp a corner and fold it straight up toward the shoulder. If the corner goes past the top of the tzitzit garment, you’re fine.

The vast majority of tallit katan makers are well aware of this requirement, but when they commission a large production run, sometimes a certain size may come sewn improperly so that you don’t have a majority of the sides open.

I have noticed that this can happen occasionally, even with upstanding manufacturers (I won’t mention any names). What’s always surprised me is how this gets past the tzitzit tie-ers. Most of the undershirt tzitzit have machine-spun tzitzit tied on in Israel by the manufacturer. They tie in very large quantities (e.g. they may send out a batch of a few thousand at a time), but how can an erlich worker tie tzitzit for a few hours a day and not notice the problem? Most of these products have a hechsher, but note that the hechsher invariably applies to neither the garment nor the tying, only the tzitzit strings.
Nov 282017
The majority of our techelet customers opt to have us tie the techelet strings according to the Arizal, Rambam, Sefer HaChinuch, Vilna Gaon or the Raavad. We also get plenty of orders for techelet tied like all-white tzitzit, according to the Ashkenazi or Sephardic customs. We discourage the latter, because those customs were developed in the absence of techelet and don’t make much sense with blue.
We rarely get requests for techelet tied according to Rav Hershel Schachter, but this week we’re working on a techelet order to be tied according to his approach.
If you take a look here you’ll see that Rav Schachter acknowledges that you can run into trouble with his shita because the strings are typically not long enough, so by the time you’re done with all the tying, you no longer have 2/3 of the length loose, which is required דרבנן.
עשות לכה”פ ז’ חוליות, ולעשות בין כל חוליא וחוליא קשר גמור של קשר ע”ג קשר, (כמנהגנו בזה”ז, דמ”ט נשנה את זה), ובכל חוליא יהי’ מינימום של ג’ כריכות (וכמבואר שם בגמ’ לעיל – וכמה שיעור חוליא, כדי שיכרוך וישנה וישלש.) ובודאי אם יעשה ז’ חוליות, ובכל אחת ז’ כריכות, יצא בזה לכו”ע, אך הרבה פעמים אין החוטים די-ארוכים לעשות מ”ט כריכות יחד עם ט”ז קשרים (כלומר, ח’ פעמים קשר ע”ג קשר, וכנ”ל), ולכתחילה מן הנכון שיהא חלק הכריכות כשליש מאורך החוטים, וחלק הענף שני שלישים. אכן אם יעשה לכה”פ החוליא הראשונה עם ז’ כריכות, ושאר החוליות עם ג’ כריכות, ירויח בזה במקצת, דמעיקר הדין סגי בחוליא אחת לעיכובא, והוספת ד’ הכריכות הנוספות שבחוליא הראשונה לא יגרום למעט כ”כ את אורך החוטים.
To solve the problem, he says you can tie the first section with seven windings and then the next six sections with just three windings. (Our tzitzit tie-er is pretty resourceful, and if memory serves, last time we tied Rav Schachter he managed to do seven sections of seven and still preserve the 1/3 to 2/3 ratio.)
The idea of the compromise solution is like as follows: Among the various different areas of dispute regarding techelet tying, there’s the question of what comprises a “chulya.” The Raavad says a chulya is seven windings, while all the other poskim say it’s three. Rav Schachter notes that מעיקר הדין one chulya makes your tzitzit kosher דאורייתא (i.e. one double knot, one section of windings and a second double knot), so if you make that first chulya according to the Raavad, you’ve got at least one proper chulya and the remaining chulyot are good according to the other poskim besides the Raavad.
If you click here and search for “Schachter” you’ll see that the Ptil Tekhelet Association suggests using that option if necessary.
Rav Mois Navon of the Ptil Tekhelet Association seems to be somewhat at odds with Rav Schachter’s tying method.
“R. Schachter holds that Ashkenazim should follow Tosafot with regard to the Tosafot opinion of the number of strings – i.e., Ashkenazim, according to R. Schachter, should use two blue and two white strings on each corner.  However, when discussing the method of tying, he believes that everyone (Ashkenazim and Sefaradim alike) should use the method put forth by the Rambam. Thus, confusion number one is due to the fact that R. Schachter’s method is really the combination of two methods for two separate issues concerning the one mitzvah of tzitzit – i.e., number of strings like Tosafot, method of tying like Rambam. Confusion number two arises from R. Schachter’s reading of the Rambam as opposed to the tradition the Yemenites (Teimanim) carry.  The Rambam explains, in very general terms, to make a hulya of three wraps, make a knot, give some distance and make the next hulya, etc. (Hil. Tzitz. 1:7 – see here).  The Yemenites have a tradition for tying according to the Rambam which they have preserved for centuries, for they have used it even for tying only white (as prescribed by the Rambam) – this method is shown in my diagram for the Rambam (see here).  R. Schachter, on the other hand, read the Rambam and said, ‘[T]he simplest knot I know is a double knot, and that also produces the space between hulyot defined by the Rambam.’ [T]his I know from personal conversations between R. Schachter and members of our Amuta (organization).”
Elsewhere Rav Navon also writes that he doesn’t approve of mixing and matching approaches, i.e. following one opinion regarding the number of blue strings and another opinion regarding how to go about tying them.
Jul 252017

We frequently receive inquiries from people who are impressed with our web store and want to drop by when they come for a visit to Israel, thinking we have a brick-and-mortar shop somewhere in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

But the truth is we are located off the beaten path in Modi’in Illit, which is a 45-minute drive from Tel Aviv, and we are not set up to accommodate walk-in customers.

My guess is that there are all sorts of people who come for a visit to Israel once every few years, hoping to return home with a nice new tallit or tzitzit in their luggage. Or maybe a sibling or cousin or friend asked them to buy a tallit in Israel. Often the selection at their local Judaica store is too limited to supply them the tallit they want, or they’re looking for certain options that are a bit hard to find.

Sending someone to buy a tallit for you is not always a great solution because when you buy just about anything in Israel, you pay 17% VAT, which often offsets or even exceeds the shipping costs. If you buy a tallit for $150, for instance, you’ll see on your receipt that you paid $21.90 VAT, which is akin to state sales taxes in the United States — only much higher. Shipping options for that sort of purchase on our website would be $10-$15 to European and US addresses, so you end up saving money by placing an order online and having us ship it to you.

Is VAT avoidable? Some retail businesses in Israel that cater to tourists are set up to refund the VAT on condition you spend at least 400 shekels. You pay the full amount, including VAT, fill out a form and then before you board your plane there’s a VAT refund counter at Ben Gurion. Note that they charge a service fee (typically 10%-15%) to receive the refund.

In fact, even if you place an order on our site and enter a shipping address in Israel — or select our pickup option — you’ll also be charged 17% VAT.

All orders that we ship abroad are exempt from VAT. It’s quite involved exporting of our orders in accordance with government regulations, but it’s worth it because that we we can keep our prices down.

If despite the above you still feel you really want to buy a tallit in Tel Aviv, be very wary, because most Judaica stores in Tel Aviv are not really qualified to sell tallits and tzitzit. Often Tel Aviv residents will travel to nearby Bnei Brak where specialty tallit shops are not too scarce.

The first place to try is one of the three Mishkan Hatchelet outlet stores. Most of the traditional wool tallits we sell are manufactured by Mishkan Hatchelet, which is generally considered the top tallit maker in the country, and possibly worldwide.

If your tastes are fairly modern and you have the budget for a hand-woven tallit, take a look at Gabrieli, whose tallits are renown worldwide (see here). Their weaving studio is located in Rechovot and they have a gallery in Jaffa.

Jun 272017

Hashem commanded Bnei Yisrael to tie tzitzit to the corners of their four-cornered garments as a reminder to fulfill the mitzvos and not stray after the desires of their hearts and eyes. The mitzvah consists of a tassel — a group of threads known collectively as “tzitzit” — to four corners of any garment that has four corners or more, and to wind a blue-colored thread (techelet) around the top part of each set of fringes. The bottom part of the tassel and the remaining thread of techelet are left loose. The Torah explains that this mitzvah of tzitzit helps the people fulfill all of the mitzvos. By looking at them, they would “remember all of Hashem’s commandments and thereby be prompted to perform them.” This in turn would prevent them from straying “after [their] hearts and eyes” (Bamidbar 15:39).

How does looking at tzitzit serve as a reminder? In ancient times it was customary for a master to place an emblem on his servant’s clothing as a sign that he belonged to him. Similarly, tzitzit are Hashem’s “emblem” that Bnei Yisrael are His servants. Indeed, He took them out of Egypt on condition that they serve Him, and they agreed with a solemn oath. Thus, whenever Bnei Yisrael see their tzitzit they remind themselves that they are Hashem’s servants and therefore are not at liberty to simply do as they please.

This also explains why Hashem specifically commanded Bnei Yisrael to attach tzitzit to clothing. There is no better reminder than attaching an emblem to clothing, since it is in front of the wearer the entire day. Furthermore, the techelet thread, which is dyed using the blood of a rare sea creature called a “chilazon,” has a color similar to the color of the sea, and the color of the sea is similar to that of the sky, which in turn is similar to the color of Hashem’s Throne of Glory. Thus, by looking at the blue thread, a person remembers He who sits upon the throne.

Even without the chilazon dye, the mitzvah can still be performed with plain white strings. As Rashi explains, even without the techelet thread, there is an allusion to the 613 mitzvos in the tzitzit. The word tzitzit (spelled with two yuds) has a numerical value of 600. Add to this eight and five (eight hanging strings and five knots), and we have 613.

By looking at their tzitzit and having a constant reminder of Hashem and His mitzvos, following the Sin of the Spies, Bnei Yisrael would now be able to resist the desires that tempt them to stray from Hashem’s service. Moreover, the injunction not to stray after the desires of the heart and eyes comprises a separate mitzvah, one that is applicable at all times, even when one is not wearing tzitzit.
Hashem promised Bnei Yisrael that if they fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit they would “become holy.” Some commentators understand that performing the mitzvah of tzitzit alone brings a person to holiness, while the Midrash explains that through the mitzvah of tzitzit, one performs all the mitzvos and this makes him holy.

The passage of tzitzit provides the means to prevent Bnei Yisrael from committing a similar sin to the sin of the Spies by warning the nation not to stray after their hearts and eyes, and since tzitzit serves as a constant reminder of all the mitzvos, it provides a way to elevate the nation and help them remain forever conscious of their duties. The verses include a promise that if the nation performs all of Hashem’s mitzvos, then it will “become holy” and “be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”.

Mar 052017

You have a decent tallis you wear seven days a week. It’s not old or schmutzy. Should you still try to buy a tallis just for Shabbos? In a word, yes.

Let’s start with the verse in Yeshayahu (58:13):

אם תשיב משבת רגלך עשות חפצך ביום קדשי וקראת לשבת ענג לקדוש ה’ מכבד וכבדתו מעשות דרכיך ממצוא חפצך ודבר דבר

If thou restrain thy foot because  of the Sabbath, from pursuing thy business on My holy day;
and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable, and shalt honor it,
not doing thy own ways, nor pursuing they own business nor speaking of vain matters

The Gemara (Shabbos 113a) says that from the word וכבדתו that your Shabbos attire should not be the same as your weekday attire. Based on this Gemara, the Tur writes:

וישתדל שיהיו לו בגדים נאים לשבת דכתיב “וכבדתו” ודרשינן שלא יהא מלבושך של שבת כמלבושך של חול

Pay attention to the first word ישתדל, i.e. one should strive. I once heard Rav Schachter of Yeshiva University say ideally you should have special Shabbos clothes from head to toe: not just a Shabbos shirt, but a Shabbos undershirt, Shabbos socks, Shabbos pajamas, etc.

Apparently this is the meaning of the Mishna Berura 265,2, 5 based on the Arizal. From my own reading of the Mishna Berura I can’t see Rav Schachter’s opinion, since the Mishna Berura says “even the shirt,” which sounds to me like it would come to exclude undershirt and socks. But Rav Schechter was invariably relying on Achronim I haven’t seen.

And now for the key words:

ואם אפשר לו, טוב שיהיה לו גם טלית אחר לשבת

There you have it – “if possible, you should have another tallis for Shabbos.”

Some people have pretty much the same tallis, just less worn. Others may have a fancy atara or ornate Yemenite fringes on their Shabbos tallis. And some people choose to go one size bigger for their Shabbos tallis; during the week, short and more manageable, on Shabbos long and elegant.

I used to wear a black-striped tallis katan with a straight hem during the week, and a white-striped tallis katan with fringes on Shabbos. My current Shabbos tallis has a cotton lining, lending it a more substantial feel, while my weekday tallis does not.

Feb 212017

If you are shopping for tallis and tefillin bags, take a look here. This post is not about the bags themselves, but how to use them.

Personally, I prefer keeping my tallit and tefillin bags sans plastic. To explain why, first I have to take you back nearly 40 years to my aunt’s living room on Lincoln Avenue in Chicago. I have three strong memories of my Aunt Enus a”h: her walker (she fell and broke her hip), her big, fat cat Leonard and her couches.

I don’t remember the couches’ color or fabric, all I remember is the thick vinyl covering on them. Whenever relatives came to visit, they almost invariably made a snide comment about the sticky vinyl in the aftermath of the visit. I imagine some of those remarks reached her ears, but she was willing to sacrifice comfort to protect her sofas from Leonard’s claws. Those side comments about the vinyl lodged deep in my six-year-old mind so that to this day I find vinyl a real turnoff.

Tallit and tefillin bag coverBut everyone puts their tallis and tefillin bags in those hefty transparent PVC zippered covers! At some point I became a rebel, and when my bag cover tore (tears always form sooner or later), instead of replacing it immediately I tried managing sans plastic. To my amazement, I discovered that unless it’s really pouring rain, you can live without the plastic. The only problem is combining them into a single item to carry. Eventually I figured out that you could leave the tefillin bag at home and keep your tefillin wrapped inside the tallit. You simply fold the tallit around the tefillin, making sure to put the tallit in the tallit bag with the fold near the zipper, so that you can pull it out and leave the tefillin inside. (If you grasp the tefillin before the tallit, you run into a sticky halachic problem.) I liked the idea of living simply, and not taking up a lot of space in shul with a pile of accessories.

Today, things have changed, since I started walking to and from Shacharis wearing tallis and tefillin, so the velvet bags stay at home. I have a special placed reserved for them in our bookcase, and I always put the tefillin behind the tallis for two reasons: 1) So that I always come in contact with the tallit before the tefillin and 2) so that on Shabbos the tefillin (which are muktzeh) are safely out of the way.

Jan 292017

Mezuzah scrolls come in standard sizes. It used to be that the most common size was 10 cm and some people who wanted a bigger mezuzah bought a 12-cm scroll. But in recent years sizes went up a notch: 12 cm is very common and those who want bigger move up to 15 cm.

Giant mezuzah scroll

World’s largest mezuza

The jumbo mezuzahs you sometimes see, especially at Chabad homes, are typically 20 cm, and the very small ones are 7 cm or even 6 cm. A 6-cm or 7-cm scroll is quite hard to write and compromises the sofer’s ability to ensure the writing is 100% kosher. So you’re often getting less for your money. Generally it’s recommended you stay away from these sizes.

Bigger may be better up to 12 cm or 15 cm, but beyond that size, it becomes harder for the sofer to do his job.

A 10-cm mezuzah is 3.9 inches, a 12-cm scroll measures 4.7 inches and a 15-cm scroll is 5.9 inches.

If I’m not mistaken, Carma Winery recently broke the record for the world’s largest mezuzah.

Jumbo mezuza

Jan 242017

Toward the very beginning of the Gemara is a well-known breisa:

                אמר רבי יוחנן הרוצה לקבל עליו עול מלכות שמים שלימה יפנה ויטול ידיו ויניח תפילין ויתפלל

Translation: “R’ Yochanan said one who seeks to accept upon himself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven in a complete manner should empty his bowels, do the ritual hand-washing, lay tefillin and recite the prayers” (Brachos 14b).

Some readers might have noticed that something seems to be missing from the list: What about the mitzvah of tzitzis? Shouldn’t he put on a tallis?

This breisa is quoted by the Tur (O.C. 2, 6) in his description of how one should conduct himself upon rising in the morning. The Bach comments on the apparent omission, suggesting several possible explanations. His third suggestion reads as follows:

תפילין שבראש שאדם משעבד לבורא יתברך שהנשמה שהיא במוח וכו’ הני יש
ענין לקבלת עול מלכות שמים, מה שאין כן בציצית שאינה אלא לזכור את כל מצות ה

Translation: “The concept of tefillin on one’s head is to subjugate the mind to the Creator, for the soul is in the mind; yet this does not apply to tzitzis, which is merely to remember Hashem’s mitzvahs.”

Merely to remember Hashem’s miracles?! That’s no small matter! Apparently then the mitzvah of tzitzit is sort of a starting point. It makes you acutely aware of the deeds Hashem wants and expects of you, and serves as a constant reminder. This may explain why we put on the tallis before laying tefillin.

The Bach (O.C. 8, 1 s.v. Umiyad achar) writes that we put on tzitzis before tefillin because tzitzis are worn as a constant reminder of the mitzvahs, whereas the mitzvah of tefillin is primarily during Krias Shema and prayers, in order to accept upon himself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven in a complete manner.

Thus the act of donning tzitzis is a prelude to the process of accepting the yoke of Heaven.