Ben

Dec 182014
 
Sephardic Tallet

A silk tallet worn by a member of London’s Maida Vale congregation in the 1950s

The Spanish and Portuguese Jews of London comprise the oldest Jewish community in Great Britain. They have a number of beautiful and unique customs, some of which are apparently rooted in pre-expulsion Spain, but also influenced by the Italian and Spanish-Moroccan rites.

According to Rabbi Jonathan Cohen, during the course of their 350-year sojourn in the British Isles, they have continued to evolve, developing an British-Sephardic character of their own, “distinct from that of their ‘parent’ congregation in Amsterdam, or of their ‘sister’ congregations in New York, Philadelphia and elsewhere.”

Tallit Corner

A fabulous tallet corner designed by one of the progeny of the London kahal

Like many other Jewish communities, the Sephardic and Portuguese Jews of London referred to the prayer shawl as a “tallet” – not a “taleet.”

The tzitzit were tied with 10-5-6-5 windings, rather than the 7-8-11-13 configuration, which developed later.Another detail that distinguished their tallet from today’s typical prayer shawls was the absence of an atara, or neckband. (Notably, to this day the Chabad tallis does not have an atara.)

The tallet was often made of silk, with blue striping, and had embellished, oversize corner patches, like the Yemenite tallith.

Dec 142014
 

First, let me tell you how not to size a tallit.

There’s a new yungerman in the neighborhood, who sits three rows ahead of me during Shacharit. He very badly wants to be pious. What bothers me about him is not that he prays loudly in a grating, whiny tone of voice, but his tallit. It’s too long.

A long tallit looks elegant to some, both because of its flowing length and because you have a lot of tallit spreading out across your shoulders. But the new congregant three rows in front of me every day got carried away. Although he pulls it forward a lot in front, it hangs down below the back of his knees in back, and the tzitzit are constantly sweeping the floor. And that what’s gets to me: Wearing a tallit is all about the mitzvah of tzitzit, and he’s showing a lack of respect for the tzitzit because of misguided notions of frum stylishness.

Tallit sizing: Get it right

Tallit Sizes

This size 70 may be a bit too much tallit for the 5’7″ wearer.

Usually a size 55 is considered Small, size 60 is Medium, size 70 is Large. Some tallits comes in smaller sizes, i.e. 45 and 50, primarily for bar mitzvah boys, and some go all the up to size 80 or even 90. In most cases the sizes are in 10 cm/4 inch increments. That means if you have a size 60, for example, and are thinking of moving to a size 70, you can expect it to drape down 3-4 inches further in back (a bit of that extra length may come down in front, depending on how you wear it).

To figure out which size tallit you need you might want to dig out an old tallit, or borrow one and measure it, or you could go straight to our Tallit Size Wizard.

Some people wear a smaller, manageable size tallit on weekdays, and go one size larger for their Shabbos tallit.

Generally speaking, the length of the tallit (which, for clarifty’s sake, I prefer to refer to as the height) is usually considered the critical factor, but keep in mind that when you move up a size the tallit might be a bit wider as well, which means more tallit to bunch up on your shoulders.

Dec 072014
 

If you want a traditional tallit, unless you’re on a shoestring budget, make sure it’s wool. A wool tallit looks nicer, lasts longer, feels better and is considered superior from a halachic standpoint.

Buy Blue-Striped TallitMany Sephardim have a custom of wearing a white-striped tallit, Ashkenazi traditionalists will stick with black stripes, but the blue-striped wool tallit is also very common. In fact, according to some opinions, originally the tallit had blue stripes, which later morphed to black.

A blue-striped tallit with silver pinstripes is definitely very popular, although some people prefer gold pinstripes and others want blue striping with nothing else.

The standard blue-striped tallit often comes with a simple white atara (neckband), whereas blue-gold and blue-silver tallits, which are considered slightly more modern, come with the Tzitzit Blessing on the atara.

Go to Black-Striped Tallits>>
Go to White-Striped Tallits>>
Go to Blue-Striped Tallits>>

Dec 032014
 

I normally am not outspoken in my opinions, but I feel no hesitation to bring the opinions of prominent rabbanim on the techeiles debate to the public. So I have taken the initiative to selectively translate excerpts from letters written a number of leading poskim in Eretz Yisroel. If you would like to see the letters in full in the Hebrew original, go to the techeiles.org website.

Source of Murex techelet dye

Murex trunculus

Five years ago, in 5770, HaRav Moshe Mordechai Karp, one of the leading poskim in Kiryat Sefer, wrote an approbation for a book by Rav Eliyahu Tavgar, the rabbinical authority for the Ptil Tekhelet Foundation. “Although in practice,” writes Rabbi Karp, “for a number of reasons we cannot obligate one to wear techeiles, as Maran HaRav Yosef Shalom Eliashiv shlita [he has since passed away] has ruled, nevertheless certainly those who had the merit to clarify the halacha and arrived at the conclusion that [Murex trunculus is authentic techeiles] must fulfill the mitzvah, and embarassment has no place when it comes to fulfilling halacha.”

HaRav Gershon Meltzer, a well-known posek in Jerusalem who delivers a class at Mir Yeshiva, wrote an approbation for a pro-techeiles booklet written by Rav Meir Hellman. Rabbi Meltzer writes that the booklet presented the case very thoroughly, based on the Gemara, Rishonim and Achronim, and delved into practical aspects as well. His arguments are “well-founded and he effectively counters all of the dubious claims [against his thesis].”

Rabbi Meltzer goes on to argue that the contemporary debate is a worthy discussion and the arguments in favor should not be casually dismissed. He recalls that when machine matzah was first introduced, several of the leading poskim were staunchly opposed, primarily because matzah had been baked by hand for millenia, therefore in our generation one cannot come along and introduce a radical innovation.

He explains that the reason Rishonim did not wear techelet is already mentioned in the Ramban (Shemos 28:2), who says because it was used in clothes for royalty, the gentiles considered it an act of rebellion if Jews wore attire dyed with Murex trunculus.

Rabbi Yisrael Belsky, a prominent posek in the Orthodox Union and Yeshiva Torah Vodaas wrote an approbation two years ago in 5773 for a booklet on techeiles called Lavush Ha’aron. Like Rabbi Meltzer, he says that those who tie techeiles onto their garments certainly have valid reasons, their decision should definitely not be scorned and the matter should not be lightly dismissed. “Torah scholars would do well to carefully examine the clarifications and sources cited in the booklet, and apparently it can be relied upon in practice,” writes Rabbi Belsky.

In the summer of 5766 (eight years ago) someone, who’s name I cannot decipher, wrote a letter to HaRav Sariyah Dublitzky, saying he was thoroughly convinced that Murex trunculus “is the techeiles that the Creator commanded us to tie onto our clothing,” and asking Rav Dublitsky if he felt he should add it to his tallis katan, at least when worn discreetly.

“I myself wear Murex on my tallis katan,” HaRav Dublitzky wrote in a very brief reply.

In 5771 HaRav Shmuel Nadel, a well-known dayan in Bnei Brak, reviewed a booklet called Chotem Shel Zahav. During the time of the Gemara, writes Rabbi Nadel, “gentiles used and dyed with techeiles, and in all of the books by the wise men of the nations that contain detailed information on all of the types of dyes in use during the time, this snall appears as a source for dye, and no other snail used to derive techeiles is mentioned. Since it has been clarified that techeiles dye can be produced from this snall — which I saw with my own two eyes — there is no logical reason to cast doubt on the identity of the snail. The technique for producing the dye also appears in the gentiles’ books from that period, and it reselbles the production process familiar to us today.”

“Although clearly this is the techeiles used during the time of Chazal, there still appears to be room for debate over whether we should tie techeiles onto our talleisim considering the fact that for over a thousand years the Jewish people have not used techeiles tzitzis, therefore we cannot reintroduce this mitzvah, even if we are certain of the authenticity of this techeiles. I do not concur with this view, however this is a question worthy of consideration.”

Rabbi Nadel writes that the detrators assertions are illogical and baseless.

 

Nov 252014
 

Tefillin for bar mitzvahTefillin is among the most potent mitzvahs in the Torah. We are commmanded to bind them on the head and arm: “You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for a reminder between your eyes” (Deut. 6:8).

We bind the tefillin close to the heart, as a reminder to devote our intellect, feelings and actions to the service of G‑d. Buying a a set of bar mitzvah tefillin allows your son to fulfill this important mitzvah every day.

Tefillin types and prices>>

Although all tefillin consist of the same basic components — carefully formed leather boxes, parchments inside and leather straps — the price of set of tefillin varies considerably, depending on the type of construction, the caliber of the writing on the parchments and the type of straps. Purchasing a first pair of tefillin can be a bit daunting for the uninitiated.

Types of Tefillin for the Bar Mitzvah Boy

All tefillin look pretty much the same to the untrained eye, but they are divided into three categories based on the way the leather boxes are constructed and how the materials used. If you come across a tefillin referred to as “bar mitzvah tefillin,” chances are they are either tefillin peshutim or tefillin peshutim mehudarim.

Tefillin Peshutim – Tefillin made from several pieces of leather glued together are known as tefillin peshutim. They are relatively flimsy, do not hold up over time and their kashrus is often questionable.
Tefillin Peshutim Mehudarim – Tefillin crafted from two separate pieces of leather are known as tefillin peshutim mehudarim, specially folded like origami.
Tefillin Dakkot – Tefillin made from a single piece of thin leather are called tefillin dakkot (or tefillin dakkot ohr echad).
Tefillin Gassot – Tefillin formed from one a single piece of thick leather are known as tefillin gassot, thick tefillin. These are the most durable (and expensive) type.

Tefillin peshutim are often problematic and in recent years tefillin dakkot have been phasing out of the market, so most people buying a set of bar mitzvah tefillin choose between tefillin peshutim mehudarim and tefillin gassot.

Celebrating a bar mitzvah can be expensive, even for parents who budget sensibly, so many parents are looking for tefillin under $300 for their bar mitzvah boy. But keep in mind that if you spend $500 for tefillin gassot, in many cases you are getting a much better value over time. Not only do tefillin gassot often hold up well for decades, but even if they take a bang or somehow get a dent, usually it can be repaired, whereas in the case of tefillin peshutim mehudarim, the tefillin expert might tell you there is nothing that can be done. Also, the caliber of the parchments on the inside and the level of finishing work on the outside is generally superior.

Buy Tefillin>>

Nov 142014
 

Some dealers offer certain additions to customize your tallit. The most common are a tallit lining, sidebands and middle band.

Tallit Lining

Made of cotton, a tallit lining adds a bit of weight and bulk to the tallit, for those who want a more substantial, weighty feel on their shoulders. Some people find it also helps the tallit stay in place, because it weights it down in a key spot.

However, if you choose a tallit with a “nonslip” fabric, adding a tallit lining could detract from the slip-resistant properties, because essentially you are adding a smooth fabric.

The tallit lining is also a helpful “first line of defense” for those who have oily hair or oil skin that discolors the tallit.

Tallit Sidebands

Tallit sidebands are typically made of a synthetic fabric, that looks like a long thin version of the atara. They are especially useful for tallit wearers who have a habit of tugging at the sides of the tallit. Sometimes they may be made of smooth cotton or even the same fabric as the tallit itself.

Tallit sidebands and lining are standard on the Kmo Turkish Tallit and the Belz Tallit. The Chabad Tallit comes with a silk lining. Sometimes customers ask to have it switched for a cotton lining, which of course is not as slick. All of these can be seen on this page.

Tallit Middle Band

A tallit middle band is not as common as the above additions. It is made of the exact same synthetic material used for the sidebands, and goes all the way across the tallit, horizontally, right across the middle.

All three can add to the tallit’s longevity, especially since the most common tear points are in the very center and along the sides. Why tears sometimes form at the very center of the tallit is a mystery that has piqued my curiosity for years. One theory is that some people start folding their tallit by grasping it right at that point. According to another line of thinking, it is a stress point, that fatigues the fabric from slight tugging in various directions.

Some of the talleisim we sell, e.g. the Chatanim, have lining, sideband and middle band options right on the product page. For tallits that don’t, use these product pages:

Lining>>
Sidebands>>
Middle Band>>

Nov 032014
 
This week we received at least three inquiries from grooms interested in using a tallit as their chuppah. Here’s one example:
Hi. I am looking for a Tallis to use for a chuppah. I will need to rent the poles. While I have been using my bar mitzvah Tallis since 1973… (It is too small for a chuppah top), what do you recommend? I don’t need a large chuppah as the space is on the smaller side and it will just be us plus rabbi plus chuppah holders. I was thinking of blue striping, or maybe just white and silver. I am 5’11″ and I would love to use it afterwards. My wedding is in NYC on 11/30. Thanks, Adam
Usually people Adam’s height would order a size 70 (refer to our Tallit Size Wizard), which is a good size for a chuppah. It measures 60″ x 73″. If only the chassan, the kallah and the rabbi will be standing under the chuppah, that should be roomy enough. To be certain, measure out a 60″ x 75″ rectangle on the floor and do a simulation.
If you need more than a size 70 it limits your selection, because many tallits are only made up to a size 70.
For a detailed guide explaining how to use a tallit as a chuppah, refer to this page.
Nov 032014
 

The Gemara (Pesachim 111b) relates that demons taunted a mistaken Sage by singing, “He dresses like a chacham, but does not even know how to bless…!” We see from this anecdote, one among many in the Gemara, that the Sages could be identified by the distinctive garments they wore. Rav Tzaddok HaKohen zt”l explains that the special garments the Sages wore were an outward manifestation of their inner state. Thoughts, words and deeds are referred to as the “garments of the nefesh, the soul,” and since the Sages were completely immersed in the Torah, the quality of those “garments” was at a very exalted level. This was why their physical garments in this world differed from the common man’s — they symbolized their inner state of attachment to Hashem and their dedication to His Word.

One of the companions of the Saraph of Strelisk once dressed his friend in the type of beautiful garment normally reserved for a Rebbe. Their master, Rebbe Shlomo of Karlin Hy”d, sensed that this change of clothes had caused a deterioration in the quality of his disciple’s prayers, and ordered that he change back to his usual clothing.

Some of our customers put a lot of thought and consideration when deliberating which tallit to choose. Perhaps they sense that the tallit resting on their shoulders reflects their spiritual state, to a certain extent, or want the tallit to help them create a special “space” for prayer and connecting with Our Father in Heaven.

Based on remarks by Rabbi Micha Golshevsky cited by A Simple Jew

Nov 012014
 

This morning I went to speak with a neighborhood. While his son went to call him, I stood at the open door for a minute or two, where I noticed two things. First I saw that they had built an attractive six-foot high divider made of glass bricks. The apartments in the area are quite inexpensive, and this renovation is considered something of a luxury. Then I looked at the mezuzah — or really the mezuzah case. It was the cheapest type of plastic mezuzah case you can buy. It probably sells locally for under $3. And it was getting grimy. The grime is a sign that a lot of fingers had touched it, and then kissed their finger as a sign of affection for the holiness of the mezuzah scroll inside. And I know for a fact that the mezuzah scroll inside cost somewhere between $40 and $80.

So why the cheap, ageing mezuzah case? Because in very pious circles spending a lot of money on a very nice mezuzah scroll written by a highly reputable sofer is taken for granted. But a fancy mezuzah case is considered entirely superfluous. (In communities outside of Israel, I have a feeling the situation is a bit different.)

At the other extreme, sometimes you see Jews who are willing to pay an arm and a leg for a gorgeous mezuzah case, but resent having to spend even $30 for a kosher scroll.

I think most attitudes are a bit misguided. When fulfilling a mitzvah, we have a concept of noy mitzvah, or beautifying the mitzvah. When you do the mitzvah of tzitzit by wearing a tallit, buy a nice tallit. When you buy a set of tefillin, make sure the finishing work is well done and the paint is even. When you do the mitzvah of brit milah, prepare an attractive pillow for the baby.

So likewise, when you do the mitzvah of putting a mezuzah on your doorpost, use an attractive mezuzah case. Of course in most cases it doesn’t make sense to spend twice as much money on the case, whose purpose is essentially to protect the mezuzah scroll inside.

In some cases, an inexpensive mezuzah scroll is kosher only if you rely on certain halachic leniencies. Moving up to a $40 or $50 mezuzah scroll removes those uncertainties. Then if you opt to spend $60 or $70 you can expect to get very attractive writing as well.

Oct 312014
 

Every once in a while a prospective customer contacts me for reassurance that the tallits we sell are kosher. The truth is that if you’re buying a traditional wool tallit, you have very little to worry about. But in any case, for those who want to know what makes a tallit kosher, the issues we need to look at are the material, the size and the tzitzit.

Wool Tallit: The Ideal

Traditional tallits are made of wool. According to halacha, it should be ewe’s wool, so if you come across goat wool, camel wool, alpaca wool, etc. you might want to keep this in mind. The only one of those I have ever heard of used to make a tallit is alpaca wool. There are a few inexpensive tallits made of 60% wool and 40% synthetic, but this is quite rare.

On the other extreme there is one tallit known as the Beit Yosef which is made of 100% wool, including the corner patches and atara (neckband), and it has no shiny non-wool striping added. The Beit Yosef Talit is popular mostly for it’s subtle beauty, but some Sephardic Jews, who are especially careful to have only wool, favor the Beit Yosef Talit. Most high-end wool tallits feature wool corner reinforcement squares, but will have a synthetic atara.

Handmade tallits are typically made of wool, cotton or silk. The yarns are thicker than the wool used for manufactured tallits or the cotton and silk fabrics most garments are made from, so the tallit has more texture to it.

While cotton, silk and other natural fibers are definitely kosher for use in making a tallit, wool is preferred from a halachic standpoint. According to the prevailing opinions, a wool garment can be used to fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit according to Torah law (d’oreisa), whereas other natural fabrics only fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit according to Rabbinical Law (d’Rabbanan).

Some bargain tallits are made of synthetic materials, namely acrylan. There is a bit of debate in halacha whether synthetic fabrics are kosher for the mitzvah of tzitzit. I’m not familiar with the issue.

Shaatnez

Some people are concerned a tallit might have shaatnez, which would render is forbidden. There was a shaatnez scandal with Turkish tallits a decade or two ago, but no cases of shaatnez in tallitot have come to my attention in recent years.

Still, last night I myself went to a shaatnez checker myself. I had received from a supplier a few atarot with very modern designs that I wanted to sew onto wool tallits, but the base of the atara looked like linen to me. The shaatnez checker took a look under his microscrope.

Tallit Size Requirements

There is a vigorous debate among the poskim regarding the minimum size requirement of the garment used to fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit, but this applies mostly to a tallit katan (a tzitzit garment worn all day). According to the strictest opinion (the Chazon Ish) the minimum requirement is 24 inches. The narrow type of tallit worn on the shoulders and hanging in front (not draping down the back) comes in sizes 18, 24 and 36, which means the tallit is 18 inches wide, 24 inches wide or 36 inches wide respectively. A tallit under 24 inches (or 20 inches or 22 inches according to other opinions) might be problematic, but a size 24 or a size 36 definitely meet the minimum size requirements for a kosher tallit or kosher tzitzit garment.

Still, there may be another problem: According to halacha, a tallit should be worn with two tzitzit in front and two in back. It seems to me that this would disqualify a size 18 and size 24 tallit. A size 36 can be worn with two tzitzit in back, at least in theory. This issue is somewhat gray to me because many Yemenite and German Jews have a very ancient tradition of wearing the tallit wrapped around their arms with all four tzitzit in front, much like a size 36.

Kosher Tzitzit

From my experience working with various established tallit manufacturers here in Israel, there is little to worry about the tzitzit and tzitzit tying. Many handmade tallits are owned and operated by secular Jews, who may be less scrupulous and are certainly less knowledgeable. I know one of the managers at the leading handmade tallit company, who is a second generation in the business, and he doesn’t know the first thing about tzitzit tying.

Still, it’s highly unlikely that the tzitzit strings themselves are non-kosher. The bare minimum for kosher tzitzit tying is that it be done by a Jewish adult and that he has the mitzvah of tzitzit in mind. Again, it seems unlikely to me that even a secular tzitzit tying worker (which is rare) fails to meet those requirements.

Our own in-house tzitzit tie-ers are mostly yeshiva students and Chassidim with knowledge of the halachas of tzitzit, and we put extra emphasis on numerous fine details of tzitzit tying that come into play with unusual corners, techelet tzitzit and Sephardic and Rambam tying. But all of these points go well above and beyond the basic requirements for a kosher tallit.