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.

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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:

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.


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.

Oct 212014
For those in search of just the right tallit, the striping is definitely a major factor. This week we received the following inquiry from a prospective customer:
Could you please address the customs concerning the stripes on the tallit.
More pointedly the silver or gold stripes. Thanks, Tom S.
I explained to Tom that originally the tallit had blue stripes as a remembrance of the lost techelet (blue) tzitzit. These later morphed into black stripes.“The current custom of black stripes,” writes my friend Rabbi Shraga Simmons, “is in keeping with the synagogue decorum, which has value in and of itself.”Tallit StripesStill, even in Orthodox congregations, not everyone wears a white tallit with black stripes. In a modern Orthodox congregation you’ll find a bit of color, and in non-Orthodox congregations, the tallits can get quite colorful.

I would say black-silver and black-gold is somewhere in the middle, and for the most part tallit striping choice is really a matter of personal preference.

Black-striped, white-striped, white-silver-striped and blue-striped tallits are considered quite traditional, and have a white atara with a subtle leaf and diamond design. Black-silver, black-gold, blue-silver and blue-gold are perfectly acceptable in most Orthodox congregations and have the Tzitzit Blessing embroidered on the atara (neckband).

Oct 212014

Usually I get requests for a lightweight tallit from customers who live in a hot climate. I myself got a lightweight tallit for day-to-day summer use because I davin early, and the gabbaim seem to think that it can’t be warm in shul at 5:30 or 6:00 a.m. But they’re wrong. When the air conditioner isn’t on, I really suffer, and definitely feel disinclined to pull the tallis up onto my head at all.

Go to Lightweight Tallit page>>

So I got myself a Kalil, which looks just like a traditional black-on-white tallit, but is made from a thinner weave that comes out 30% lighter than a standard wool tallit. I’ve been using it for at least a year, and so far I’m very impressed with how well it’s held up. It looks pretty much as good as new.

Tallis Hameshubach Kelilas Yofi

Kalil, a.k.a. Tallis Hameshubach Kelilas Yofi

If you are considering the Kalil tallit, a.ka.a. Tallis Hameshubach Kelilas Yofi, be aware that it’s a bit narrower across the shoulders (meaning less tallit to bunch up on your shoulders, and in the size 60 has three black stripes instead of the more common five-stripe pattern. It also folds up very compactly, so if you are a commuter who shleps tallit and tefillin along, that might help. I once had a customer who was a bike commuter in search of a very compact tallit, so I recommend the Kalil.

Although it’s made in Israel by Mishkan Hatchelet, in the U.S. Keter markets this same tallit under the name “Tallis Hameshubach Kelilas Yofi” or “Feather Lite Edition.”

More common lightweight tallits are the Tashbetz, which comes with a number of striping options: black, white, white/silver, sky blue/silver and gray/silver. The Tashbetz is quite popular because it’s made of an airy box weave designed to reduce tallit slipping.

Go to Lightweight Tallit page>>

Sep 292014

If you are thinking of tying techelet tzitzit on your next tallit or tallit katan, but are not sure which tying custom to follow, you’re not alone.

With all white tzitzit, usually there’s nothing to decide: if you’re Ashkenazi, you tie Ashkenazi, if you’re Sephardic, you tie Sephardic, if you’re Chabad, you tie Chabad. But since it’s highly unlikely your parents, grandparents or great-grandparents had techelet tzitzit, you have no tradition to follow, and are left in a bit of a quandry.

The first thing you need to know is that tying techelet tzitzit according to the Ashkenazi or Sephardic custom is not the correct way to go about it. These customs were developed in the absence of techelet, but the Gemara provides many details about how to tie tzitzit and the Ashkenazi and Sephardic tying customs for all-white tzitzit do not meet many of the requirements in the Gemara.

Namely, the Gemara speaks of chulyot, saying you must have a minimum of seven and a maximum of thirteen. Normally chulyot are understood to be sets of three windings. Thus, for example, the Vilna Gaon writes that you should do thirteen chulyot as follows: after the first double knot, do 3 windings using the white shamsash string, three with the blue, three white, and three blue, i.e. four chulyot. Then make a second double knot. Repeat this sequence another three times so that you have a total of 12 chulyot. Then do one final chulyah of white and tie a final double knot.

Some of the other approaches, such as Sefer HaChinuch and Amram Gaon, are quite similar, while the Rambam and the Arizal have different approaches regarding how to create the chulyot.

If you insist on following the standard Ashkenazi or Sephardic tying custom, at least be sure that the very first and last windings are white, a basic requirement that the Gemara states unambigiously.

If you have the opportunity to delve into the topic, you’ll find the discussion starting on Menachot xxb. To see images of the primary techelet tying approaches, refer to this guide.

From a halachic standpoint, even more important than which tying custom you follow  is how many strings of blue you use. We know four tzitzit strings must be tied onto each corner. Once they are tied you see what appears to be eight strings hanging down. The Torah refers to a פתיל תכלת in the singular, but does that mean one of the four strings, i.e. one complete string of blue, or one of the eight strings, which would be achieved by using one string that is half blue and half white? The Rambam holds that one of the eight strings must be blue, while the Raavad holds that two of them must be blue. (The Tosefot has another approach according to white half of the eight strings should be blue.)

The Arizal and others agree with the Rambam, while the Gra, Sefer HaChinuch and others side with the Raavad. In practical terms, some say that today, in the absence of a mesorah, Ashkenazim should follow the Raavad, while Sephardim should follow the Rambam. But not all rabbanim agree with that approach, and it is recommended that you consult your rabbi on this question.

Sep 032014

It’s fairly rare that a customer asks me not to tie the first knot on the tzitzit too tight. That’s why I was surprised to see this note a customer added to an order for a white-on-white Beit Yosef talit.

Please see that the tsitsit be tied on both tallitot to have flat corners. That is, that the first knot is not so tight that it crumples the corner more than just a very small amount. I was told that they tied the first knot tight to prevent movement of the strings around the corner of the garment. However I am a little particular about the corners and personally I think the stiff corners of the Beit Yosef prevent that. Thank you, Dean.

Dean is actually quite right, but the truth is we would have done the same even without receiving the request.

There is a halacha, mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch, regarding how tight to make the first knot of the tzitzit (O.C. 11, 15). On one hand, we want the tzitzit to fall along the side of the tallit so that it hangs right alongside the corner when worn (“notef al hakeren“). If that first knot does not keep the tzitzit snug alongside the tallit, they are liable to make their way around the corner to the other side, so that when worn the tzitzit hang from the bottom edge parallel to the ground, rather than the fringed side.

On the other hand, if you make the knot very snug, according to some opinions, scrunched up fabric does not count when measuring the distance from the hole to the edge. The minimum distance is about 4 cm. The hole is usually positioned 5 cm away. So if you bunch up the fabric too much, according to these opinions the tzitzit are not considered attached to the kanaf.

Notably Lubavitch has a very innovative solution that allows them to have their cake and eat it too: They don’t scrunch up the fabric at all, but add a second hole, looping the shamash through it before the first winding, thereby anchoring the tzitzit to the correct side of the tallit.

Those who follow the Chazon Ish bunch up the fabric a lot, and many Sephardim are careful not to bunch up the fabric at all.

Some tallits have stiffer corners than others, which helps the tzitzit stay in place. High-end tallits, such as Chatanim, Hamefoar and Beit Yosef (as Dean notes) feature stiff wool corner patches for this reason. And sometimes decorated corners, notably on Yemenite tallitot, are very stiff.