If you’re starting to look for a bar mitzvah tallit and tefillin, hopefully you still have plenty of time until the bar mitzvah. From my experience there are two types of parents: the type who start looking for a tallit and tefillin two or three months before the bar mitzvah, and others who start looking two or three weeks ahead of the big day.
Choosing a Bar Mitzvah Tallit
If you’re looking for a traditional tallit, be sure it is made of wool tallit. Wool looks nicer, lasts longer and is the fabric of choice from a halachic standpoint. When comparing prices, be aware that the same tallit made of a synthetic material (typically acrylic) will cost at least 30% less. Most tallits are either all wool or all acrylic, but there are a few out there made of a wool/acrylic blend.
The more expensive type of wool tallit is made of a denser weave and may include special features such as wool corners and stain-resistant fabric. Many parents want a traditional-looking tallit, but want it personalized for their son. They may want to have a special atara (neckband) sewn on or have the bar mitzvah boy’s name embroidered on the tallit. Personally, I discourage name embroidery on the tallit, but certainly it’s very appropriate to have a name embroidered, in Hebrew or English, on a tallit bag. Expect to pay at least $1 per letter.
Thinking of buying a handwoven tallit? Although handwoven wool tallits are common, you will also come across cotton and silk. Gabrieli is the only tallit maker I know of that works with all three materials. Their wool and cotton look very similar, although the cotton is a bit thinner and smoother in texture. A handwoven silk tallit is not the sheer silk of a silk blouse, because thick silk yarns are used. Compared to wool and cotton, a handmade silk tallit is somewhat thinner, more details and has higher sheen.
Keep in mind that a handmade wool tallit can cost anywhere from $200 to $600 and up.
Tallit Color Options
As noted above, the age-old wool tallit is invariably white with black stripes. Some Sephardic Jews have a custom of opting for a white tallit with white stripes, which has a very elegant and distinguished look. Ivory and off-white handwoven tallits look traditional, yet unique and distinctive at the same time. White with blue stripes seems to be a popular choice among bar mitzvah tallit buyers, possibly because it is not too eccentric, yet adds a bit of color and flare.
Bar Mitzvah Tefillin
Keep in mind that the halacha specifically states that one should spend more money on tefillin than on the tallit (Mishnah Berurah). Beware of bar mitzvah packages, which usually come with very poor quality tefillin that could easily be not kosher. In fact, often the tallit that comes with such package deals is also mediocre quality.
What is inside the boxes?
The box of the tefillin shel rosh (head tefillin) has four separated compartments, each with a specially prepared parchment or vellum (known as klaf) on which a different passage from the Torah is written? The tefillin shel yad (arm tefillin) has a single compartment containing a parchment with verses.
How are the Torah passages on the tefillin parchments written?
The texts must be written on properly prepared parchment or vellum called klaf. The style of the lettering varies among Jews of different backgrounds (e.g. Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Chabad), but the halachic requirements are almost identical.
The parchments placed inside a set of tefillin must be written by a trained sofer, or ritual scribe. A sofer should be stricty observant, have exemplary character and be knowledgeable about the laws of sofrut. After learning the halachic intricacies of sofrut the sofer-in-training generally does an apprenticeship (shimush) under an expert scribe. By the time a sofer writes his first set of tefillin he has typically spent 2-3 years learning his craft.
How much should a pair of kosher tefillin cost?
If you find tefillin for $200 beware! For “bar mitzvah tefillin” or a first set of inexpensive tefillin, expect to pay at least $200 if you want to be certain they are really kosher. Inexpensive types of tefillin are referred to as tefillin peshutim, tefillin peshutim mehudarim and tefillin dakkot. Tefillin with very well-written parchments, well-crafted boxes, thick leather and quality straps generally cost anywhere from $500 to $1,000, and top quality tefillin with all the strictest halachic features and frills can run upwards of $1,200.
What are “tefillin peshutim?”
Tefillin peshutim employ a simple design. The head tefillin (“tefillin shel rosh“) is made using several pieces of parchment to form the inner walls and glued within a slit square to divide it into the four required compartments. The parchments are often written on klaf mashuach, which is much less durable.
What are “tefillin peshutim mehudarim?”
Tefillin peshutim mehudarim can be roughly translated as “superior simple design.” The boxes are made from a single piece of leather as required. When complete, tefillin peshutim mehudarim look almost identical to the more expensive cowhide type, but are less durable.
What are “tefillin dakkot?”
“Dak” means thin in Hebrew. Tefillin dakkot are made by stretching a thin layer of parchment over a structural base similar to the peshutim. This outer parchment forms the entire box of the tefillin, which is halachically preferable. Because of its thin design the tefillin can become halachically invalid relatively easily. Today tefillin dakkot can be hard to find. But keep in mind that until 100 years ago all tefillin were tefillin dakkot.
What are “tefillin gassot?”
“Gas” means “coarse” or “thick.” Tefillin gassot are made entirely out of a single piece of thick leather, from the cheeks and the neck of the cow, where the hide is thickest. Working such thick leather into a finely finished product requires the repeated use of several tons of pressure in industrial presses as part of a complicated, but delicate production process. The resulting battim (boxes) are so durable and thick they typically last a lifetime.
What are bar mitzvah tefillin?
Some tefillin dealers refer to their least expensive type of tefillin as “bar mitzvah tefillin.” Typically they are tefillin peshutim (see above). About a month before the bar mitzvah (customs vary) the father or a rabbi or mentor teaches the young man how to lay tefillin correctly and with reverence.
What sizes do tefillin come in?
Standard tefillin boxes measure 31-36 mm. Very large tefillin boxes, typically worn by Lubavitcher chassidim, are 40 mm or more. The smallest size, often worn by Sephardim who wear both Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam tefillin at the same time, are typically 22 mm and are actually more expensive than the standard size.
How are tefillin straps made?
The straps must also be made of leather from the skin of a kosher animal and be painted black on the upper side. The tefillin straps pass through a passageway at the back of the lower base (the ma’avarta) and are tied into special knots that form the letters dalet and yud.