Today, almost every traditional tallit is made of wool, although you can also find inexpensive tallits made of acrylic or other synthetic materials or occasional a wool/acrylic blend, such as the Hadar Tallit made by Talitania. In the realm of modern tallits, especially handmade, some are also made of silk or cotton. But there is one you won’t find very often: a linen tallit.
The reason is based on halacha. According to the Shulchan Aruch, only a wool or linen tallit or garment is required to have tzitzit d’oreisa (based on Torah Law), whereas all other fabrics require tzitzit d’Rabbanan (based on Rabbinical Law). The Rema emends this, saying other fabrics also require tzitzit d’oreisa, and the Ashkenazi custom is to rely on his ruling.
Linen Tallit with Wool Tzitzit – Or Vice Versa
So it would appear that linen is just fine – even preferrable – as a tallit fabric. The problem is kilayim, of ten known as “shatnez,” which is a forbidden mixture of wool and linen. The Torah actually makes a special exception in the case of tzitzit, allowing you to tie wool tzitzit onto a linen tallit or garment, or linen tzitzit onto a wool garment. But the Shulchan Aruch notes that today we cannot put linen tzitzit on a wool garment or wool tzitzit on a linen garment because “we do not have techelet [therefore] it would be kilayim” (9, 2).
(Ptil Tekhelet proponents might differ on this point, but very few of them – even if those who are 99% convinced the techelet they are wearing is the real thing – would be willing to take their chances by wearing a linen tallit or tallit katan garment, since Ptil Tekhelet tzitzit are made of wool.)
Linen Tzitzit on a Linen Tallit
However, if you look carefully at what the Mishnah Berurah writes on this point, it seems there is room to be lenient and use linen tzitzit, except in the case of a wool or silk tallit or tallit katan garment. And some people need to make use of this leniency, especially if they are allergic to wool. In fact, there are even other less known fabric allergies, such as allergy to the shellfish additives in some fabrics, allergy to synthetics and even allergic to cotton. But as far as I know, nobody is allergic to linen.
Consumers should be aware that many online linen tallit sellers are Messianic Christians, so it’s important to check your source thoroughly.
Some people think linen is synonymous with cotton, which is not the case at all. A cotton tallit or tallit katan garment is clearly permitted (although some Sephardic Jews are stringent to stick with wool). Though rare, you may come across a handwoven tallit katan made of fine cotton yard using a linen weave. But cotton yarn is made of cotton, while linen is made of flax.
I once had a customer who wanted to buy a cotton tallit, but was concerned that the wool tzitzit would render it shatnez. I reassured the buyer that there was nothing to worry about, that cotton and wool are fine.
As a side note, you may run across references to “wool tzitzit” or “cotton tzitzit.” Generally this is not a reference to the tzitzit strings, but to the tallit katan garment the tzitzit are tied onto.