In our day, the use of the tallit is largely confined to times of prayer.
Jewish sources indicate that the tallit was originally made of wool and that the person wearing it might treat it as an ordinary garment for various purposes – bundling up his wares in it or using it to cover himself or the bed he was lying on. Based on a responsum written by the Rambam, it appears that the custom during his time was to wear a tallit throughout the day.
Meanwhile Rabbi Petachia of Regensburg, who visited the East in the 12th century, reveals that the Jews of Baghdad “go about in shawls and wrapped up in a tallit of wool, with tzitzits.” According to Dr. Aaron Gimani of Bar-Ilan University, the restriction of the tallit to the morning prayers and the development of the tallit katan evolved as Jews began to adopt more mainstream social mores.
Yemenite Tallit: The Shamlei
R' Said Kachazam wrapped in a shamlei tallith in Yemen. Click on image to enlarge
To this day the Yemenite tallit reflects certain distinctions that set it apart from the tallitot worn in other parts of the world. Rabbi Jacob Sapir, an emissary for religious organizations in Israel who visited Yemen in 1859, wrote that “God-fearing men, teachers of the people, will wear another garment, with four corners and bearing tzitzits, below their upper garment and over their backs, from above – the shamlei (so it is also called in Arabic), black or with black and white stripes, made of thick wool, square, with four corners, with which they cover their head and body all the way down, and on the four corners they hang tzitzits, according to the law, and they cover themselves with the shamlei throughout the day… at night too they cover themselves with it, or use it to cover the mattress on which they lie. And it will be used for every task; people carry things in it when they go buying and selling in the market, or they use it to carry wood.”
Yemenite Tzitzit Tying Custom
Many Yemenite Jews to this day tie the tzitzit with seven chulyot (“joints”) not separated by any knots. After the cords have been inserted into the hole at the corner of the tallit, a double knot is made. The longest cord is wound three times around the other cords to form the first joint. A small space is left and the cord is wound around another three times. The process continues until the tzitzit has seven joints with no intermediate knots. (Some have a custom of making 13 joints.)
Rabbi Joseph Kafich comments that this remains the Yemenite tzitzit tying custom to the present. Writing on Yemenite Jewish customs, Rabbi Isaac Ratzaby remarks, “At any rate, it would seem that a clear preference should be given to our custom, which appears explicitly in the Talmud, whereas other practices were introduced without any comparable source.” Yet in Israel the ancient Yemenite tzitzit tying tradition has been largely subsumed.
The Yemenite Tallit Katan
As for the tallit katan, it was worn only by some Yemenite sages, but once the Yemenite Jewish community had immigrated to Israel, their custom changed to conform to that of their brethren, who wore tzitzit all day, every day.
Rabbi Shalom Isaac Halevi, who came to Israel from Yemen in 1923, acknowleded that only a small minority wore a tallit katan in Yemen, “but this does not mean that Yemenite Jews thought it sufficient to wear a tallit during prayer only. The accepted custom is that every Yemenite Jewish male in Yemen would not step out the door of his house unless he had a tallit on his shoulders, and this was the tallit that he wrapped around [himself] in the synagogue during prayer.” He goes on to remark that Yemenite Jews living in Israel should follow the custom of wearing a tallit katan throughout the day.