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.
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.