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Bar Mitzvah Preparations: The Tallit, the Prayer Shawl
A Conservative Perspective by Rivka C. Berman

Tallit – Prayer Shawl
Adults wear tallitot. When bnei mitzvah wear them it’s a visual cue to their new status. The custom to wear a tallit is derived from the verse: “Speak to the Children of Israel. They should make for themselves tassels on the corners of their garments” (Numbers 15:38-40).

You’ve heard the old instruction “tie a string around your finger so you won’t forget”? Tassels serve much the same purpose and act as reminders to live up to Jewish responsibilities.

Until four-cornered outer garments fell out of fashion, the tassels were tied onto everyday clothing. Today, traditional Jewish males wear a special four-cornered garment, a tallit katan, all throughout the day. As a symbol of holiness, tallitot are supposed to help wearers keep their minds focused on prayer and serving God.

If you choose to wear a tallit, then bring it along for the bar mitzvah service because the tallit is worn whenever the Torah is read. It is also worn during morning services, even if the Torah will not be read. (A bit of trivia: the only time the tallit is worn at night is at the Kol Nidrei service.)

Size wise, a tallit should be large enough to cover a small child and still permit him to walk. Narrow and scarf-like or big and blanket-size, a tallit should be shorter than the clothing it covers, by at least four inches, so it does not drag on the ground (Kimmel 80-83).

Choosing a Tallit
Options abound. Go the traditional route with a blue and white or a black and white tallit. Ask relatives for a tallit that once belonged a grandparent. Let the tallit reflect personal tastes. One patriotic teen had an American and Israeli flag sewn back to back for his tallit. Multicolored, tie dyed tallitot are available. So are tallitot with multiple atarot – neckbands – to accommodate changing tastes from flowers to cartoon characters. Making your own isn’t hard either. With paint markers and a little flair for tzitzit tying, you don’t even need sewing know-how to create your own tallit. The goal is to create a prayer shawl that inspires holiness and focuses the mind.

How to Put on a Tallit
First, untangle the tzitzit tassels. Check that they aren’t torn, because damaged tzitzit do not fulfill the mitzvah that is the tallit’s whole purpose. Until tzitzit are in good shape, the tallit should not be worn.

Unfold the tallit. Hold it horizontally so the neck band (called the atarah, literally “crown”) is, well, near your neck. Then say the blessing: Blessed are You, L-rd, Our G-d, Ruler of the Universe, who has sanctified us with your commandment and commanded us to wrap ourselves in tzitzit.

Then you may want to drape the tallit around yourself, covering your eyes, before arranging the tallit neatly around your shoulders. For one thing, this is a literal interpretation of the blessing. It also creates a private space, a moment of focus, before public prayers.

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