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Jewish traditions are evolving

Can Alice wear a tallis?

for The Brooklyn Paper

Dear Cantor Matt:

When I was growing up, only men wore a tallis. Now I’m hearing that my daughter is supposed to wear one for her bat mitzvah. Is that right? Won’t she look funny?

— Old Fashioned

Dear Old Fashioned,

In the words of another famous Jewish guy: the times, they are a-changin’!

Let’s back up a bit and figure out what wearing a tallis is all about and where it came from.

First, the word “tallis” itself is actually Yiddish. In Hebrew, we would call it a “tallit,” or in English a “prayer shawl.”

The commandment to wear a tallit has its roots in one paragraph of the Torah — tucked away in the Book of Numbers. Between parting the Red Sea and appearing in burning bushes, God dabbled briefly in the fashion industry by issuing an order to Moses that all the Israelites tie fringes (in Hebrew: tzitzit — say that five times fast) on the corners of their garments.

Keep in mind the clothes that they wore back then weren’t from The Gap or Old Navy. People wore simple, rectangular garments, sort of like a tunic. So, it was a pretty straightforward job to take each corner and tie a fringe to it.

The bigger question is: “Why in the world would God want us to do such a strange thing?”

We’re told that the tzitzit should remind us of what our obligations are and of all the commandments. If you can picture wearing a four-cornered garment with fringes attached, you can imagine that the tzitzit would be visible all the time, always swinging around and easy to notice. It was actually an effective way to remember something — much like some people do today by tying a string around their finger.

In modern times, though, it’s not really practical to tie fringes onto all of our clothes. Can you imagine buying a suit, and the salesman asking you, “Cuffs or no cuffs? And did you want fringes with that?” So we have a ready-made garment called a tallit, complete with tzitzit already tied on, that we can put on anytime we need to fulfill this specific commandment.

This was something that used to be done only by males, much like many rituals that we observe in Judaism. However, it’s become quite common for girls and women to wear a tallit as well. It might have seemed strange to see a bat mitzvah girl on the bimah wearing a tallit, maybe as recently as twenty or so years ago. But today it wouldn’t even draw a second look. I’m always amazed at how fast some changes occur in a religion, which is several thousand years old.

Additionally, there are no requirements on what a tallit should look like, other than a very specific way to tie the fringes (which will already be done for you). Many families will choose a pretty tallit for their daughter, perhaps to coordinate with her bat mitzvah dress. I would recommend, however, that whatever tallit you decide upon, make sure it’s something that would be appropriate for her bat mitzvah and any service afterwards. Remember, the idea is to prepare her for a life of Jewish traditions — not just to complete one pressure-filled service.

Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt@mattaxelrod.com.

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