Monday, June 14, 2010

Wearing a Tallit After Bar Mitzvah - Part 1

About a month before my Bar Mitzvah (almost 25 years ago!), my tefillin arrived to my great excitement. The entire Bar Mitzvah process represents a gradual rite of passage that commences at the outset of a boy's twelfth year with the study of trop for the Torah reading, continues with the wearing of the tefillin, and I assume reaches its crescendo at the Bar Mitzvah itself.
I know all of this because we're about to celebrate the Bar Mitzvah of Simcha, my oldest son. (As every parent I'm sure feels, it's difficult to imagine that my child has reached Bar Mitzvah age, but that's a different post entirely.)
I remember that when my tefillin arrived in the United States from Israel, my uncle also purchased a beautiful matching Tallit and Tefillin bag with my name on it, as well as a rather lovely Tallit. I remember this because I wondered why my uncle had purchased the Tallit. Other than at the celebration itself when I led the davening, when else would I wear it? Indeed, the Tallit remained in its special bag for years, languishing in a closet. At my wedding, I rescued the beautiful bag (its Tefillin counterpart had long before frayed from the year of use) to use with my Shabbat Tallit, but the Tallit itself was now too small for regular use.
I think that Tallit still sits on the top shelf in the closet of my mother's den. Just thinking about it kind of makes me sad. I never really used it. In fact, I had no intention of using it, and as far as I can remember, no other kid in my class wore a tallit during davening. In fact, I never even thought about it. Nobody did it, and I didn't really give it a second thought. We are, after all, hardcore Ashkenazim, and we don't wear a Tallit until our wedding. I never really asked – or cared – why.
Except, now that my son's Bar Mitzvah approaches, I'm not sure why I failed to wear a tallit for the ten years following my own Bar Mitzvah. More to the point, I think that I was wrong. This is why my son wore a Tallit during davening when he dons his Tefillin for the first time later this month, and will continue to do so.
If you look in the Shulchan Aruch, you'll find no mention of any custom of children not to wear a tallit. In fact, you find exactly the opposite, in the instruction to specifically teach our children to wear tzitzit from a young age. The Shulchan Aruch writes (Orach Chayyim 17:3),
A minor who knows how to wrap himself – his father must purchase tzitzit for him to educate him.
Rema adds:
This specifically applies to a child old enough to wrap two tzitzit in front and two behind him, and he knows to hold the tzitzit in his hand when reciting the Shema.
Two interesting points stand out in this text. Both Shulchan Aruch and Rema use the term להתעטף, meaning “to wrap oneself,” the ideal manner of wearing tzitzit. More importantly, it’s clear that children begin wearing tzitzit at a very young age. How old do you have to be to know to wear two tzitzit in front and two behind? Not very old.
Moreover, the point seems obvious. We educate our children to perform mitzvoth from a very early age. We teach them to recite the Shema at three, to pray, recite blessings, wave the lulav – ritual acts forms the very fabric of Jewish life as soon as our children can grasp them. Why should donning tzitzit be any different? In fact, Shulchan Aruch specifically emphasizes that teaching our children to wear tzitzit is different in that we educate them about this particular mitzvah before most others, at an earlier age than we might have thought.
If this rule applies to children as young as four or five, it without a doubt applies to “children” above the age of Bar Mitzvah. Technically, they’re certainly not children. Judaism considers young men and women above the age of mitzvoth adults “for every matter,” certainly regarding the wearing of tzitzit as well.
At least you would think.

To be continued.