by Rebecca Sassouni

Why I Started—and Then Stopped—Wearing My Tallit

Seven years after beginning to wear a tallit during prayer, I decided to stop. It was not easy to begin to take on the mitzvah wearing a tallit. Neither has it been easy in the nearly two years since I stopped.

When I wore a tallit, it was an outward manifestation of my inner conviction that women and men are made in God’s image, equal, and equally obligated to the mitzvot. As I selected and wore each of my beautiful tallitot, I felt nestled in these powerful convictions. I also felt nimble as I’d twist and braid the tzitziot on my own tallit as I had my grandfathers’ and my dad’s as a child.  Hoping that my son and daughters would someday feel connected to Judaism and mitzvot, too. I first began wearing tallit the year of my eldest children’s b’nai mitzvah.

When I chose to refrain from wearing the tallit, it was the result of the creeping realization of my own naivete: My personal convictions notwithstanding, men and women are not treated equally, are not equally safe in synagogues or the world-at-large. Wearing tallitot conspicuously marked me, exposing the vulnerability of my most deeply held beliefs while living through reactionary times where minority beliefs are so readily misconstrued, denigrated, and marginalized.

Several disappointing, disillusioning moments contributed to my wrenching decision to leave my beautiful tallitot folded in their pouches at home. Just a few of them: As a board member of an egalitarian Jewish day school, I visited one day to layn Torah in Sephardi trop for the high-schoolers at morning minyan. Imagine my surprise that none of the female students wore tallitot! A longtime officer of a synagogue, I was the only woman present at an executive board meeting discussing a contract renewal of a female administrator during which another officer opined, “what’s her bitch list?” about the administrator’s contractual posture. (I have yet to hear a colloquial reference to  male employees’ prick lists!)

In the meantime, my heart ached and bile rose as every Rosh Chodesh more Women of the Wall were physically and verbally assaulted at the Kotel in Jerusalem, while the American electorate decided that bragging about grabbing women by the pussy is acceptably presidential. Ironically, the #metoo and #timesup movements (which I support) were more than my tallit-wearing shoulders could bear. Bracing myself for what I feared the inevitable backlash and hazing of women to come, I decided to try not to be so damned conspicuous. 

Years ago at my synagogue, (where fewer than ten women in a congregation with over 850 members wear tallitot), the rabbi initiated a custom where people spread their arms and tallitot out and embrace neighbors beside them in the pew during the Priestly Blessing.

When I wore a tallit, I enjoyed not needing to wait for the tallit of another, being able to extend my arms out and embrace others on my own initiative.  I miss that feeling now. Even as I do feel a measure of gratitude as I receive the embrace from others (who are men) during the Priestly Blessing, it is tinged with resignation toward patriarchy that condescends to allow the men to embrace women with their tallit as conduits to receive a blessing. A bat Levi, I also miss my tallit when called to the Torah and end up using a cloth or someone else’s tallit to touch and kiss the scroll.

I miss my tallitot most acutely during the third paragraph of the Shaharit Shema (when the custom is to bring the tzitziot to ones lips each time the word “tzitizit” is uttered). No longer gripping the tzitiot wrapped between my fingers, I have started my own practice of bringing the siddur to my lips instead.  

To be honest, it all feels melancholy. I am sad knowing that I violated a tradition that holds that once one takes on a mitzvah, one is to keep observing it. Mostly, I am discouraged that the gap between my convictions and the world as it actually is has never felt wider. Kissing a siddur is not the same as kissing tzitziot, but it is all I can muster for now. 


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