Folding a Tallis

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

In most shuls, it is common to see congregants conclude Shabbos morning davening by folding up their talleisim. However, a perusal of the issue of folding clothes on Shabbos reveals that this seemingly innocuous action is not nearly as simple as it seems and introduces surprisingly interesting concepts.

At first glance, there seems to be a general problem with folding clothes on Shabbos. The Shulchan Aruch (OC 302:3) writes that one may fold clothes on Shabbos, provided there are certain conditions met: the clothes will be worn again on Shabbos, the clothes are folded by oneself, the clothes have been used (meaning not yet washed),  they are white, and the individual has no other garment to wear on Shabbos. If even one of these conditions are not met, one may not fold clothes. However, the Shulchan Aruch then stipulates that if one folded the clothes in a way that did not follow the creases, it would be permissible, regardless of the listed conditions (this will be clarified later).

To get a better handle on this issue, it is important to understand the rationale behind this prohibition, and it applicability to a tallis. The Rambam (Hilchos Shabbos 22:22) essentially follows the pesak of the Talmud (Shabbos 113), as cited above by the Shulchan Aruch. His reason for this prohibition is that it raises the issue of mesaken, or fixing/improving the garment. When one folds clothing on its creases, he is “repairing” it. Rashi (ibid) explains that this repair refers to folding the garment right after it is washed, for fear it will become wrinkled and disheveled. Therefore, according to the Rambam and others, the problem is one of tikun kli. The Raavad (Hilchos Shabbos 23:7) argues with this understanding of the prohibition. He explains that the problem of folding has to do with tircha, where the person is demonstrating a high level of involvement in an activity beneficial to chol, not Shabbos. It is for that reason that if the garment would be worn again on Shabbos, folding it would seem not to be a problem. 

How do we understand this argument? How exactly is it considered tikkun kli to fold the garment – normally, fixing or improving an object is a clear differentiation from an unusable to a usable state. For example, repairing or tuning a musical instrument is forbidden. How does the same apply to folding clothes? From the Raavad’s standpoint, how is folding the clothes considered tircha? The crux of the debate revolves around two different viewpoints of clothing. On its most basic level, clothing serves a functional purpose. A shirt is a garment that covers our upper torso, pants covering our legs. From this perspective, according to the Raavad, one can see why folding is a problem. Once a person takes off his shirt, for example, it obviously loses it functional role. Folding the shirt, then, is not related to the previous wearing. Its only purpose is to ensure it is ready for the next occasion when it will be worn. Therefore, the activity of folding is a tircha. There is another feature to clothing, more abstract and subjective, but important nonetheless. Looking at wearing a shirt from the standpoint of fashion, its appearance plays a significant role. For example, take cargo pants versus dress pants. Both have the same function. However, the wearer distinguishes the different styles of the garments. The key, then, is that part of the definition of the shirt or pants is the value of its appearance by the wearer. This could be the main point of the Rambam. In the case cited in the Talmud, as understood by Rashi, after washing clothes (as done back then), if the clothes were left out to dry without folding them, they would lose their form as a shirt or pants. Folding them in a careful manner would create within them the appearance of a shirt, of vast import to the wearer. If this is the case, one could see how this is an improvement in the garment. Folding the garment produces no true physical change in it, but it does designate its appearance as a shirt. Therefore, according to the Rambam, folding them would be a problem on Shabbos, excluding the above listed circumstances.

Bringing tallis into the picture at this point, based on the above explanation, would leave us with a problem folding it on Shabbos after tefillah. According to the Rambam, it would be mesaken, while according to the Raavad, it would be involvement in preparing for after Shabbos. Tosafos (Shabbos 113) explicitly states that based on the Talmud, it is a problem to fold a tallis after it is used on Shabbos, since it is obviously being done for the following day (in line with the thinking of the Raavad). Not all is lost though. The Aruch Hashulchan (OC 302:10) makes a crucial distinction that changes the dynamic of this halacha. If one looks at the entire halacha as written by the Rambam, the situation described seems to apply to work of an expert. In other words, the folding described in the Talmud was a type of folding (i.e. – creating the pleats) that is within the venue of the expert, such as a tailor, not a layman. Regular folding of clothes, though, is not considered this type of action, thereby negating the issue of tikkun kli. If this is the case, folding clothes or a tallis pose no problem. In fact, the Kol Bo (31a) writes that folding clothes today is nothing like folding in the times of the Talmud, where more concern was paid towards the creation of pleats and creases. 

However, there is the Raavad/Tosafos to contend with. The Raavyah (as cited by the Mordechai 245) offers a unique differentiation in folding that helps those seeking to continue folding their tallis on Shabbos while following the opinions of the Raavad and Tosafos. He explains that there is a difference between folding the garment on its original defined creases (kipul rishon) versus folding it in a different way. A person would therefore be allowed to fold his tallis, just not along the original creases. Rather than relying on a historical change to justify the leniency (our folding today being different than centuries ago, as per the Kol Bo), the Raavyah seems to be offering a more conceptual idea. It could be his approach involves a refinement of the previous understanding of the Raavad’s position. As mentioned above, once a person takes off his garments, their functional role ceases, and folding them indicates his preparation for the next time they are to be worn. The Raavyah is qualifying the act of folding. When one folds along the original creases, there is a greater degree of precision, demonstrating his increased involvement in the activity. As a result, it is this type of folding that personifies tircha. However, if one folds it in a haphazard way, there is nothing in the action that indicates a preparation to wear the clothes again. Therefore, according to the Raavyah, one may fold his tallis if he makes sure not to fold along the original creases. 

Practically speaking, there are different conclusions reached by the Acharonim. The Aruch HaShulchan (ibid) notes that many people fold their tallis after tefillah, relying on the pesak of the Rambam and Rashi. R Ovadia Yosef (Yechave Daat 2:40) writes that when folding one’s tallis, he should try to avoid folding along the creases (per the Raavyah), but has those to rely on to fold it normally. The Mishneh Berura (OC 302:19) writes that if one chooses to be stringent and not fold it at all, it is considered good. 

It is important to emphasize that this is not a complete review of all the issues, and one should consult with his posek.