Tallis: An On and Off Experience

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

At times, when we involve ourselves in repetitive halachic activities, we sometimes fail to realize the developmental analytical process that led to a specific performance. A large part of the beauty of the halachic system is the thought process involved in achieving the result, rather than the result itself. One such example involves the daily activity of putting on and taking off a tallis.

The concept of atifah (wrapping) with a tallis is mentioned in a secondary manner throughout the Talmud. The main example cited by poskim is found in Moed Katan (24a), when, in the context of a debate about aveilus, Shmuel explains that “any atifah that is not like the atifas yishmaeilim is not considered an atifah”. This statement is qualified by the actions of Rav Nachman, who would cover his body up to the sides of his face with the tallis, and is understood to mean a complete covering of the head, face and body (atifah gemura). There is a debate as to whether this is the exact manner in how one should perform atifah after saying the bracha. According to the Geonim, atifah must be done as cited in the Talmud, the atifas yishmaeilim. However, the Baal Haitur (among others) argues that the Talmud was only referring to the situation of aveilus. He writes that as a person puts on his shirt, at times it covers his head and at times it does not. Therefore, atifah need not be a complete atifah as the Geonim maintained; instead, a “normal” atifah (which would include the head) is what one should do. The position of the Baal HaItur is a bit difficult to understand. The bracha one recites, “lehisatef b’tzitzis” clearly indicates a specific action of atifah – why not use the standard as mentioned in the Talmud? If one looks at atifah like any other halachic performance, then there is no room for the rationale posited by the Baal HaItur. For example, when one makes the bracha of “lehaniyach tefillin”, he then proceeds to follow the strict halachic implementation of hanachas tefillin, with the tefillin being put on in a precise manner. The position of the Geonim, then, would simply be that atifah is a halachic performance, a maaseh atifah, thereby necessitating an objective method. The Baal Haitur is indicating that how one puts on his tallis is subjective – how does he come to this conclusion? It is important to keep in mind that a tallis is actually a begged, a type of clothing that is worn, albeit with a halachic designation. What he is describing is a different notion of atifah, referring to the process and result of donning the garment. In other words, atifah does not refer to a halachic action. Instead, it is the way of putting on a garment like a tallis. Much like a pair of pants is pulled on, a tallis has its own way of being donned, atifah. And just like one person may put his left leg in first while another may do the right, the Baal Haitur is maintaining that in putting on the tallis, one person’s head might be covered, while another would not. The upshot is that from the perspective of wearing clothing, atifah refers to the normal way a garment such as a tallis would be worn. The Baal Haitur does maintain, however, that one should strive to ensure his head is covered when putting on the tallis after the bracha is recited.

For the most part, the poskim line up in support of the Baal Haitur’s position, but offering different variations of atifos. For example, the Mishneh Berurah’s method (OC 8:2 S.K. 3), which is quite prevalent, has the person cover his face up to his mouth with the tallis, and swing the four tzitzios over his left shoulder, holding it there for a few moments. Both Sefardim and Yekkes have unique ways based on different poskim as well. There is also the Vilna Gaon (Maase Rav 15), who writes that one need only cover his head after reciting the bracha, explicitly stating that there is no need to perform atifas yishmaelim. 

What about if one removes his tallis? The concern there involves the requirement to make a new bracha if it is removed. The Tur (OC 8) writes of a safek as to a conclusive pesak, this same safek noted by various Rishonim before him (such as the Ritvah and Nemukei Yosef). If one removes his tallis, with the mindset he will not be putting it back on anytime soon, he of course must recite another bracha if he puts it on again. However, the Tur was in doubt about the case of a person who takes off his tallis with the specific intent of putting it back on immediately. The uncertainty surrounds the issue of whether the person is required to make a new bracha or not, based on a universal halacha derived from tefillin. The Talmud (Succah 46a) notes that if tefillin is moved from its required place on one’s head/arm and returned back immediately, a person must recite the bracha again before moving it back into place. The question is whether the tefillin was moved by the individual with this intent, or it moved on its own, and when discovered, would be moved back immediately. In the latter case, one clearly would have to make a new bracha, while in the former, one would not. In our case, the question is which scenario applies to the tallis removed intentionally. One practical result from this distinction is a near universal acceptance of the pesak that if a tallis falls off the individual on its own, the person must recite the bracha again before donning it. How do we further understand these two possibilities raised by the Tur? 

Normally, when it comes to the intent of the individual, there are certain actions that the person engages in that demonstrate his mindset, gilui daas. For example, a group of people at a seudah who get up and leave demonstrate a break in their relationship to the meal. We see a similar concept as well if someone falls into a deep sleep during a seudah. In such a case, the state of sleep is a clear indication that this person is no longer involved in the meal. In both these scenarios, there is hesech hadaas, an interruption in the person’s relationship to the situation (ie – seudah) at hand. In the case of the tallis, the question is whether or not there is a concept of hesech hadaas in removing the tallis. One possibility is that a person’s mindset has no relevance to the wearing of a garment like a tallis – once it comes off of him, there is now an interruption in his performance of the mitzvah (hefsek) and he must recite a new bracha. Therefore, there would be no distinction between whether it came off on its own or he took it off – either way, it is a hefsek. On the other hand, one could argue that there indeed is a revelation of daas when it comes to tallis. As in the case of the meal, there has to be a clear indication that he is no longer part of the seudah. In the case of tallis, it is not the removal per se that would produce the break in mindset – if this were the case, there would be nothing to discuss. Rather, it is the feature of immediacy (miyad), where he will put the tallis back on soon after removing it, that determines whether there is a break in his tziruf to the tallis. This concept need not be time bound, as there is no actual shiur of how long miyad actually is. We see certain scenarios introduced by various poskim, such as removing a tallis and leaving/returning to shul, or removing it before entering the bathroom (which, incidentally, is not actually an obligation), where there is a debate as to the application of miyad or not. Therefore, it is the lack in immediacy that ulimtately will demonstrate the daas of the individual. In the case of where the tallis falls off on its own, there is no ability to gauge the mindset of the individual, as there was no intent. Without this barometer, the phenomenon of hefsek naturally enters into the picture, and he would also be required to make a new bracha. 

Of course, please consult your rav for pesak regarding these different issues.