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Letter to a Friend: Tallith at Prayer

July 29, 2015

Dear ****, here is the general overview of what we discussed. The questions were submitted to me sometime last year by a loyal reader.

I believe that after reviewing the relevant sources objectively, that is, reading older sources first, you will realize that the assumption up until at least the early 20th century was that Jewish men are supposed to wear tallitoth g’doloth for prayers, with no distinction ever appearing between shaharith and the other prayers. I could find a number of sources that make it very clear there never was such a distinction until today, which is why, if you search high and low for an explicit reason as to why the tallith today is usually only worn at shaharith, you will not find one with a classic source or much logic. I do not understand why this should bother you so much. You know that “everyone wears a tallis for shacharis, and no one wears one for mincha,” and therefore we must read that into the halachic record, i.e., whenever the rishonim and aharonim discuss the desirability of wearing a tallith for prayer, they were only referring to those prayers at which we see people wearing a tallith, namely shaharith. I believe that your claim can not be made to fit into any book of halacha. This reminds me of a story I heard from Rabbi Avrohom Kahn some years ago. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein had recently written a responsum in which he opined that celery is the ideal vegetable for the mitzwa of karpas on Passover. That year, some of his students attended his seder, and noticed that he had potatoes in place of karpas. “But Rebbe,” they said, “didn’t you rule that celery should be used for karpas?” To which Rav Moshe responded, “Nu, der Rebbitzen gemacht potatoes far karpas!” My only goal was to point out the ideal, objective, theoretical halachoth as they appear in the writings of our mentors. Do we always keep those ideals? No. But that does not mean they do not exist. What happens in practice is something else entirely. I was just trying to point out the irony that the Mishna B’rura and Shulhan Aruch rule tallithoth should be worn at all prayers in all eras, but people only remember that the Mishna B’rura rules that hats should be worn for prayer in a time and place similar to early 20th century Poland, and in practice, there are thousands of Jews who stick to the Mishna B’rura’s conditional and dated ruling about hats, but for some reason ignore what he said about tallithoth! If everyone was wearing a tallith for minha on Tish’a B’av, why did they remove them before ‘arvith? It made no sense whatsoever, especially considering that ‘arvith followed minha by less than a quarter of an hour. Did you ever see someone take off his hat for ‘arvith? The only question is to what extent we attempt to keep the ideal halacha. My heart tells me to always find the ideal and strive for it, but there is another school of thought, which I believe to be mistaken, that says that we should not strive for that ideal. My deepest hope is that we will never again observe Tish’a B’av, but if it so happens that we ever get together to pray with our tallithoth on, we should have the presence of mind not to remove them if we are to pray again right afterwards.
I also believe that debate and argumentation are essential to deriving the halachic truth. That is what all of our sages did. It is for this reason I enjoy bringing up these points with you. If you accepted everything (or even anything) I say, it would not help either of us. However, I do not believe that mockery has any place in talmudic discussion, qal wahomer in the beth midrash.
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From → halacha, original

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