Creating a tallit involves more than weaving cloth

Three decades ago at a Jewish Community Center in Pennsylvania, Ruth Hefter practiced an ancient craft in a modern setting.

She learned to weave tallitot.

As the years went by, the familiar blue stripes of the tallitot woven in that room made way for new colors — threads of cranberry, green, gold and silver.

But the class remained.

Now, young boys in the community of Wilkes-Barre have a hand in creating their own bar mitzvah tallitot. The work draws them closer to the mitzvah, its history and its ritual meaning.

The Wilkes-Barre tallitot project reflects two important trends in the last few decades.

Jews are seeking stronger ties to ritual. And art is helping to forge that connection.

"Religious experience is more commonly absorbed through the senses than through the intellect," writes Abram Kanof in his book "Jewish Ceremonial and Religious Observance."

The revival of handcrafted ritual art, and its intrinsic quality and originality, have become a visual cue for Jews seeking a spirituality, said Rabbi Yitzhak Breitowitz of Maryland.

Jews already immersed in mitzvot derive satisfaction from the fulfillment of the Talmudic imperative of hiddur mitzvah — the enhancing of observance by adding a note of beauty and attention to the ritual object itself.

Since it is the tzitzit which transform the tallit from a piece of fabric into a ritual object, the ritual of tying the tzitzit offers abundant educational opportunities.

Bea Wyler is a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. The yarn for the tzitzit she attaches to the tallitot she makes are imported from Switzerland, and are specially dedicated to this mitzvah before it is spun, as Jewish law prescribes.

"When I tie the tzitzit with a student, each of us works on the same corner. It is an intense moment between us," Wyler said. "These moments are the culmination of months of collaboration, and profound questions of faith are often raised by the bar mitzvah boy as we engage in this mitzvah."

The tallit, like other ritual objects, is reflecting changes in religious practice in the Jewish community.

Its tzitzit are a reminder of all of the mitzvot in the Torah, and thus the donning of the tallit has come to symbolize a willingness to assume responsibility for fulfilling these mitzvot.

As girls and women, particularly in the Conservative and Reform movements, have come to participate more and more fully in Jewish ritual, they are choosing to wear tallitot.

In Jewish tradition, women are exempt from time-bound mitzvot. Since the tallit is worn only during the day, women are exempt from tzitzit, but are also not explicitly forbidden to wear them.

Though girls and women frequently wear the traditional tallit, some artists are creating new shapes and designs to conform to feminine tastes and builds — for example, a garment that slips over the head, or a fabric that is more feminine.

The awakening spirituality among women seems to find a focal point in artistic expression. Rissa Sklar had always wanted to wear a tallit. After her mother died, she took fragments of a colorful skirt and a scarf that belonged to her mother and appliqued the fragments onto a wool challis tallit.

"The tallit became my grieving and my healing," the artist said. "I discovered in myself a creative spirit I never knew existed. I am not an observant Jew, but tallit-making has kindled my spirituality and been my link to Judaism. God closes a door and opens a window."

The mitzvah of tallit has been commanded "for the generations."

In whatever generation the tallit is produced, whatever its shape or color, the care devoted to it fulfills the rabbinic command to invest our ritual with the intrinsic holiness of beauty.