Whether you plan to make a large prayer shawl or a scarf-style tallit, these guidelines will help you determine the best size for you. Before making a final decision, you’ll probably want to try on a few prayer shawls to gauge how they look on you. If you don’t have access to any finished examples, try on a piece of fabric that approximates the size you are considering, like a beach towel. As you try on various samples, use these guidelines to evaluate the fit and, if you need to, adjust the size to make a tallit that’s perfect for you.
When you wear a large prayer shawl, you drape it over your shoulders so that two of the corners hang in front of you and two corners hang at your back. Ideally, this style of tallit should be big enough to wrap around yourself. More specifically, it ideally should be large enough so that when the top edge is draped over the top of your head, the back falls to at least your waist. In some communities, the typical prayer shawl falls well below the waist, though, and the ideal size for you can come down to a matter of personal taste or the custom in your community, so you might want to take a look around your community as you determine what length you prefer.
According to Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, whose book Tzitzith: A Thread of Light is one of my go-to sources on tallit details, a good standard size is 4’ x 6’ (1.2m x 1.8m).
You can make the tallit smaller than that, but if you want to make a large tallit that conforms to strict interpretations of Jewish law, it shouldn’t be narrower than 24” (61cm). According to Jewish law, a tallit must be at least one cubit in length on each side. The exact length of a cubit isn’t known, but the early rabbis’ opinions ranged from 18” to 24” (46cm to 61cm). Communities in which the larger tallit is the norm would tend to observe the stricter interpretation of 24”.
Side note: The ideal of wearing a tallit that is large enough to wrap around yourself is inspired by several Torah passages. That’s probably a post for another day, but I can’t resist sharing some verses here:
“…You enwrap [Yourself] with light as with a garment…” (Psalm 104:1-2)
“In the shadow of your wings will I rejoice” (Psalm 63:8).
– With thanks to Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz in A Guide to Jewish Prayer.
You also need to make sure that the tallit isn’t so large that the tzitzit –the knotted strings tied to the corners— drag on the floor. Tzitzit are typically 9″-12″ (23cm-30cm) long, so assuming that they will be 12″ is a good rule of thumb. Plan your tallit so that the ends of the tzitzit end well above the ground.
A scarf-style tallit is worn draped around the neck. This is a modern interpretation of the prayer shawl, and there are no formal size restrictions. The most important consideration is that when the tallit is worn the ends of the tzitzit should end well above the floor. As with the large tallit, assume that the tzitzit will be 12″ (30cm) long.
My personal recommendation is to make the tallit at least as wide as one cubit, whether that means choosing the stricter interpretation of 24″ (61cm) or the less strict 18″ (46cm). On the scarf-style prayer shawls that I’ve made for clients, I’ve used 18″. I actually start with a piece of fabric that’s 18¼” (46.3cm) wide, so that if the fabric scrunches a bit when I stitch around the edges, the final width will still be at least 18”.
A good standard size for this style is 18” x 64” (46cm x 1.6m), which should fit most average size wearers. For a shorter person or a young person, you may need to make the length less than 64″. As with the large tallit, the best thing to do is to try on a few examples and measure the ones that fit best.
The Next Step
Once you decide on the size of your tallit, you’re ready to get started. For a garment of such significance, you might be surprised to learn that making a tallit turns out to require only the simplest of sewing techniques. Even if you’re a beginning sewist, you can make a beautiful prayer shawl that you’ll love wearing or love to give as a gift. Even knotting the tzitzit strings, which can seem daunting if you’ve never done it before, is pretty easy. To help you through the steps of making a tallit, I’ve posted instructions and lots of helpful resources.
If you know someone who is thinking about making a tallit, please share this post. And if you have any questions, post them in the comment section and I’ll do my best to answer them.
By the way, the two women in the image above are Shulamit Magnus and Lesley Sachs from the group Women of the Wall, who are fighting for the right of women to pray at the Western Wall.
[Images: Tef2010 by Koosg | Shulamit Magnus at WOW Prayer | Detail from Lesley and Rachel Detained. All images are from Wikimedia Commons. For the last two images, the source is Women of the Wall and the author is Michal Patelle. All three images are from Wikimedia Commons and are used under an Attribution 3.0 Unported license.]