If you love the idea of making your own tallit but the thought of taking on the whole project feels intimidating, I have great news for you: You can create a very special, personalized tallit by making only the atarah –the neckpiece– and sewing it onto a purchased tallit.
The atarah is a long, narrow strip of fabric, often decorated, that is attached to the middle of the top edge of a tallit. The atarah is often referred to as a neckpiece since it rests on a person’s neck when the tallit is worn.
Talmud scholar Adin Steinsaltz, in his book A Guide to Jewish Prayer, explains that the purpose of the atarah is to distinguish the top of the tallit from the other edges and ensure the garment is always worn in the same orientation.
A handmade atarah can give deep personal expression to a tallit. And it doesn’t need to be highly decorated. You can use a piece of unadorned fabric to add an accent of color, texture, or pattern. Or use a strip of fabric that carries a special meaning to you.
And if you want to embellish your atarah, there are virtually no limits on the materials and design. Embroidery is one classic approach to decorating an atarah, and you can employ other creative techniques you love, such as fabric painting, beadwork, and applique.
About the only design restriction for an atarah is one that pertains to the tallit overall; that is, the requirement to avoid shatnez, which is a combination of wool and linen fibers. If any part of the tallit contains wool, the atarah may not contain linen. Almost all tallit prayer shawls contain wool, either for the body of the tallit or for the tzitzit strings, so you would avoid using linen for the atarah or even as a stabilizer for any embroidery. By the same token, if any part of the tallit contains linen, the atarah may not contain wool, such as wool embroidery thread. In practice, you’re not likely to find a tallit made from linen, since the linen would clash with the tzitzit strings, which are almost always made from wool. Aside from the issue of shatnez, though, the creative world is open to you.
For design inspiration, you can draw on classic themes such as pomegranates and other fruits of Israel, the city of Jerusalem, and the blessing for putting on a tallit. If you choose to add a blessing or Hebrew text, be sure not to write out any of the names of God. For a blessing, either use only the last phrase of the blessing, which typically does not contain God’s name, or use common substitutions for the name. Refer to commercially available atarah designs to find the substitutions, or check with your rabbi or your community’s halakhic authority.
You’re not limited to these classic motifs, of course. Explore other texts or themes that are meaningful to you, such as psalms other imagery from the Torah.
This hand embroidery atarah pattern features the phrase “Olam chesed yibaneh”, a phrase from Psalm 89. In English, the phrase translates as “we will build this world with love” or “we will build this world with kindness.”
To purchase a tallit without an atarah that you can add your own atarah to, I can recommend Ben’s Tallit Shop, not only because the shop carries them, but also because Ben is extremely knowledgeable and helpful.
[Images: Screenshot from the video tutorial for the pomegranate atarah sewing pattern | Silk painted atarahs by Sew Jewish workshop students | “Member of Women of the Wall, at torah reading” (2013) by Michal Patelle via Wikimedia Commons]