It was purchased just before my bar mitzvah, now 41 years ago. I wore it proudly that day, one of the few bar mitzvah boys in the temple I grew up in to wear a prayer shawl the morning of my service. In those days traditional practices like that were frowned upon in the Reform Movement. But those very same practices fascinated me. It seemed to me it smacked of something – tradition? Authenticity? Some ancient mysticism? Whatever it was, I remember to this day the feeling as my rabbi helped to drape the tallit over my shoulders.
Who could have known at the time how often that prayer shawl would be worn? At first it was just the occasional holiday service, when I would take it off the shelf where I kept it, carefully folded in its blue velvet bag. But in my twenties it became a daily companion. I had another tallit, a large, multicolored, gorgeous wool shawl that covered my entire six foot frame. But that I used mostly on Shabbat and holidays. In terms of my daily davening I used my bar mitzvah tallit. It was relatively small, easy to store and fold, took up very little room in a suitcase when I traveled. Each morning I would reach for it, unzip its bag and remove it, unfolding it. After reciting the requisite blessing I kissed the edges of its atarah, and then briefly held the shawl over my head before letting it fall into place.
This ritual – for so it must be called! – was repeated over and over again, day after day, week after week, year after year. I guess it would now be close to thirty years that the old tallit has served me so faithfully. I often wondered if it somehow knew the inner workings of my heart? I put it on on bad days and good ones. Sometimes when it rested on me I was filled with sadness, other times with profound gratitude. There were weary mornings after nights with little sleep, and bleary eyed I would still take the tallit from its bag, still say the blessing, still wear it for the brief moments of my morning prayers. I wore it when doubts nagged at me, even when it seemed there was no reason to wear it, or perhaps even a reason not to.
As time went by the blue bag faded, the zipper no longer worked, the bag’s yellow lining was torn and threadbare. The tallit itself suffered from the constant folding and unfolding, its creases wearing until finally holes began to appear. Still I used it, perhaps folding it more gingerly, but not reducing its daily workload. The tallit had been with me for thirty years, in LA and Boston, in New York and Jerusalem, in dozens of other cities we’ve visited and places we’ve stayed. And remember, that formative and transformational moment, that bar mitzvah morning.
It was just a few weeks ago when I finally realized the holes were getting too large, and before long the tallit would just begin to fall apart. I used it one last time, one last time taking it from its bag, one last time saying the ancient words with its barely noticeable weight on my shoulders, one last time carefully folding it and putting it away. Maybe it understood, somehow sensing that it could finally rest. It had done its job well, always there for me, guiding me from the wide eyed bar mitzvah boy of over forty years ago to the rabbi and middle aged man of today. One day I may bury it with honor in the cemetery, in the geniza grave with the other talleisim and prayer books and old humashim. But for now it will sit on my shelf, in its old place, as it ever was. There is now a new tallit there as well, and I’d like the two to get to know one another for a time.