Although we are forbidden to wear a mixture of wool and linen in our clothes, this week’s perasha (Ki Tetse) describes a special exception (Deut. 22: 11,12): A tallet, whether itself made of wool or linen, must have woolen threads coloured with blue “techelet” fringes at its corners.
Sadly the tradition of the correct blue dye for the fringes has been lost, and today we make the fringes with uncoloured threads only. The tallet remains an important Jewish garment, and although today we wear it only in the synagogue, it remains a powerful way of wrapping ourselves – as it were – in God’s commandments as we pray.
The S&P have a long-standing tradition of embellishing and personalising the tallet with embroidered squares on its corners. While in Holland and elsewhere the corners might be brightly coloured and include elaborate designs, in London they tended to be a conventional monogram, in the style of English linen monograms. Click the image below to read more about the numbered examples.
As a child on the choir at Lauderdale Road synagogue, I remember noticing that Sir Alan Mocatta, who sat on the right side of the synagogue in the front row, opposite the tebah, had personalised corners on his tallet. More recently, I’ve seen some beautiful examples made by Rabbi Abraham Levy’s wife Estelle. Sadly, however, the custom has generally fallen into disuse. I think it should be revived! It is a great way of showing respect and affection for the mitzvah, and of course by being on the corners (rather than just embellishing – say – the collar, they emphasise the actual mitzvah, which is to “tie fringes on the corners of your garments” (Num. 15:38).
The corner shown at the top of this page, which from the date (5671) is just over 100 years old, can be seen on display in the Abraham Lopez Dias Hall at Bevis Marks. Coincidentally it has my initials.
This one, which I designed for my own use, I recently had machine-embroidered in China. Can you make out the “JC” in the design? I deliberately positioned the monogram so that I could tie the tsitsiot through it, making the design a more integral part of the mitzvah; and I had the design done in blue, to symbolise the missing “techelet” (blue thread) on each corner.
There is an interesting reference to the way the tallet was worn in London 350 years ago, and to the tallet corner custom, in the following description of a service at the Creechurch Lane synagogue (which preceded Bevis Marks), in a letter dated 1662. The letter was published in “Original Letters Illustrative of English History”, by the Keeper of Manuscripts at the British Museum in 1827.
I have saved the complete letter in a PDF file which you can open here.
You can access the entire original book on Google Books, here.
You can read more about this subject, and see some additional tallet corner examples, on my site for London Sephardi Minhag, here.
18 August 2013: After this post was published a few days ago, I received this interesting feedback from Mrs Barbara Barnett, widow of the late Dr Richard Barnett:
In our family a fiancee would be expected to embroider “corners” for a new tallet for the bridegroom to wear on his wedding day – and ever after till he was buried with it. When our boys were Bar Mitzvah I embroidered the corners of their (child-sized) tallets very simply with their initials. Mr. Duque, for may years the distinguished Shamash at Bevis Marks used to tie the knots of the fringes for us in the ancient tradition.