Historically the tallet was most commonly made of wool or linen, and to this day in many orthodox Ashkenazi and Eastern Sephardi communities, wool remains the fabric of choice, mainly due to an opinion that only these two materials fulfill the original Torah command (others being only a rabbinical addition).
However, in Western Sephardi and Italian communities with access to the silk route luxuriant, lightweight silk tallets became the tradition, as a way of honouring and beautifying the mitzvah.
These silk tallets were often personalized for their owners with elaborately decorated squares at each corner, emphasizing the four fringes.
As silk became prohibitively expensive and rayon and other artificial fibers were created, a split occurred:
1) Some authorities pointed out that so-called “artificial fibers” were technically not “fibers” at all, and therefore that fabrics made with them could not be used for a tallet.
2) Others, taken with the similarity of the new fabric to silk, adopted it anyway.
Today “art silk” tallets are used in many modern orthodox communities while in other orthodox circles the woolen tallet has been re-adopted.
With this change has also come a change in the proportions of the tallet (the woolen versions tend to be more square than oblong), resulting in a change in the way the tallet is worn (flipped back over each shoulder rather than shawl-like as in the above engraving). For more details about this change see my article here.
Recently, in part due to social media connecting like-minded people from around the globe, and in part due to a greater awareness of halacha, there has been a renewed interest in obtaining tallets made with genuine – rather than artificial – silk.
There are currently two options that I am aware of, described below.
1) The Pavoncello-Piperno Talled di Seta
I have had the pleasure of being in contact with Celeste Pavoncello-Piperno and her daughters Sofia and Dora, who have been producing what I can only describe as utterly magnificent genuine silk tallets in Italy for the last few years.
The Pavoncello-Piperno family is steeped in a tradition of hiddur mitzvah, owning a number of family ketubot of great historical and artistic value that are on display in the Jewish Museum of Rome.
They showed me not only the two sizes of tallet that they manufacture, but also examples of beautifully embroidered corners and tallet cases that they can supply.
See a video (in Italian) about the manufacturing process here.
Sizes: The talled di seta comes in two sizes:
Classic: 80 x 200 cm (this is the size of my great-uncle’s silk tallet, which we have)
Large: 160 x 200 cm
Hemmed: The edges of the tallet are meticulously hemmed all around by hand (see photo). I believe this is necessary because the fabric is woven on a wide loom and cut to size, while the old tallets were woven on a loom the width of the tallet.
Macramé tassles: The impressive Macramé fringes (see photo above) are hand tied in Italy and represent a significant part of the cost.
Silk Tsitsit: A limited supply of pure silk tsitsit, made under the supervision of the Chief Rabbi of Rome, are available at an extra cost. These are really special, since although woolen tsitsit are allowed on a silk tallet, silk tsitsit take the hiddur mitzvah to another level.
Colours: The standard Talled di Seta has medium blue stripes, but they have recently added a choice of six colours: a lighter blue, two greens, and two reds.
Customisation: Talled di Seta are happy to personalise your tallet in a number of ways, for an extra charge:
- Custom embroidery on the back of the tallet – following the Italian custom
- No “collar” (atara) – following the S&P custom (described here)
- Custom embroidered corners with your initials, family crest or elaborate monogram – I supplied my own design
- Initials or custom embroidery on the case (the case itself comes in limited choice of fabrics and is included in the price)
- Custom width – This is available for bulk orders only. I requested 110 x 200 cm, as although I’m not a big chap (5’4″) I sometimes need to wear my tallet over a top hat for Birkat Kohanim and blowing the Shofar. For me the standard size was a bit smll but the bigger size too bulky.
The overall finish is nothing short of exquisite. Smooth and – well silky, with a classic tight weave. Lightweight and cool. A real pleasure to wear.
Prices: This is definitely a luxury item and the prices are not for the faint of heart:
Classic (80 x 200 cm): €450
Large (160 x 200 cm): €850
Silk tzitsit €250 extra
For those who can afford it this is a wonderful way to fulfill genuine hiddur mitzvah.
2) The Ziontalis Silk Tallet
The famous tallet manufacturers Ziontalis recently expressed interest in producing a lower cost pure silk tallet, joining in discussions on interested Facebook groups, and even starting their own Facebook page on the subject here.
They did some market research and arrived at four sizes of tallet, although at this stage there is no final decision as to which of the sizes they will be producing.
For now there are also no photos of an actual product, though they say the tallet will be high quality silk with no atara and with hand Macramé edging. The corners will be plain white.
The estimated sizing and pricing supplied by Steven Yaroslawitz of Ziontalis is as follows (I have converted inches and dollars to facilitate comparison):
S1: 24″ x 72″ (61 x 183 cm) $225 (~€193)
L1: 52″ x 72″ (132 x 183 cm) $300 (~€257)
S2: 38″ x 81″ (96 x 206 cm) $250 (~€214)
L2: 60″ x 81″ (152 x 206 cm) $350 (~€300)
Steve also says he is investigating the possibility of producing silk tsistiot.
3) Other options
As far as I know there are currently no other options available for tight-weave genuine silk tallets. Loose-weave tallets – which have an altogether different texture – are available from some outlets for cottage crafts in Israel, but that is not the subject of this post.