I’m afraid that my nephew’s about to get married. My sister got him a tallis for his bar mitzvah last week. In the traditional environment in which we were raised, the tallis is worn only after marriage. An unmarried male wears one only to go up to the Torah or lead prayers, and you can imagine the stigma attached to not wearing one after a certain age. Indeed, the tallis was considered the sign par excellence of Jewish burgherhood, so much so that the phrase vifl taleysim zenen do bay aykh, “How many tallises are there by you,” means “How many Jewish families are there in your community?”

There are a couple of explanations for this custom. The first is found in the Talmud (Kiddushin, 29b), where one rabbi asks another why his head isn’t covered with a shawl–which, according to Rashi, was the way of married men at the time. The rabbi replies that he isn’t married. The commentators all interpret “shawl” as “prayer shawl” and take the question to mean, “Why isn’t your head covered with a tallis?” Similarly, the Maharil, one of the most influential figures in Ashkenazic Judaism, points out that the commandment, “You shall make fringes for yourselves” is followed immediately by the proto-Percy Sledge verse, “If a man marries a woman” (Deut. 22:12-3); the proximity is taken to mean that the fringes have something to do with being married.

I’m afraid that my nephew’s in for a big surprise.

This article originally appeared in The Jewish Week. Below are some items for sale from eBay for those of you with an interest in Yiddish.

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