Just so we're clear what we're talking about, here is a picture of a typical tallis, and here is a picture of daily-wear tzitzit (the tallit katan).
The following is a tzitzit and tallit primer, courtesy of Ben Slobodkin with basic how-to information on tzitzits and talleisim (or “tallitot”).
Ben Slobodkin grew up in Los Angeles, studied history at UC Santa Cruz and is an alumnus of Yeshivat Dvar Yerushalayim. He is the owner and operator of Ben’s Tallit Shop, an Israel-based tallit and tzitzit webstore.
In this week’s Parsha, the Torah instructs us to wear tzitzit “in order to remember and fulfill all of [the] mitzvahs” (Bamidbar 15:40). To explain the mitzvah, the Midrash brings an analogy of a ship passenger who fell into the water. The captain throws him a line, shouting, “Hold onto the rope and don’t let go, otherwise your life is finished!” Tzitzit is considered a special, cherished mitzvah, because it helps us cleave to all of the other mitzvahs.
Tallits in modern styles come with machine-spun, hand-tied tzitzits already attached. There is a dispute in halacha over whether machine-spun tzitzits are valid, therefore if you want to be sure the tzitzits are kosher, look for hand-spun tzitzits. Classic black-on-white tallits may come with an option for thin or thick tzitzits. This is just a matter of aesthetics, so it’s entirely up to you.
Tzitzit knots tend to come loose when new, so before putting the tallit away, tighten the knots. If you’re sitting in shul on Shabbos and see loose knots, avoid the temptation to tighten them, because tying knots on Shabbos is prohibited. Running hot water over the tzitzit knots (i.e. the final knot) when new may prevent unravelling.
Although even very frum Jews often have someone tie their tzitzits for them, it can be a valuable, enriching experience to tie your own. You’ll learn the mechanics behind the mitzvah and won’t be hapless if you ever face broken tzitzits strings. Also, the Talmudic Sages tell us that ideally a mitzvah should be done oneself rather than having someone do it for you.
The verse introducing the mitzvah of tzitzits begins, “Speak to the Children of Israel” (Bamidbar 15:28), therefore the halacha states that tzitzits cannot be tied by non-Jews. A few months ago an earnest soon-to-be convert ordered a distinctive Turkish tallit from me. He would have liked to tie the tzitzit himself, but he wanted the tallit ready and waiting, so he could wear it right after his conversion, therefore he asked me to tie the tzitzits. I felt privileged to have a part in this (now) Jew’s tallit, and gladly stayed up past midnight to have it ready on time.
Similarly, according to some opinions an “underage” Jew should not tie tzitzits on his own tallit before his bar mitzvah. Likewise, many poskim hold that women should not tie tzitzits.
Tzitzit tying instructions and videos are easy to find on the Internet, but before you get started, if you buy tzitzit strings online make sure they are kosher tzitzit. One prominent supplier at the top of the Google rankings is operated by Christians, and various messianic Chrisitian sites sell tallits and tzitzits.
In general, beware of dubious online articles on various topics related to Judaica (tallits, tefillin, mezuzahs, etc.). Much of this information is simply thrown together by SEO experts who have no knowledge of the subject or appreciation for the mitzvahs.
The Shul Tallis
The prayer shawl worn during Shacharis is sometimes referred to as a tallis gadol (as opposed to a tallis katan, which is worn all day long, typically under one’s shirt).
Since we are enjoined to perform mitzvahs in an aesthetically pleasing manner - zeh Keli ve’anveiHu - wearing a nice tallit is commendable, as the Shulchan Aruch states explicitly. Expect to pay around $100 for a traditional wool tallit. Some variations include Turkish tallits (Echt or Kmo), which are made of a very dense weave and come with no atara (neckband), Chabad tallits, which also have no neckband, have two holes for the tzitzits and a unique tying custom, and Yemenite tallits, which have wide, ornate corners and atara and distinctive netted fringes.
Though the traditional tallit typically has black stripes, the prevalent Sephardic custom is to use white stripes. In modern Orthodox congregations you may see blue stripes or even various colorful striping patterns.
Those seeking a distinctive look will find a wide range of attractive handmade and handwoven designs, which can cost $300-$600. Fabrics include wool, silk and cotton.
Reform and Conservative Jews often wear narrow tallits that hang down in front, although in recent years there seems to be a return to the traditional larger tallits that hang down the back. Whether the narrow type (size 18 and 24) is halachically acceptable is doubtful. Tallit sizes are standardized, starting with 45, which fits a typically bar mitzvah boy, and going up to size 80. Sizing tables can be found online.
Wool is the fabric of choice from a halachic standpoint, although cotton and silk are also acceptable. According to Sephardic poskim, to fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit according to Torah law, the garment must be made of wool or linen. (Linen is not used today, for reasons related to shatnez and techelet). Certain synthetic fabrics may be problematic, according to a famous responsum by Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l.
Since only four-cornered garments require tzitzits, strictly speaking, there is no obligation for men to wear tzitzits, but it is an accepted custom to wear a wool or cotton tallit katan all day, every day, to carry out the mitzvah. For newcomers it can be a challenge to start wearing tzitzits out and about. Some people might tell you to tuck them into your pants until you feel comfortable letting them dangle, but if you open the Mishna Berura you will find that the Chafetz Chaim, who normally went out of his way to judge Jews favorably, speaks harshly against those who tuck their tzitzits out of sight. I recently came across two responsa by Rav Binyamin Zilber zt”l that argue at length that the widespread Sephardic custom of wearing tzitzits inside one’s pants is misguided and a misinterpretation of the Arizal.
The custom among traditional Orthodox families is to start training boys to keep the mitzvah as soon as they reach their third birthday, which is somewhat challenging because boys spend much of their time on the floor (and grungier places), so the strings tend to become dingy looking or snap within a matter of weeks.