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I still remember the first time I saw someone wearing a wool tallit katan on a hot summer day. Many years ago, on an army base in the Golan Heights, I was chatting with a soldier standing guard in the heat wearing an undershirt, wool tallit katan and a heavy khaki IDF shirt. “Aren’t you hot wearing that?” I asked him. “It’s a lot hotter in hell,” he replied, flashing a grin.
Since then, on several occasions Sephardic friends and relatives have made remarks to the effect that they envy me my cotton tallit katan, noting how much cooler it is than theirs. I always offer the same reply: “You only think so because you’ve never worn one.”
Wool and cotton from a halachic perspective
The Shulchan Aruch states that a wool garment is the only type that is required to have tzitzits according to Torah law, while fabrics such as cotton and silk must have tzitzits based on a Rabbinical decree. (Strictly speaking, linen garments carry the same requirement, but because of the possibility of shatnez problems, they are proscribed by halacha in the absence of techelet.)
According to the Rema (Rabbi Moses Isserles, 16th c. Poland), four-cornered garments made from other fabrics must also have tzitzits. Because Sephardic Jews generally do not follow the Rema’s rulings, most do not wear a cotton tallit katan because they want to carry out the commandment of tzitzits according to Torah law, not just Rabbinical law.
Advantages of wool
When temperatures start to really heat up and sweat forms, several layers of close-fitting cotton is miserably clammy, because the dampness doesn’t evaporate readily. In fact, wool offers a number of advantages:
- Wicks moisture away from the skin, which helps your body’s cooling system.
- Good insulator, which works both ways. Believe it or not, Bedouins are known to use wool to keep heat out.
- Durable. Wool can withstand being bent 20,000 times without breaking. Cotton breaks after 3,000 bends. This durability can enables wool to retain its look for years.
- Hypoallergenic and comfortable. Wool’s natural elasticity and hollow, lightweight fibers make wearing comfortable.
- Absorbs less dirt and dust. Stains tend to rest on top of the fibers rather than becoming embedded.
Although a wool tallit katan costs more than a cotton tallit katan, these special properties may make it worth the money. It will last longer and you can use the same garment all seasons of the year. Despite the many attributes wool offers, the cotton tallit katan still has its time and place and remains the fabric of choice among many tzitzit wearers.
write by Lancelot