A Travelling Tallit

Five questions for
rabbi Bea Wyler

On June 26, 2022, the Jewish Muse­um Hohen­ems ope­ned the exhi­bi­ti­on «Stuf­fed Jews? Histo­ry, Pre­sent and Future of Jewish Muse­ums» («Aus­ge­stopf­te Juden? Geschich­te, Gegen­wart und Zukunft der Jüdi­schen Muse­en»), showing a tal­lit (pray­er shawl) from the Jewish Muse­um of Switzerland’s collec­tion. The shawl was craf­ted by Rab­bi Bea Wyler, who in 1995 beca­me the first fema­le rab­bi of a post-war con­gre­ga­ti­on in the Ger­man-spea­king world. To replace the shawl, our muse­um acqui­red a second tal­lit, hand-made by Bea Wyler, which will tem­pora­ri­ly take the place of the tra­vel­ling tal­lit. Upon her visit to the Jewish Muse­um, the his­to­ri­an Bar­ba­ra Häne spo­ke to Bea Wyler about Juda­ism – and artisanship.

BH: Bea Wyler, you made two tal­li­tot for the collec­tion of the Jewish Muse­um of Switz­er­land, thank you very much. How did you learn the craft of making a tallit?

BW: When I was stu­dy­ing for my ordi­na­ti­on at the Jewish Theo­lo­gi­cal Semi­na­ry in New York, I was inte­res­ted in the halakha, both in theo­ry and in prac­ti­ce. I wan­ted to make mys­elf a tal­lit and cho­se silk as mate­ri­al. I then made several more tal­li­tot, which I sold, and I used the money to finan­ce part of my stu­dies. As to the craft, mea­ning the sewing its­elf, I lear­ned it in need­le­work clas­ses in school.

BH: What are the steps to making a tallit?

BW: First, you need a cloth with four cor­ners, the mini­mum size is pre­scri­bed. The stri­pes are app­lied with a brush. I knot­ted the tsit­zi­y­ot (show threads) mys­elf from silk yarn. I still have about 20 kilo­me­ters of kos­her silk yarn at home, becau­se I had to have the yarn spe­cial­ly made by a spin­ning com­pa­ny that nor­mal­ly sup­plies lar­ge firms. For the com­pa­ny, my order was only a «labo­ra­to­ry quan­ti­ty.» I poked the holes for atta­ching the zizi­jot with a car­pet needle.

BH: How long does it take you to make a tallit?

 BW: That’s hard to say, sin­ce you don’t make the shawl in one go. You need to take several breaks, among others to let the dye dry. If you count washing, iro­ning, mea­su­ring, sewing the hems, and tying the zizi­jot, inclu­ding wai­t­ing times, it takes three days. Today I only make tal­li­tot on request.

BH: In tra­di­tio­nal cir­cles, only men wear a tal­lit. How did your con­gre­ga­ti­on react to you wea­ring one? 

BW: In New York, many com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers wore tal­li­tot that I made them, after they noti­ced my tal­lit and asked me to make them one too. Once, when several peop­le wea­ring my tal­li­tot show­ed up for min­yan, a visi­tor asked, «Is this a spe­cial cult?» [Wyler laughs]. Today, women pray with a tal­lit even in ortho­dox cir­cles. My par­ents both wear the tal­li­tot I made them.

BH: Would you say that you expe­ri­ence your Jewish­ness in part through artis­anship? I know for instance that you like to cook, and that pre­pa­ring meals is a part of the way you choo­se to prac­ti­ce Judaism. 

BW: That’s true, I love to cook! I espe­cial­ly like to pre­pa­re food for the holi­days – in lar­ge quan­ti­ties. For this year’s Shavuot, I deci­ded to bake some­thing spe­cial: Cho­le­ra. Yes, the name is cor­rect. It’s a baked cake with leeks, pota­toes, app­les, and lots of cheese, of cour­se – a Valais spe­cial­ty, and per­fect­ly sui­ted for Shavuot.

BH: That sounds deli­cious. Rab­bi Wyler, thank you very much!

verfasst am 27.06.2022