Tzitzit for Women
One overarching precept of Jewish law is that in general, women are exempted from time bound commandments. If they choose to take on those time-bound commandments, they may do so, but given that women in traditional times were primarily responsible for child rearing, that, as all of us know, makes the time bound a little difficult to manage.
I reached my teens in the 1970's when the role of women was being re-thought not just in the world as a whole, but also in the Jewish world. Women were more and more taking on roles that they were excluded from by reason of custom. During those years, I was studying Talmud in my Orthodox Jewish day school and also reading essays on the halachic role for women written by scholars like Judith Hauptmann.
It was a heady mix. I spent lots of time during my teen years thinking seriously about the role of women in Jewish ritual life and how to take part in areas, that had, by custom, been men only. It was very clear when reading texts closely, that large areas of Jewish ritual practice were permissable for women, but not obligatory. So if women chose to take on those mitzvot, they were fully within their rights to do so, even though in the past, they had not taken advantage of the opportunity to take on these mitzvot.
The second time I exhibited at a craft show, I was approached by one of the great lights of the Jewish Theological Seminary. He asked me if I made tallitot for women. At that point I didn't. But I was thinking hard about how to make a tallit that was halachic, a feminine garment rather than a masculine one, but one that was feminine with out being to nauseatingly girly. Clearly this garment also had to be beautiful.
During this period of mulling, I happened to read a religious opinion about wearing a tallit written by one of the great halachic lights of the Orthodox world, Reb Moshe Feinstein. In the opinion he said that he had no legal issue with women taking on the mitzvah of tzitzit ( ritual fringes) which is a time bound commandment, but he felt that the garment women wore with the tzitzit had to clearly not be a man's garment-beged ish.
I wanted to create a garment that fit this set of rules. I had seen a tallit made out of inexpensive nylon lace. I saw where the maker was going. But the lace made the wearer look like they were wearing a table cloth rather than a tallit. It was also cheap and ugly lace. This was not quite right.
My first tallitot were made out of silk chiffon scarves. They were feminine, but not in an overblown way.They were smaller than a man's tallit and worked better with most women's bodies. ( Most women are not as broad shouldered as I am.)
I kept playing with the idea of tallit . Working with clients I began to develop a vocabulary for tallitot at while it may not have looked like a traditional tallit came out of the tradition in such a way that they really resonated as tallitot.
I knew several women who were both Orthodox and feminists were wearing arba-kanfot, the smaller tallitot ones wears under clothing. It is a garment that many observant men wear underneath their clothing every day. By wearing the garment under their clothing these Orthodox women could participate in the mitzvah without arousing a hullabaloo in their synagogues. They could do this mitzvah in a discreet way.
The traditional man's arba kanfot is like a small poncho with open sides that reaches to the waist. If one has breasts though, the arba kanfot bunches up between and then can start to ride up the front of your shirt. It both looks messy and takes away some of the discreetness these women were seeking.
I gave myself the task of coming up with a workable arba kanfot. I took a pre-made white silk camisole, added corner pieces and tzitzit. the first time that I displayed them at a show I was fascinated by the reaction that the arba kanfot got. Some people were horrified. Some men found them to be hugely sexy, borderline kinky. Others though, realized that they were a thoughtful answer to the halachic question raised by Rabbi Feinstein . This was a garment that was clearly a woman's garment that fulfilled the mitzvah. Some women were grateful that I had also answered a practical need for them.
Arba kanfot for women is clearly a niche within an already tiny niche market. Some of my clients are Orthodox feminists. Some of my clients are radical lesbians. The woman who has been my steadiest customer is neither. She called me several years ago. She after much thought, decided to begin wearing arba kanfot because she wanted to be aware of the divine at all times, and not just while she was at prayer.
I convinced my client to go beyond white, and she discovered that she likes the colorful arba kanfot. Later on this afternoon she is coming by to tie tzitzit for these two newest sets of arba kanfot. I love collaborating with this client and seeing where it takes us.