There are two ways of wearing tallitot. While both of these ways of wearing a prayer shawl are equally “correct”, many people prefer to wear their tallitot a certain way either because they find it more aesthetically pleasing or because it is the norm in their branch of Judaism or in their synagogue.
The most traditional style for draping a tallit – the “traditional style” – is characterized by a relatively large-sized tallit worn over the head and shoulders. The majority of the fabric of the tallit hangs over the back of its wearer. The atara rests on top of the head. This style is worn almost exclusively in Orthodox Judaism, although it is also accepted in more liberal Jewish sects, as well.
A new modern style – the “shawl style” is worn around the neck and covers the shoulders. It does not cover the head. The atara rests around the neck. The shawl style is currently a very popular choice in Reform communities and is especially popular with women, who almost always prefer to wear their tallitot in the shawl style.
Not every tallit can be worn both ways. In fact, it is absolutely necessary to know the style that you intend to wear your tallit in before buying , because a full size tallit can only be worn in the traditional style, and a narrow tallit can only be worn in the shawl style.
It is quite easy to distinguish between the different types of tallitot by their sizes. When checking to see if a tallit is suitable for the traditional style or the shawl style, the main factor is the width. While length varies depending on the height of the wearer, width is a function of the size of the wearer as well as the intended draping style.
If you’re intending on wearing your tallit in the traditional style, you need to look for a tallit with relatively large dimension and should look for a tallit no smaller than 45 inches in width. If you’re planning to wear your tallit in the shawl style (like a scarf), you need to look for a much narrower tallit, you should search for a prayer shawl between 18 and 36 inches wide, depending on the size of the wearer and how narrow or wide you would like the tallit to be.