Before making the bracha, it is proper to separate the individual strings (Heb/Aram: ‘chutin’) so that they are not tangled up. There is a cute acronym for this: tz-i-tzi-s – Tzadik Yafrid TZitzio-sav Samid (the tzadik - righteous person - separates his tzitzios always!). If there is no time to do so, this may be skipped once and awhile.
One must always have kavana (intent) when performing a Torah mitzvah. The intent is to fulfill the Will of Hashem in the performance of the act. If one did not have that intent (e.g. he did it just because he felt like it), he would not fulfill the mitzvah. Some mitzvos have an additional intent, relating to the root purpose of that particular mitzvah. For example, when we sit in the sukkah we are to remember how our Hashem protected our fathers in Sukkos when they left Mitzrayim. When we wear tefilin, we are to remember the teachings of Hashem’s Torah. Likewise, when we wear tzitzis, we are to remember all of the mitzvos of the Torah. These particular points of kavana, while very important are not crucial like the basic kavana is. Thus, for tzitzis, as long as one intended to fulfill the Will of Hashem, even though he did not think about remembering all the mitzvos, he has fulfilled the mitzvah, in terms of kavana.
More important than separating the ‘chutin’ is checking to be sure that they did not become invalid since the last time he wore them. While normally a mitzvah object retains its status-quo on the basis of ‘chazaka’ (i.e. halachic assumption that things did not change), here we are particularly careful because 1) it is easy to check and 2) when a bracha is at stake, we want to ensure that it will not be in vain. If one wishes, he may check his tzitzis before putting them away; then, in the morning, he may put the talis on without checking! (Ed: Listen to this story - I kid you not: When I learned this halacha several months ago, I was skeptical: Come on, how often do the strings tear, that I must check them every single day?! The next morning, I “accidentally” stepped on one of my talis strings and tore it down to the knot! And they were the thick kind too! Serves me right! That’s the last time I question the halacha – I hope!)
Sometimes a person will put on his talis katan without making a bracha. He might be getting dressed too early to make the bracha; he might be putting his talis katan on before his hands have been halachically washed; or he might be planning to put on his talis gadol right away and daven. Whatever the case may be, there are two options he has, without having to take it off a second time in order to make the bracha: 1) when the time arrives to make the bracha, he should make it and then rub his hands along the ‘chutin’. This satisfies the general requirement to make a mitzvah-bracha prior to the mitzvah (i.e. the rubbing of the ‘chutin’ represents the renewal of the mitzvah action). 2) In the third example, the idea is that since the two taleisim are being donned so close together, the one bracha on the talis gadol will suffice for the talis katan too. (Ed: One of the contributing factors to the custom of not making the bracha on the talis katan was the fear that the talis katan was not made to specifications (see above). With the excellent manufacture of religious objects today, that fear is not as prevalent a it once was. One should consider more carefully whether or not he ought to be making both brachos. See below for a discussion on whether one should make one bracha or multiple brachos when donning multiple taleisim.)
Where should the talis katan be worn? The predominant opinion is that the actual garment should be worn under the clothing. Regarding the tzitzis themselves, the Mishnah Berura makes a very strong case for “wearing them out”. The main reasons to do so are: 1) to fulfill the verse, “You shall see them”, and 2) it is disrespectful to have the tzitzis stuck inside the pants. He recognizes the fact that a Jew may have to associate himself with non-Jews during part of his day. However, he wonders whether a person ought to feel embarrassed by wearing the unique uniform of the King of Kings, Master of the World!
When one is donning two taleisim – e.g. katan and gadol – in close proximity, one must consider whether he should make two separate brachos or one for both. Basically, if he has both in mind at the time of the bracha, and does not create a ‘hefsek’ (interruption) between them, he should conserve and make one bracha for both. The criteria for what constitutes a ‘hefsek’ are not entirely clear. For example, one should avoid irrelevant conversation between them; however, if he did converse, he should not make a new bracha. In our next lesson, we will talk more about other factors that might constitute an interruption between one talis and another.