The mitzvah is ‘lehis-ateif’ (lit. to wrap oneself) in the talis. What does wrapping entail? We must first mention that there are two types of ‘taleisim’ (plural for talis) that we typically wear: a talis gadol – a large rectangular garment which drapes over the body, and a talis katan – a kind of poncho which has a hole in the middle for the head, and then lays flat on the front and back of the torso. One might have thought that for the talis gadol, wrapping included covering the head, as some ethnic groups still do today. The halacha states, however, that ‘lehis-ateif’ does not require that the head must be covered at all times, as evidenced by the way we wear the talis katan. Nevertheless, it is proper to cover and wrap the head with the talis gadol when the bracha is made and the talis first donned, as we will learn. (Note: The head-wrapping part of the procedure is customarily not done by unmarried men.)
Furthermore, as wearing the talis over the head (but not to cover the tefilin) inspires an attitude of reverence toward Hashem, it is meritorious to do so during all or parts of the davening.
Question: What is the proper way to don the talis gadol?
Answer: The talis is unfolded and held open. The reason that most taleisim are made with a “collar” of either satin or silver is primarily as a sign of “This way up!”, so that the upper tzitzis will always be up and the lower ones will always be down. The bracha is made: ‘Baruch… asher… lehis-ateif ba-tzitzis’ – “Blessed are You… Who sanctified… to wrap ourselves in the tzitzis”. The talis is then draped over the head and body from the back. The upper edge of the talis should be brought over and down to around the lip (not further). The four corners of the talis should then be gathered up, keeping the talis still draped around the shoulders (i.e. not high up around the neck). The corners are then passed over the left shoulder, completely wrapping the face and head, for around eight seconds (i.e. the time it takes to walk a distance of four cubits – about eight feet.) (Ed: There are a few verses to recite while in that position, but if you don’t know them by heart, don’t sweat it – just wait the eight seconds!) The talis is then removed from the head and positioned so that two tzitzis (i.e. the upper ones) are lying in front and two (the lower) are in back. That is the reason that people fold the talis at its mid-point up onto the shoulders. This symbolizes a person surrounding himself with the mitzvos, which the tzitzis represent, as we will learn later.
When donning the talis katan, the bracha is different: ‘Baruch… asher… al mitzvas tzitzis’ – “…concerning the mitzvah of tzitzis”. Since the bracha does not use the word ‘lehis-ateif’, wrapping over the head is not required even at the time of the bracha.
Although it is theoretically meritorious for a group of people who are donning the talis at the same time to have a communal bracha made by one person for everyone - i.e. like what many do for Shabbos Kiddush - that is not the prevalent custom. Thus anyone who is able should make his own bracha. Note: On Shavuos morning, when people have been awake all night and have not removed their talis katan, the practice is for unmarried men who do not wear a talis gadol to listen to the talis gadol bracha from one who is making it, thereby fulfilling their bracha requirement for their talis katan. When one person makes a bracha for another, both the bracha-maker and the listener must have intent on order for the bracha to count. Although in the Shavuos case, the bracha being made is not is not the same as the one required for the talis katan, it is OK because either bracha suffices for either talis, after-the-fact! Whenever one is being ‘yotze’ (fulfilling one’s obligation) with another’s bracha, the requirement to answer ‘amein’ to the bracha is even greater than when one is just listening to a bracha.