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The tallit (sometimes called a "tallis" with an Ashkenazic pronunciation) is a garment one can wear to create a sense of personal space during prayer. By wrapping yourself in it, or by covering your head with it, the intention and direction of your prayers can be enhanced. The tradition is that the tallit is worn only during the morning prayers, though it is also worn for the evening Kol Nidre service during Yom Kippur. The garment can be made out of linen, wool, silk, or synthetics, so long as the biblical prohibition against the wearing of clothing combining linen and wool is observed.
It is not the garment itself, whether beautiful and adorned or plain and simple, that makes the prayer shawl special. What transforms a piece of cloth into a tallit are the tzitzit, the fringes on its four corners. The Torah instructs us to wear these fringes on the corners of our garments; that we will see them and be reminded of all God's commandments (Numbers 15:37-41). The mitzvah (commandment) is to remember God, to further holiness in our lives, and to keep the commandments; the tzitzit are the visual reminder. The tallit is not worn at night because we are supposed to "see" the ritual fringes by daylight.
Receiving a tallit can be a wonderful moment during a bar or bat mitzvah. Here, Stella receives a tallit from her grandmother at her bat mitzvah and it becomes a focal point of the ceremony.
You might also find our Blessing for Putting On Tallit helpful, with audio and English transliteration of the blessing as well as a video.