- Question: [Sunday, 26th Adar 5783]
I have seen many people cover their eyes with their Tallis when they say Shema. Others simply use their hands. Which is the correct version?
While the main custom is to cover the eyes directly with the hand without the Tallis, and so was the custom of the Rebbe [at least in the later years, as seen on video], some based on the teachings of Kabbalah [and based on testimony that so was done by the Rebbe in previous years] use their Tallis to cover their eyes. Whatever you choose is okay to follow.
Explanation: The custom of covering one’s eyes while saying the first verse of Shema is based on a Talmudic teaching, and brought in the Shulchan Aruch. The purpose of this custom is to prevent any distractions while saying the verse. Now, no mention is recorded in any of the Poskim that one should use his Tallis to cover his eyes and not place his hand directly over it. Nonetheless, this is a widespread custom amongst many, and is first recorded as a custom by the Ben Ish Chaiy who writes that he does not know the source or reason behind the custom although concludes that it is certainly a custom of Israel that must be followed. Interestingly, however, it is not mentioned in the writings of the Arizal, and is not recorded in any of the classic Poskim and Achronim, including the Kaf Hachaim. Regarding the Chabad custom, no mention is made in any official Chabad literature on this matter. Regarding the Rebbe’s custom, all the videos that I have seen show the Rebbe covering his eyes without the Tallis, however, I have heard from eyewitnesses that in the 50s the Rebbe did use the Tallis to cover his eyes. Whatever the case, one is to follow the custom of his father in this matter, and both customs are valid.
Sources: See regarding the general custom to cover their eyes: Admur 61:5; Michaber 61:5; Brachos 13b; Rosh Brachos 2:3; Ravayah 46; Ritva and Shita Mekubetzes on Brachos 13b See regarding the custom to cover the eyes with the Tallis: Od Yosef Chaiy Vaeira 1; Piskeiy Teshuvos 61:5; Halacha Berurah Vol. 4 p. 320