Dear Rabbi,

Why is there an embroidered strip that looks like a crown on the top of the tallit prayer shawl?

Answer:

The embroidered strip of material, at times even made of silver or gold, situated where the tallit is placed on the head, is known as the atarah (עטרה). Reasons for the custom include:

  1. The tallit is square, and can therefore be worn in four ways. Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (c. 1560–1630), the Shelah, writes that the atarah is there to mark the side that was placed on the head the first time. He explains that once one side is used for the head, it should never be used for any lower place.1
  2. According to Rabbi Mordechai Jaffe (1530–1612), the Levush, one of the reasons for the atarah is to beautify the tallit at the head, since it is worn on the most important (“esteemed”) part of the body.2
  3. Rabbi Chaim Benveniste (1603–1673) writes that the fabric of the tallit near the head rubs out more quickly than the rest of the garment. Therefore extra “padding” is placed there, giving the tallit a longer life. Once extra padding is being added, it is done in an adorned manner to beautify the tallit.3

Nevertheless, many consider the atarah to be an optional extra, and others even oppose the addition of the atarah to the tallit. According to Rabbi Jaffe:

One may come to think that the placing of the tallit, with the atarah, on the head is the most important part of wearing the prayer shawl. Therefore one should not place an atarah on the tallit.

The Chabad tallit.
The Chabad tallit.
It seems that Rabbi Jaffe was concerned that too much attention would be given to the atarah over the tzitzit ritual fringes on the four corners of the tallit, which comprise the important component of the prayer shawl.

Rabbi Isaac Luria, the Arizal, writes that there is no source for this custom, and that one should not specifically seek a tallit with an atarah.4

Chabad-Lubavitch chassidim compromise with both opinions, and add an extra layer of silk lining in the area where the tallit is placed on the head. In this way, one knows clearly which part of the garment was first placed on the head, yet there is no noticeable atarah and thus no reason to mistakenly consider the atarah the most important part of the tallit.5