It is brought down that it is a midas chasidus to put on a gartl for davening. It represents a discrete act of preparing oneself for tefila. I understand that Reb Yaakov Kaminetzky zl was asked about why the custom was not more widespread nowadays. To which he replied that people nowadays substitute buttoning their coats for girdling themselves with a gartl.
The other week I was at a gathering of frum Jews at which Reb Yisrael Belsky shlita spoke. He addressed this very question. His answer was – it seemed – a minor variation on Reb Yaakov’s. He gave the example of a job applicant going for an interview. He appears on time at the Human Resources office and is told by the receptionist to be seated while waiting to be called. Finally, the receptionist informs him that he may enter the interviewer’s office. He immediately gets up and, as he begins to make his way out of the reception area and into the hiring manager’s office, he pauses ever so briefly to fix his necktie. It is an act of preparation. Rav Belsky suggested that the supplicant might fix his tie, or do something comparable, just before beginning to daven – in lieu of putting on a gartl.
My reaction at the time was that he must have been aware of what Reb Yaakov had said, and decided to make the same point but varying the detail (from buttoning up to straightening out one’s tie). But on reflection, it’s not so clear. There is, I think, another way of looking at it. There may be a more substantive difference between the two proposals. Let me explain.
We can begin by raising the question: What makes tying a gartl around one’s waist a preparation for davening? There are two ways of looking at it. On one, the gartl is a thing unto itself. Putting it on is like adding another garment to one’s attire. I think that this conception is implicit in Rav Belsky’s view. If one can prepare by adding a gartl, one can prepare by adding something else; just about anything will do. Fixing one’s necktie is, then, like adding something else. Tightening it and putting its knot in place is like putting it on. This is one way of looking at it.
But one may have reservations about this way of looking at it; and this brings me to the second way of looking at it. These reservations stem from the consideration that, ostensibly, one can’t just put on anything at all and call it a preparation for davening! Suppose someone puts on a wrist watch, a ring, or a pair of spectacles. Would that be a legitimate preparation? Perhaps Rav Belsky thinks it would; but there is, I suggest, room for disagreement. It is open to someone to argue that the only way to prepare for davening is by putting on, not just anything, but a levush, that is, a garment (an item of clothing). And here it will immediately be retorted: “But what kind of levush is a gartl?! It’s no levush!” And the point will have to be conceded.
However, this reaction neglects to take into account that perhaps – just perhaps – the rationale for a gartl is not that it represents a thing unto itself, donning which counts as a preparation. The distinctive thing about a gartl, giving it its special status, is that it supplements the coat that one is wearing, in that it holds its two ends in place and prevents them from sliding off to the sides (one to one side, the other to the other). One hasn’t completely donned one’s coat until one has kept it from hanging loose, by tightening it with a gartl.
I speculate that at the time in history when the gartl was introduced coats didn’t have button holes and buttons. They were more like frocks – the chalatels that some heimishe men wear today during mealtime – or like bathrobes. They required straps – belts – if they were to be properly fastened. The gartl functioned to complete the act of clothing oneself with one’s coat. For one wasn’t fully clothed until one’s coat was fully closed. And one closed it with one’s gartl.
On this understanding, you can’t put on just anything and call it a preparation for davening. You have got to put on another item of clothing. And since you’re not really wearing your coat so long as it is open and leaves you exposed, when you tighten it with a gartl you are, finally, completing the act of putting on your coat. For this reason, putting on the gartl is an act of preparing for davening. And since, nowadays, coats come with buttons, the gartl has lost some of its efficacy. For some, though, the tradition of girdling oneself with a gartl for davening has hung on, nevertheless. But for the rest of us, one accomplishes today by buttoning one’s coat precisely what one accomplished then by tightening one’s coat with a gartl. I am speculating that this may be what Reb Yaakov meant when he suggested using buttons in place of a gartl. If this is right, then fixing one’s tie is no substitute (unless, per highly unlikely, it completes that act of putting on one’s shirt!!).