I am purchasing my first tallis gadol, but I notice some can be brought without the atara attached. I personally don't like unnecessary embellishments. Is the tallis kosher without an atara?
The source of the attara is found most easily in the Mishna Berurah siman 8 siff 4. It is based on chazzal who tell us the krashim (beams) in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) had signs written on them, so that the ones that merited to be on the north side would always be on the north side. So too the sides of the talis -- the side that is in front should always be in front. The Mishna Berurah quotes the Arizal that this is not so important with regards to talis. The Aruch Hashulchan in siff 10 mentions that if you have a piece of material sewn on the inside on top to keep the talis from getting ruined with sweat, this is good enough for keeping track of which side is supposed to be in front. He also mentions his dislike of a silver attara due to the fact that it seems to imply the the main point of a talis is to cover one's head as opposed to ones body, which is against our final ruling of the gemara.
Interestingly, this same argument about whether to compare other mitzvos to the krashim in this sense (meaning, to take care to make sure that what's on top stays on top) is found with regards to marking one's succah walls, to make sure they end up facing toward the same compass direction. The Bikurei Yaakov dismisses this completely and the Mishna Berurah brings his opinion in the Biur Halacha. But in that same piece, the Bikurei Yaakov also dismissed the comparison between the talis and the krashim. So in fact, it's pretty hypocritical when we all sit in our succas without assigned walls while wearing our taleisim with ataras on.
Thats where the old excuse of minhag (tradition) comes in handy. We are "noheg" (have a tradition) to do this but not that.
see here from Rabbi Eliezer Simcha Weisz
Question: Must a Talit have an Atara?
Answer: No - in the sense that you mean an Atara of silver etc. - usually there is a cloth on the Talit to indicate which side should be used for covering the head.
of course. it is actual a specific custom not to have an embellished atarah. there is an idea of mitzvah b'hidur. there are two ways of looking at this. one way is to add something to make the mitzvah beautiful such as the embellished atarah or decorations on the walls of the sukkah.
the other view is the mitzvah itself is beautiful already and we fulfill the mitzvah b/hidur when we do so in the fullest manner.