From the outside, it looks like one of the most awkward forms of ritual – wooden boxes covered with black leather, with straps that wrap around the head and wind all the way down the arm with some contortion of knots and loops around the hand. For Orthodox Jews, laying tefilin is a basic practice that is part of the daily routine.
It is one of the oldest ritual objects that is still in use today. Remnants of tefilin were found from the times of the Second Temple. The Mishna, the first compilation of Jewish law after the Torah, treats the concept of tefilin as an understood, accepted practice.
It is also a practice that liberal Judaism has not touched. Yes, there are those who have reclaimed the practice and lay tefilin as part of the prayer ritual. In Israel, it is a part of the bar mitzvah ritual – the first and most likely last time that a secular young man or woman will lay tefilin. However, today, women have kippot that look like expensive hair accessories. You can buy a pink silk talit. Or any various colors or designs. Not to mention the vast expanse of creativity in synagogue design. But tefilin? Black wooden boxes and black leather straps and animal sinew threading it all together. Just as was done two thousand years ago.
I first laid tefilin as a third year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. I saw other students and rabbis laying tefilin. I thought, “This is a practice that I have to try, to understand how it feels, to know how to do it, and then be able to speak about it.” I had already adopted the mitzvah of wearing of the talit during prayer. I had tried wearing a kippah, and, after studying the original of the minhag (tradition), decided that I would not continue. So, I borrowed a friend’s set and made a commitment to lay tefilin for three months at the twice weekly tefila at HUC. At first, it was the most awkward experience. The boxes fell down. I couldn’t figure out how to make the “shin” on the hand. The straps on my arm were too tight or too loose. It was cumbersome holding the siddur while wearing them. As the time went on, however, it became more comfortable. I more easily made the loops, confidently wrapped and unwrapped. I felt the wood and leather pressing into my skin as I prayed – a true reminder – and then experienced the lightness when taking them off. The ritual moved from averse to interesting and thought-provoking.
As a fifth year rabbinical student after having made aliyah, I decided I needed my own pair. Cantor Evan Cohen took me to a store in the Machaneh Yehuda market in Jerusalem. It was not clear to the seller for whom the tefilin actually were meant for, and I was clearly the buyer.
In my first few months as a rabbi serving a congregation, it was clear that I was going to have to teach young men and women how to lay tefilin, so I was glad that I had taken the time to learn. And I also had an appreciation for tefilin that I was also happy to pass on.
And I do appreciate tefilin.
The Sages of the Talmud base the idea of tefilin on the notion that it is written four times in the Torah to place the mitzvot as a sign — ot in Hebrew — upon your hand and on your head/between your eyes. (Each version says it a little differently). So, these four sections are written on parchment and placed within the tefilin. Like we are commanded to wear fringes on the four corners of our garments to see them and thus be reminded to do them (today this manifests in the wearing of the talit), wearing the tefilin, essentially, is the reminder of doing the commandments through touch — you feel the box on your forehead and on your arm, you feel the straps on your arm and hand and around the nape of your neck, and thus you remember what is written in the box, and you do them.
A year ago, with my chevruta, Rabbi Justus Baird, I began exploring the notion of tefilin, tracing its development through the rabbinic literature, understanding the main ideas of the rabbis in creating this ritual and its development. At the end of this study process, I plan to propose some ideas for the creation of tefilin in the 21st century.
I will share now what we studied today from the Talmud, Ta’anit 20a-20b. It is a well-known story in my circles:
Our Rabbis have taught: A man should always be gentle as the reed and never unyielding as the
cedar. Once R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon was coming from Migdal Gedor, from the house of his
teacher, and he was riding leisurely on his donkey by the riverside and was feeling happy and full of himself because he had studied much Torah. There chanced to meet him an exceedingly ugly man who greeted him, ‘Peace be upon you, Sir’. He, however, did not return his salutation but instead said to him, ‘Good for nothing, how ugly you are. Are all your fellow citizens as ugly as you are?’ The man replied: ‘I do not know, but go and tell the Craftsman who made me, “How Ugly is the vessel which You have made”.’ When R. Eleazar realized that he had done wrong he dismounted from the donkey and prostrated himself before the man and said to him, ‘I submit myself to you, forgive me’. The man replied: ‘I will not forgive you until you go to the Craftsman who made me and say to him,”How ugly is the vessel which You have made”.’ He [R. Eleazar] walked behind him until he reached his native city. When his fellow citizens came out to meet him greeting him with the words, ‘Peace be upon you O Teacher, O Master,’ the man asked them, ‘Whom are you addressing thus’? They replied, ‘The man who is walking behind you.’ Thereupon he exclaimed: ‘If this man is a teacher, may there not be any more like him in Israel’! The people then asked him: ‘Why’? He replied: ‘Such and such a thing has he done to me. They said to him: ‘Nevertheless, forgive him, for he is a man greatly learned in the Torah.’ The man replied: ‘For your sakes I will forgive him, but only on the condition that he does not act in the same manner in the future.’ Soon after this R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon entered [the Beth Hamidrash] and expounded thus, A man should always be gentle as the reed and let him never be unyielding as the cedar. And for this reason the reed merited that of it should be made a pen for the writing of the Torah, Tefilin, and Mezuzot.
This story is ambiguous in many respects and it is quite challenging. Many questions can be asked, and it presents moral dilemmas without giving definitive answers. However, in my search for references to tefilin in the Talmud, I note the connection between the metaphor of the reed and the pen that writes Tefilin. In the passage previous to this one, the rabbis taught that the ‘reed grows by the water and its stock grows new shoots and its roots are many, and even though all the winds of the universe come and blow at it they cannot move it from its place for it sways with the winds and as soon as they have dropped the reed resumes its upright position.’
What, according to the sages, makes a reed so hardy and able to survive? Its ability to bend and to be flexible.
The words written in the tefilin are unchanging – they are the same words from our ancient Torah. They are the roots. Each passing generation faces different circumstances and must bend and reposition itself and go in different directions as the wind blows, and circumstances beyond our control create new situations. We hold on to the source, but our survival also depends upon our ability to extend ourselves, go in new directions, and demonstrate give-and-take. The reed that writes the klaf for the tefilin represents fluidity, movement, perhaps even to be likened to an ever evolving dance.
The Torah has volumes written on it and reinterpreting it, just as the style of its covers and adornments have varied over time and from culture to culture. The Mezuzah contains parchment with words of Torah but its encasement today could be a capsule of stone or a figure of Kermit the Frog.
What about tefilin?