Sunday, February 13, 2011

Tefillin or not tefillin... that is the question...


Tefillin, or not tefillin, that (with apologies to Mr. Shakespeare), is the question. That it should even be a question for me surprises me, but there it is, and it won’t go away. So I do what I usually do with something that’s puzzling or disconcerting me in some way. I puzzle on it some more, toss it around in my mind, question it, and even challenge it. I try to approach these things with some sort of logic, and so my first step is to just find out about tefillin. Here’s what I know.

Tefillin are a set of small leather boxes, with leather straps so that one of them can be wrapped around your arm (most often the left, because that is for most people their weaker arm), and the other can be wrapped around your head. They contain scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah, to remind us to observe God's commandments, and are worn by observant Jews during weekday morning prayers.

Tefillin are sometimes called phylacteries, a word derived from the ancient Greek phylakterion, which means a safeguard. It seems possible that the Greeks misunderstood tefillin to be some sort of amulet or charm, which they are not. Rather, they represent for observant Jews a physical connection to God. The Hebrew word tefillin is related to the word tefilah (prayer) and the Greek term was not used in Jewish circles.

Like most things to do with prayer, men are obligated to wear tefillin (we call it 'laying tefillin' or 'wrapping tefillin') from the time of their Bar Mitzvah, but women are not. There are some who argue that the lack of obligation incumbent on women in this mitzvah is actually a prohibition, and that women should not wear them. However, there are women who do take on the obligation and who lay tefillin regularly. Early Jewish Halacha (law) allowed women to take on the obligation of wearing tefillin, but this custom was generally discouraged, and eventually this discouragement became active exclusion, especially amongst Ashkenazi Jews.

Modern Orthodox Judaism holds that it is permissible for women to wear tefillin, though it is generally discouraged. Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism allow women to wear tefillin, and in fact, many in Conservative Judaism encourage the practice.

The hand-tefillin, or shel yad, is placed on the upper arm, with the strap wrapped around the arm, hand, and fingers; the head-tefillin, or shel rosh, is placed above the forehead, where your hairline would begin, with the strap going around the head and over the shoulders. The Torah commands that tefillin should be worn to serve as a "sign" and "remembrance" that God brought the children of Israel out of Egypt.  Tefillin are wrapped in a particular pattern, and one cannot just put them on without being taught to do so correctly.

Bobbi & Greg learning how to wrap tefillin

The obligation of tefillin is Biblically ordained and is mentioned four times in Torah: twice when recalling the Exodus from Egypt - "And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand, and as a reminder on your forehead, in order that the Teaching of the Lord may be in your mouth - that with a mighty hand the Lord freed you from Egypt." (Exodus 13:9); and "And so it shall be as a sign upon your hand, and as a symbol on your forehead that with a mighty hand the Lord freed us from Egypt." (Exodus 13:16)

And it's mentioned twice in the Shema passages: "Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead" (Deuteronomy 6:8) and "Therefore, impress these My words upon your very heart: bind them as a sign upon your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead..." (Deuteronomy 11:18)

The Shema, in case you're wondering, is one of the most important prayers in all of Jewish tradition - "Shema Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Ehad," is its beginning. That means "Hear Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One." The entire prayer is much longer, but it talks about the unity of the one God, and how Jews, as the people of the Covenant, are obligated to remember God and God's blessings upon us and care of us.

The idea, of course, is that we are meant to be engrossed in Torah – in thinking about it, living our lives according to its mitzvot, learning from it, sharing it with our children. And while the original scribes may have understood these verses to be more metaphorical in nature, the rabbis determined that the best way to be mindful constantly of God’s covenant with the Jewish people and our obligations to that covenant would be this tangible, physical reminder.

I think that I can be engrossed in Torah without taking on another mitzvah – or to be more precise, I have thought this to be the case. After all, I’ve taken on mitzvot quite happily that I didn’t imagine would ever be important to me. I keep kosher… I wear a tallis… if I miss synagogue, it’s because I’m sick, or I’m not in town (and if I’m not in town, but am in a place where there’s a synagogue, then I am there!)… I observe and celebrate the holidays and mark them all as special. So do I need tefillin? Do I even want them? I don’t know yet … but they are very much on my mind.

My arm in tefillin...