Will Tefillin Become Extinct on Our Watch?

When I was in college at UCLA, the Chabad House would regularly set up a table on Bruin Walk.  The Chabad rabbis would invite Jewish students to Shabbat dinners, try to set up study meetings, and entice men to put on Tefillin.   They knew that anyone who took up their offer would not be attending a service or praying the traditional Jewish liturgy at that moment.  They just wanted every Jewish male who passed by their table to perform the ritual of wrapping Tefillin.  Chabad rabbis are known to promote the wearing of Tefillin not only on college campuses but also at airports, especially Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv.  There is a Tefillin table in the departure hallway staffed by a Chabad rabbi looking for any males who have not performed the ritual that day and are willing to do so (Orthodox Jews do not believe that women should wear Tefillin).

Chabad’s zeal for promoting the wearing of Tefillin is in keeping with their approach to promoting all types of Jewish practice.  With near equal zeal, they distribute Shabbat candle kits, Chanukkah menorot and candles, Mishloach Manot packages to give away on Purim, and kits to search for Chametz on Pesach.  But I have always noticed Chabad’s particular passion for the mitzvah of wearing Tefillin.  There were times I didn’t understand it and was even put off by the seemingly abrupt invitation to take 10 minutes out of one’s day to perform a ritual that the person would likely not relate to or find much meaning in doing.  But for the most part, I can appreciate why Chabad is so committed to the ritual of wearing Tefillin- it is among our oldest and most venerable traditions.  And it’s at risk of becoming extinct.

Interestingly, Tefillin exist because the Talmudic sages chose a literal interpretation of a verse in the Book of Deuteronomy that says that God’s teachings should be “bound as a sign upon your hand and placed as frontlets between your eyes” (Deut. 6:4-9).  From the passage known as V’ahavta, the verse could easily have been understood symbolically.  Indeed, some Jewish sages posited that the verse was meant to instruct us to regard God’s teachings as if they were close to our hearts and minds.  But the literal interpretation of the verse prevailed and Tefillin were thus born.  Its name is an offshoot of the Hebrew word Tefilah, meaning prayer.  Also called “phylacteries” (from the Greek for amulet), Tefillin have been worn by Jews as an enhancement of the worship experience in a continuous chain of tradition for nearly 2,000 years.  Originally, they were meant to be worn all day long, but that practice was quickly deemed to be impractical.  Tefillin were discovered at Qumran (the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found) and on Masada, proving that this unique prayer ritual has been in continuous use as early as 70 CE.

Tefillin are steeped in meaning.  They remind us of the need to seek consensus and compromise.  The black boxes (one is placed on the head and one on the arm) contain four verses from the Torah written on parchment.  Initially, the Talmudic sages could not agree whether the verses constituted one continuous passage and thus should be written on one piece of parchment, or whether they represented four distinct passages and should, therefore, be written on four separate strips.  Rather than have a prolonged dispute, they compromised and established that one box should have the verses written on four separate strips and the other should contain the verses on a single piece of parchment.  Their capacity for compromise reminds us all that none of us are ever likely to get everything we want and that we must make room for the views of others in the course of life.

Tefillin also teach us about the need to integrate thought and action.  One box is placed on the head, representing our capacity for thoughtful planning, while the other box is placed on the arm, representing the mandate to act.  The protocol for putting on Tefillin calls for first wrapping “Tefillin shel Yad” (the box that goes on the arm), pausing before finishing to put on “Tefillin shel Rosh” (the box that goes on the head), and then completing the wrapping of the black straps on the hand.  This practice emphasizes that we ought to integrate thought and action.  Always planning to do something without ever acting on our good intentions it is pointless.  Similarly, rushing to do something without thinking about it can be perilous.

I have been wearing Tefillin consistently since the age of 13, and I have been teaching people about the how’s and why’s of wearing Tefillin for all the years I have been a rabbi.  Because I am a Conservative Jew, I have always believed that this unique and intriguing prayer ritual is not for males only but should be practiced by everyone who has become Bar/Bat Mitzvah.  And yet, I have real concerns that because fewer and fewer Jews show an interest in wearing Tefillin, this 2,000-year-old ritual will soon be dropped from the array of Jewish rituals that are practiced by non-Orthodox Jews.  That makes me quite sad, for I don’t want this generation to be the one that abandons such a venerable rite, especially because it is so rich in meaning and history.

So, I invite you to join me this Sunday, February 3, for the “World Wide Wrap.”  During the morning minyan (starting at 9:00 AM) I will teach about Tefilin using props.  Students from the upper grades of the Zeman School will be present to learn how to wear them.  But the World Wide Wrap is not only for children.  Everyone present will have an opportunity to try wearing Tefillin under the supervision of a “Tefillin Coach” (loaner sets will be available).  This prayer-enhancing practice, embraced by Jews for 2,000 years, is worth a few minutes of your time even if you don’t imagine becoming a regular Tefillin wearer in the future.

Let’s not allow this unique practice to become extinct on our watch!

Shabbat Shalom,


Today I Turn 60

Today I become 60 years old.  Given the tendency to celebrate milestone occasions, I’ve been thinking about this year’s birthday more deeply than in the past.  I find myself pondering what’s important to me and what I’ve enjoyed the most over the past 60 years.  At the top of the list are family, marriage, and fatherhood.  I have certainly enjoyed being a rabbi and a mohel, but the most fulfilling part of my life has been being married to Amy and raising our five sons together.  Each one of them is a beautiful soul, a good and decent person, and deeply committed to Jewish life, to Am Yisrael and to Medinat Yisrael.  Raising our sons has been a true joy.  I cannot think of a single difficult, agonizing moment in the course of being a parent (people who hear me say that think I’m joking but I’m not).  And as our sons get older, we have the pleasure of seeing them develop their lives and start their own families.  We’ll welcome our second grandchild into the family in about a month, and our son Benji, who just graduated from college, will get married in August.  My wife inherited a superstition from her mother that prohibits tempting the evil eye by enumerating one’s blessings.  But I inherited no such thing, so as I turn 60, I say proudly that my family is the greatest blessing in my life.

As you might expect, our tradition offers a commentary on what it means to be 60 years old.  In Pirkei Avot (5:21), there is a passage that describes life as having three periods:  preparation, maturity, and decline.  The Mishna lays out a sequence from age 5 to 100 that includes characteristics of heart, mind, and soul.  What’s predicted for age 60 is rather unsettling- zikna or old age.  Given that I most certainly feel young, I am determined to search for a different understanding of what this text, and the word zikna, means.

One translation I came upon is far more appealing:  60 is the time of sagacity.  Put another way, turning 60 is the beginning of the time to age wisely.  It’s the time in life to use what we’ve learned and experienced to deepen wisdom.  Developing and sharing wisdom enables us to use good judgment, knowledge, and perspective to have a positive impact on our own lives, on our relationships and on events around us.

Rabbi Rachel Cowan z”l, a Mayflower descendant, convert to Judaism, and innovative rabbi who pioneered non-traditional approaches to Jewish life, identified the stage of life beginning at 60 as Et Zikna, a time for wise aging.  She writes:

“This generation has seen a revolution in lifespan. We who turn 60 nowadays have the prospect of living at least another 30 years with relatively good health and vitality. We are pioneers, entering a stage of life never experienced by earlier generations. This is our “third chapter,” our “third act,” our time of “active aging.”  Put another way, it is our “et zikna,” our time to age wisely.  These years are a time of opportunity for discovery.  Et Zikna is a time for increased curiosity, enthusiasm, and spirit. There is a lot to learn and to try, choices to make, risks to take, fun and joy to experience.”

The idea of wise aging is even embedded in this week’s Torah portion.  The Parasha tells of the actual moment of liberation for the Israelite slaves and the Exodus from Egypt.  Chapter 12 describes the ritual of the sacrifice of the Korban Pesach, the paschal lamb, which we symbolize on the seder plate with the shank bone.  After detailing how to offer the sacrifice and how to celebrate the first Passover evening, the text says: “Moses then summoned all the elders of Israel and said to them, ‘Go pick out lambs for your families, and slaughter the Passover offering.’”  The Midrash (Shemot Rabbah 16:1) wonders why the elders were given the special privilege of picking out the lambs that were to become the instrument of liberation for the people.  The answer is intriguing:

“Wherein did the elders merit that Israel should be redeemed at their hands?  Because when the Holy One, blessed be He, revealed Himself to Moses at the bush, He said ‘Go and gather the elders of Israel together.’  Immediately after they did, the Torah says ‘And the people believed.’  For had not the elders not accepted Moses’ promise of freedom to the people, then the whole of Israel would also not have believed him.  The elders accepted it first and influenced the rest of Israel, encouraging them to believe.  God, therefore, said, ‘I will confer honor upon the elders so that the redemption of Israel shall be through their hands.’”

Here we see that the elders used their wisdom, their willingness to believe in the possibility of a better future, to give confidence, strength and resolve to their people.  Such people are referred to in the Torah as “Ziknei Yisrael,” the elders, or more properly those who were aging wisely and using their experience, knowledge, and insight to nurture curiosity, enthusiasm, hope, and spirit about the future.

I will spend this 60th birthday with my family (I’ve asked each of my sons for some uninterrupted conversation).  And I will ponder all the experiences that are ahead of me to enjoy, all that there is to learn, all the ways there are to grow intellectually and spiritually, and all the ways I might be able to be a positive influence on my family and my community.  If Pirkei Avot is to be trusted, then today begins my Et Zikna, a time of wise aging, of fun and of joy.

The Voice of the Prophet at Oheb Shalom

One of the great treasures of our tradition is the messages of the prophets who lived in Israel more than 2,500 years ago and, through the power of speech, exhorted our people to live lives of faith and morality.  These messages have been passed down to us in written form and comprise the middle section of the Jewish Bible.  Every Shabbat and festival day, we read the “Haftarah,” a selection from the Nevi’im (prophetic section of the Bible).  The reason for reading from the prophets is shrouded in mystery, though a leading theory is that centuries ago when the Romans prohibited the public reading of the Torah, the Rabbinic sages substituted a reading from the prophets, which was not considered threatening.  When the ban on reading the Torah was lifted, the additional reading was retained and remains part of our liturgy to this day.  Specific selections from the prophets, thematically connected to the weekly Torah reading, were assigned to each Shabbat and festival by the Talmudic sages.

It’s unfortunate that the power and passion of the weekly prophetic message are usually lost.  The Haftarah is chanted in Hebrew, which is not understood by most people.  The traditional melody is slow and somnambulating.  People might be quietly reading the English translation from the Humash while the Haftarah is being chanted in Hebrew, or more likely, may simply disconnect from the service during that time.  It’s a shame that the powerful message and voice of the prophet is missing.

One remedy for this dilemma is a new approach known as “The Voice of the Prophet,” a project launched by Rabbi Jan Uhrbach at the Jewish Theological Seminary that blends the chanting of some of the Hebrew verses with a dramatic English reading of the text.  Samples can be heard or downloaded by clicking here.

Our Religious Affairs Committee has decided to present the Haftarah using this creative method during Shabbat morning services.  We have chosen portions from the literary prophets, those passages in which a prophet’s message is conveyed rather than the narrative sections of this section of the Bible.  The “Voice of the Prophet” will be heard once a month from January through June, on the following dates:

January 26, Parashat Yitro

February 16, Parashat Tetzaveh

March 30, Parashat Shemini

April 13, Parashat Metsora

May 25, Parashat Behar

June 8, Parashat Bemidbar

I am confident that this new approach to reading the Haftarah will make the message of the prophets more accessible and compelling.  Please be sure to join us especially on the Shabbat mornings when the Voice of the Prophet rings out.  I will be very interested in your thoughts and reactions.