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,


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