Tefillin 101 – Week Five
A ‘Crash’ Course on Tefillin for the World Wide Wrap
Sunday, February 12, 2023
Prepared by Rabbi Ellen S. Wolintz-Fields,
Executive Director, Women’s League for Conservative Judaism
I hope you have enjoyed learning about Tefillin, and that you will join your community’s World Wide Wrap on Sunday, February 12, 2023, or any day but Shabbat and Festivals, to enjoy the mitzvah of donning tefillin. There is so much to know and learn about tefillin. Over the course of these past five weeks, this is just a small amount of the great amount to learn about tefillin, and the many customs and traditions surrounding the mitzvah of tefillin. I am sorry I was not able to discuss so many other topics regarding tefillin, such as the differences in Ashkenazic and Sephardic communities. There is always more to learn! I hope that the mitzvah of tefillin will create a new type of loving relationship with God and all who don tefillin. May we all merit many years of good health and happiness, to grow in our relationship with God, Torah, and Israel.
1 – Significance of the Number 7 with Tefillin
The tefillah shel rosh, the head tefillin, has a three-headed letter shin on one side of the bayit, box, and a four headed shin on the other side of the bayit, thus adding up to seven.
The straps, or retuzot, are wrapped seven times around the person’s arm – perhaps for the seven days of the week; maybe because seven is a number of completeness in Judaism. One can count seven by saying each of the days of the week, or the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and then the four matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah. Another way of counting seven, is to recite the Peh verse of the Ashrei prayer, which has seven words – Potech et yadech oo’masberah l’chol chai razon – which means “You open Your hand and Your favor sustains all the living.” The parshiyot, Torah portions, in the tefillah shel yad, the arm tefillin, are written on seven lines. The number seven is associated with holiness – for example, Shabbat is the seventh day; shemittah, sabbatical, the seventh year; yovel, jubilee, arrives after seven shemittah cycles.
2 – Reflection of Tefillin as loving God with all one’s heart, soul, and might
This is a reflection written in “A Ritual For the First Time a Woman Dons Tefillin,” by Ellen S. Wolintz as a Fourth-Year Rabbinical Student at the Jewish Theological Seminary on December 15, 1997, for a Final Project for a class entitled “Theological Issues in Liturgy” taught by Rabbi Neil Gillman. Rabbi Ellen S. Wolintz-Fields, January 27, 2019, has revised the reflection, to apply to any gender, for any time one dons Tefillin. The hope is that people will use this reflection when donning Tefillin, and will find the mitzvah more meaningful by reading it before wrapping.
The purpose of this reflection is to have a person think about the importance of Tefillin, its strength that one will fulfill the verse in the Shema that one should love God with all one’s heart, soul, and might. The reflection is to put the person in the proper frame of mind, to see the intensity and mitzvah of Tefillin. We begin by saying:
As God puts on Tefillin, and Tefillin gives strength to God, so I put on Tefillin.
Tefillin is a reminder of our covenant with God, Tefillin gives us strength. Tefillin is a reminder of God’s selection of Israel to be God’s witnesses of this covenant between God and the people of Israel, both men and women. The Torah, in Deuteronomy, chapter 6, verse 5, teaches us to: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” V’ahavta et Adonai elohecha b’chol l’vavcha oo’v’chol nafshecha oo’v’chol m’odecha.
I love God with all my might, so today, I show my love for God by placing the arm Tefillin, the tefillah shel yad, opposite the heart, the seat of life.
I love God with all my soul, so today, I show my love for God by placing the head Tefillin, the tefillah shel rosh, on my head, near my mind, which I will dedicate to the love of God.
I love God with all my might, so today, I show my love for God in a new way, by binding the Tefillin straps around my arm, which is my strength, so that I dedicate all my strength and power to love God.
As I bind the Tefillin straps around my arms, seven times, each time I wrap the Tefillin, I recite the names of our Patriarchs and Matriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, for they began our covenant and bond with God, and I continue it.
Love is the basis of the Torah, and our Patriarchs and Matriarchs have taught me to love God, with all my heart, with all my soul, and with all my might. The binding will draw me closer to God, and will strengthen my bond of love with God. The binding of Tefillin forges a spiritual bond with God. Not only is Tefillin a spiritual bond, but it is also a physical bond. Tefillin is a symbol reminding me of my faith in God, and the bond of love between God, and God’s people. Tefillin is my way to show my gratitude to God for all I have received. It is the tradition, that God chose the Jewish people to receive the Torah, so I hope to study Torah each day.
3 – Poem – Baruch Mi-Magentzah, by Saul Tchernichovsky
The poem Baruch Mi-Magentzah, by Saul Tchernichovsky, discusses a man Baruch from Magentzah, who is a hero, forced by the Crusaders to renounce Judaism. In this poem, he recalls the first time he donned tefillin. At different points in our lives, we may have strayed from the exact words of the covenant, as the speaker admits in this poem, but the mitzvah of tefillin is a way to bring us closer to God, and remind us of the covenantal relationship we are in with God. Tefillin is a ritual to help us connect with God, and show our love of God, even if at times we have missed the mark on some of the obligations that come along with our Covenant with God. However, each day, we can renew our vows of ‘betrothal’ to God by binding our tefillin. This poem is very insightful to the meaning behind the mitzvah of tefillin. (This poem has been translated to reflect an egalitarian society.)
For the very first time
In my life now I bind
To my hand the black box
And I fear lest it slip,
For my tender soul knows
That the synagogue men and women
Will watch me with care
As I enter their midst.
My parents’ faces I see,
Shining with joy;
Joyful tremors, holy tremblings
Surge through my flesh.
The yoke of the Torah I take on myself.
The Torah of God, my Rock, my Creator.
My soul fills with strength;
In all the world none is happy as I.
And I count: one, two…
Five…seven times wound
The strap binds my flesh
The blood swells beneath.
My arms aches with pain
Yet my heart leaps within
Like a fish in a stream.
The smell of leather fills my nostrils,
A smell sharp and sweet.
“And I will betroth you unto Me forever” –
Yet I have broken the covenant…
“And I betroth you with love and compassion!” –
After strangers have I strayed…
“And I will betroth you unto Me in faithfulness
And you shall love your Creator.”
4 – T’FILLIN WRAP RAP by © Orin S. Rotman 1992
Orin Rotman is an International Board Director-at-Large/ Midwest Region liaison and member of the Leadership Development Institute planning committee of the Federation of Jewish Men’s Club (FJMC), as well as a Congregation Beth Judea, Long Grove, IL, FJMC board member. Orin Rotman is also past FJMC chair of the World Wide Wrap. This rap can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n9NJtJJoVIY. No changes have been made to the text, therefore, God is spelled G-d, and Tefillin is spelled T’fillin.
My name is ROTMAN
That is my billin’
I have to COME here today
to talk about T’FILLIN
We have this CLASS to TEACH
you how to JEW – it
I’m gonna show you T’FILLIN
and I’ll teach you how to DO IT HEY!
T’FILLIN LOOK SO FUNNY
THEY SEEM SO WEIRD
BUT WITH T’FILLIN
I COMMIT TO
LOVE MY G-D! HEY!
G-d who CREATED us
Protects all life
G-d who KEEPS me safe
from famine, war, and strife
IN WHOSE IMAGE
we ALL were made
GAVE us his TORAH
and SAID to us ‘BEHAVE!’
But we TEND to forget,
you see PEOPLE are so FICKLE,
so we’re reminded with T’FILLIN
even though they TICKLE HEY!
They’re made of black boxes
With LONG black strings
They contain G-D’S commandments
THAT’S their major thing
WEAR ONE by your heart
NEAR where it lies
The OTHER on your forehead
right between your eyes
FIRST you say some BRUCHAS
To REMEMBER you are Jewish
THANKING G-D for giving us
a WAY to see through it.
FIRST one on the upper arm
TIGHTEN as you go
Then turn it ‘round the FOREARM
With SEVEN stripes to SHOW
Now SOME turn the straps
you’ll see I do it OUTSIDE IN
THAT’S what works for me
HOLD it in your hand
JUST like I said
TAKE the other T’FILLIN out
And PLACE IT on your head
Make SURE the box is CENTERED ON
its forehead DECK
and THAT the little knot in back is
CENTERED on your NECK
NEXT check the straps
to SEE that they’re in PLACE
ONLY let the BLACK side show
THAT’S the way they FACE HEY!
Now BACK to the HAND
A MOST amazing PART
We BIND the name of G-D
on our HAND and in our HEART
MAN is mostly GOOD
But we HAVE the urge to SIN
By TYING UP our hands with G-D
we TRY to hold it IN
FIRST around this FINGER – Yod
Then two FINGERS make a DALET
We FINISH with some SPECIAL turns
G-D’s name ‘SHADDAI’ is solid HEY!
It makes me feel so SPECIAL
I want to SHOUT and clap
I’m PROUD of being Jewish
And DOIN’ the T’FILLIN Wrap!
5 – Women and Mitzvot by Rabbi Pamela Barmash
The teshuvah, responsa, entitled “Women and Mitzvot,” authored by Rabbi Pamela Barmash, was approved by the Rabbinical Assembly Committee on Jewish Law and Standards on April 29, 2014 by a vote of fifteen in favor, three against, and three abstaining (15 – 3 – 3). The question posed was: “Are Jewish women responsible for observing the mitzvot from which they have traditionally been exempted?” The final decision, or pesak, was “Women and men are equally obligated to observe the mitzvot, with the exception of those mitzvot that are determined by sexual anatomy.”
Rabbi Barmash’s teshuvah was both retrospective and prospective. “It is breathtaking to see the vast advances in the participation of women in the Conservative movement in the past century, especially accelerated in recent decades. Who would have imagined the developments that have occurred since the first declarations and decisions of the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards on the role of women in 1955? At the same time, we must take a prospective view toward the future: how do we envision the spiritual life of the communities we are aspiring to build and nurture? Egalitarianism, the equality of women in the observance of mitzvot, is not just about the participation of women: it is about fostering the fulfillment of mitzvot by all Jews…What women could not do was to be involved in public ritual acts and fulfill mitzvot on behalf of men. This impediment was due to their subordinate social status. The role of women in public life has changed dramatically in modernity. In society in general, women are now involved in commerce and the professions on an equal basis with men, and secular law considers women legally free and independent. In Jewish communities, women have been seeking to enrich their lives with more mitzvot. The changes in women’s social lives in general and in Jewish communities are not just a matter of external behavior, but reflect a changed perception of women. Women are now seen as equal to men in social status, in intellectual ability, and in political and legal rights. The historical circumstances in which women were exempted from certain mitzvot are no longer operative, and we must embrace the realities of life in the 21st century. The principle of “times have changed” has been used in halakhic analysis to make dramatic alterations in tradition. When social customs change significantly, the changed social reality requires a reappraisal of halakhah. The change in the social status of women calls for a new determination of women’s responsibility for mitzvot and participation in public ritual acts. The Conservative movement has been in the process of making a new determination for many decades. In Conservative synagogues, schools, and camps, women have been taught to observe mitzvot from which they have been traditionally exempted, and have been educated to participate in public ritual observance.
The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards therefore rules that women are now held equally responsible for the mitzvot as men have been. Women are responsible for the mitzvot of reciting the Shema and the Shemoneh Esreh, wearing tzitzit and donning Tefillin, residing in a sukkah, taking up the lulav, hearing the shofar, counting the omer, and studying Torah.
…A Special Note – It is the case that learning to integrate the performance of mitzvot into our daily routines takes time and reflective effort for all of us, both women and men. For those in our communities who are in their beginning steps in the journey of mitzvot, and even for those of us who have integrated many mitzvot into the path of our lives, it must be emphasized that we are all trying to increase the holiness that mitzvot bring to our lives and that each mitzvah observed causes holiness to suffuse our lives more and more. Each mitzvah allows us to walk another step in the journey toward and with God. In the process of learning the observance of mitzvot, no one is expected to learn to fulfill every mitzvah all at once. For many women who grew up in a different atmosphere regarding women’s roles, the call to observe mitzvot heretofore closed to them will be inspiring and deeply spiritual. They will feel ready to fulfill many mitzvot, and they will eagerly learn new habits. But for some women who were raised in a non-egalitarian or not-completely egalitarian atmosphere, it is understandable that they may be hesitant to take on new mitzvot. Learning new mitzvot may be challenging, and some women may find certain mitzvot daunting for a significant span of time. However, it is the calling of our communities, synagogues, schools, and camps to teach men and women to consider themselves equally obligated to fulfill mitzvot and to educate them equally in mitzvot…
Summary – The general exclusion of women from many mitzvot is based on the characterization of those mitzvot as positive and time-bound. A number of reasons have been devised for the link between this category and the exclusion of women from those mitzvot. However, it turns out that this category was devised for exegetical (formal interpretive) purposes, and only later was the category extended to other mitzvot from which women had already been excluded. It was never a generative principle. Instead, women were excluded because they had subordinate status. They were exempted from the mitzvot that Jews are obligated to observe in the normal course of the day, week, and year because the essential ritual acts should be performed only by those of the highest social standing, those who were independent, those who were heads of their own households, not subordinate to anyone else. Only males were considered to be fitting candidates to honor God in the most fit way. The acts of those who were subordinate honor God in a lesser way and, therefore, women were excluded from them. Furthermore, social standing matters in relations between human beings, and those of higher social standing would lose their dignity if some of lower social standing functioned on their behalf. Women were endowed with ritual responsibilities for others inside the home because the rabbis thought that women had the intellect and reliability to do so. It was social status alone that determined whether women were exempted from certain mitzvot. Women were also not involved in public ritual ceremonies because of their position in social hierarchy. The involvement of women in Jewish religious and liturgical life has changed significantly in the past century and even more in the past few decades. Jewish women are aspiring to the privileges and responsibilities enjoyed by Jewish men through the millennia. The halakhah has recognized that, when social customs change significantly, the new social reality requires a reappraisal of halakhic practices. The historical circumstances in which women were exempted from time-bound positive mitzvot are no longer operative, and the Conservative movement has, for almost a century, moved toward greater and greater inclusion of women in mitzvot. In Jewish thought and practice, the highest rank and esteem is for those who are required to fulfill mitzvot. We rule, therefore, that women and men are equally obligated to observe the mitzvot. We call upon Conservative synagogues, schools, and camps to educate men and women in equal observance of mitzvot and to expect and require their equal observance of mitzvot.”
6 – FJMC – First Thoughts – A Tefillin Spiritual Primer – Some thoughts about meaning of Tefillin
“The first thoughts of the day are so important. Tefillin give us the opportunity to focus those thoughts.”
“When we wear Tefillin, we bind ourselves to the highest spiritual level and achieve a closeness to God that even the deepest meditation cannot accomplish.”
“The act of winding is very similar to the act of putting on a bandage.”
“I put on Tefillin and daven every day because Tefillin bring me comfort.”
“When we speak of ‘God’s hand,’ we are speaking of God’s action in the world.”
“I look at the straps on my hand, and I think that makes me a Mezuzah and I carry the word of God. Judaism believes the Mitzvot exist to help us find meaning in our lives. With every Mitzvah we forge a spiritual bond with God. In the case of Tefillin, this bond is spiritual, as well as physical. We literally bind God’s love symbol to our bodies. Our sages teach us that the commandment of Tefillin encompasses all others. We can actually see and feel the bond. “It’s one thing to talk about the mitzvot. It’s another thing to feel them on your body.”
“Have you ever truly loved? Have you ever felt so close to another human being that every moment together was precious? Where every moment apart was one of longing? Where every letter and memento from this person was something to be treasured? It’s almost as if God grasps your arm, holds on to you and says, ‘You can do this, I’m with you, I’m supporting you.’”
“Tefillin for me is breakfast with God.”
“The greatest love possible is the love between God and man and Tefillin are a sign of this love. Faith and love are very tenuous things. We can speak of them and think about them. But unless we do something about them, we tend to forget. Tefillin serve to help us, remember to be a ‘reminder before your eyes.’”
“I like to compare Tefillin to a satellite dish. That’s sort of what I feel like. I’m getting hooked up to the spiritual satellite system. I have this super connection, like I get every channel. I put Tefillin on and it takes me to another level. I’m on another level with God. It’s a feeling I don’t get with just a Tallit. It’s more.”
7 – FJMC – First Thoughts – A Tefillin Spiritual Primer – Meditation on Wearing Tefillin: Adapted from the Midrash
Breathe deeply with a cleansing breath:
When you lay Tefillin in the morning, you may want to take a moment and meditate on the presence of the angels, the heavenly messengers, and the SHECHINAH. Sit comfortably with your eyes closed and imagine a presence touching your Open Arm. This is the Angel Michael, drawing you closer to God. Your consciousness rises to a higher level, as you become more aware of every heartbeat, every songbird outside your window, and you feel a sense of oneness with the universe.
Slowly shift your attention to your Bound Arm. Feel the straps pressing tightly around it – you are bound within them. This binding is not restrictive but liberating, like a loving couple bound in mutual love and respect to one another. Do you remember a wedding where you were bound up within the couples love? Taste that feeling, transfer it to your love of the God of creation. The Angel Gabriel will guide you on this path.
Before you, the Angel Uriel, directs your Vision. Imagine the BAYIT on your forehead as your Third Eye. Uriel allows you to visualize the future, perhaps a glimpse of the Messiah. Let yourself believe the world is not an endless cycle, but a continuously evolving organism constantly perfecting itself, becoming not only the image of God, it is God.
Feel the place where the knotted straps at the base of your skull where it joins the spine. Experience the Angel Raphael radiating healing down the back of your neck, across your shoulders, down across your chest, past your internal organs and into the seat of your NEFESH, which is the soul’s link to the physical world. Feel the healing power of God radiate throughout your body, your heart, and your soul.
All around you, the lovely feminine presence of the SHECHINAH – God’s bride and feminine self – surrounds you in love. This is God’s love, expressed in a way we can taste, smell, touch – the love between two people; friends, family, children, our life.
God’s love radiates the love in our hearts into the world. We can sense ourselves being aligned: the mind, the heart and the NEFESH – a straight vertical line reaching toward the heavens.
Breathe deeply with a cleansing breath.