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Tefillin the Love

I don’t know why I chose to observe the ancient ritual, but sometimes to know, you must first do

Liel Leibovitz
December 30, 2015

The big guy made me do it.

It was late morning on a Wednesday in July, when Jerusalem oozes with a thick heat that traps you inside of it, like a fly in amber, and I was at the Kotel, waiting for the women in my family to conclude their visit to their side of the sacred stone wall. Call me a creep, but I’ve never really warmed up to the mossy old remnant: Every time I paid it a visit, my mind never failed to enumerate the many reasons for the wall’s singular significance, but the heart was never roused from its slumber. Emotionally, standing at the foot of the wall was like gazing at the Mona Lisa—so set are we with an expectation of a transformative emotional experience that by the time we cram in with the masses and find ourselves in the presence of the real thing we can’t help but feel disappointed.

As I’d done on each of my previous visits, I nodded respectfully at the wall. And just as it had done in the past, it stood there, craggy and quiet. That would’ve been it, I suppose, if the big guy hadn’t intervened.

A sizable man, he stood there, five feet from the holiest, underneath a dark awning, and motioned for me to come near. His beard was red and his shirt white and dotted with sweat. “Put on tefillin,” he said. It wasn’t a question; it was a command.

Ordinarily, I would’ve nodded my head in that way those of us who live in big cities eventually develop to telegraph to panhandlers, perverts, and other violators of our physical space that we’re too busy to give them the time of day but too benevolent to tell them straight up to get lost. But something about the big guy’s invitation appealed. His tone was fatherly, as if he was gently persuading me to do something that was entirely to my benefit but that I, lacking the proper faculties, had failed to understand was necessary. I stepped forward and stood there in silence as the big guy wrapped the leather straps on my arm and placed the second black box on my head. He asked how long it had been; I said not since my bar mitzvah. The big guy chuckled. “That’s what they all say,” he bellowed. Then, he gave me a printout of a blessing and urged me to recite it while I looked at the wall.

I can’t tell you what happened next, mostly because I don’t understand it myself. Those of us who write about religion are doomed to live with the knowledge that we can describe everything about it—the customs, the rituals, the history, the feuds—except for that core feeling, the transcendent tremor that drives us to truly believe, that graceful feeling that, like sex and songs and other truly blessed things, cannot be captured by the hole-y nets of words. I’ll say just that I felt something, something I never felt before, something joyful. The drive back to Tel Aviv was longer than usual that day, and dense with contemplation. By the time I was back in an earthlier realm, I had vowed to get myself a pair of tefillin immediately upon my return to New York and start putting them on every day.

Doing that—facilitated by my dear friend Menachem Butler—hardly helped me understand more. Every morning, for months now, I rise, wrap the straps around my arm and over my head, read the prayers, and fret: Am I doing this right? Is the ritual’s force diminished by my disregard for so many other commandments? Can I truly clear my heart and my mind as I pray and maintain the purity of intention one desires when attempting to converse with the heavens? These are deep questions, and I’ve got no good answers. I put them on, even though I don’t fully understand why.

Which, it turns out, is more or less the point.

You don’t have to be much of a theologian to see how different tefillin are from most of the other signposts traditional Jews erect to identify themselves: A beautiful bit of hardware, it requires deed first and only then contemplation. The prayer, the meditation, come second; first come the leather straps.

This was the insight of Menachem Schneerson, the celebrated late Lubavitcher Rebbe and the great modern popularizer of tefillin. In 1967, shortly before the Six Day War, the Rebbe launched a global campaign, sending out emissaries—and, later, Mitzvah Tanks, Ryder trucks emblazoned with the Chabad logo—to entice Jewish men everywhere to roll up their sleeves and perform the act that, until then, was largely the domain of the meticulously observant. Jews being Jews, the Rebbe was immediately criticized: What, asked some of his detractors, was the point of a Jew putting on tefillin if he then hurried to the nearest diner and ordered a bacon cheeseburger for lunch?

The Rebbe was unfazed. Sometimes, he argued, commitment transcended understanding. That’s why the Israelites, on the cusp of being presented with the Torah at Sinai, replied by saying Na’aseh ve’nishmah, we’ll do first and only then listen. And that’s why you put the arm tefillin on first; the head—the intellect—can only join in once the deed has begun.

Not that deed in and of itself is enough: Any system of faith predicated solely on blind obedience is likely to turn disastrous. But as I stood at my breakfast table, morning after morning, with the velvety tefillin pouch at hand, I found understanding slowly trickling in. Not, mind you, of any divine mysteries, nor of any hidden spiritual realms previously inaccessible; these will come later, if they come at all. What I felt was simpler than the intricate kabbalistic concepts associated with putting on tefillin; what I felt—what I continue to feel—is a sense of realignment, slight but ever so important. When I leave the house now, I do it after having surveyed the expanse of my universe and set the Lord at its center. I may then munch on that cheeseburger for lunch, but even eating the treyfest of treats, I still retain something of the kavanah, the intention, generated during those few moments of morningtime consecration. Put simply, no matter how I choose to manifest my relationship with the Creator, I start each day by acknowledging that this relationship exists, that it matters, and that everything that follows in the day should be, in part, a reflection on how my thoughts and my actions conform to or challenge my faith.

In part, this should come as no surprise. Tefillin are, for lack of a better term, objects of spiritual technology, and like all great and groundbreaking technologies they work not so much by performing a particular function but by expanding our understanding of what is now possible. You needn’t ever have boarded an airplane and flown across the ocean, for example, to be fully aware that the possibility of intercontinental travel exists; when you think of the world accessible to you, then, you think not only of your street or your block or the next town over but of China and England and Nigeria, too, which means that, however subtly, you see yourself as a citizen of the world. By putting on tefillin, you see yourself as a child of God, bound by his commandments and blessed by his love; what that actually means is entirely up to you to figure out, a lifelong task that’s of singular importance and unparalleled pleasure.

And so I—a few cheeseburgers removed from the faith of my fathers, a pleasure-seeker who slinks back home after Friday night services only to binge on Netflix, an intermittent reader of the Talmud and Mad magazine, a frequent blasphemer, a flawed believer, brimming with doubt—continue to welcome each dawn with phylacterial devotion. It might not make me more religious, more insightful, more transcendent, a better Jew, but it sends me on my way each day with my eyes watching God. These days, that’s nothing short of a miracle.


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Liel Leibovitz is Editor at Large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.