Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Tefillin Barbie

By Susan Esther Barnes

Tefillin Barbie. I must say, those are two words I never would have expected to put together. Which demonstrates how behind the times I am, since Tefillin Barbie has been around since 2006.

Tefillin are leather straps with boxes at the end of them. In the boxes are verses from the Torah. They are worn during prayer. One is strapped to the head so the box is on the forehead, and the other is strapped to the arm, with the box on the hand and the leather straps wound up the arm. There’s more to it than that, such as how many times around you wrap the straps, but you get the picture.

My gut reaction when I see tefillin is “Ugh.” I don’t like them. Nobody wears them during services at the synagogue I attend. So imagine my surprise and dismay when I emailed a link for Tefillin Barbie to my rabbi, and he hinted that maybe we should start encouraging congregants to lay tefillin.

The whole idea of tefillin comes from Deuteronomy 6:8. Deuteronomy Chapter 6 starts by talking about the laws, the one-ness of God, and our love for God. Verse 8 says, “And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.”

One of the things I like about Judaism is we often don’t take the words of Torah literally. We look beyond the literal to discover possible meanings on other levels. I was once told the reason we chant Torah rather than just read it is to make it sound like a song, to remind us that it, like a song, should not be taken it too literally.

On a figurative level, I like this verse. It can be a useful guide to our actions if we go around thinking that the commandments and our love of God are always on our hands and in front of our eyes, so no matter what we do or see, we shape our words and deeds accordingly.

The idea of people taking this verse literally and actually tying these words onto their foreheads and hands strikes me as a bit silly.

The main reason for my gut reaction against tefillin, however, is what I associate with them. Jewish law requires men to wear them for prayer; it does not require women to wear them. I have only seen them on Orthodox men, and in books that are clearly written only for men. As a result, the message I get when I see them is, “This is for us; this is not for you,” a message which plays into my issues with rejection.

When I was in Israel last summer, on the airplane and in every city we visited, there were men trying to get male tourists to try on tefillin, as part of their outreach effort to draw men into becoming more religious. These men had no interest in offering to lay tefillin with me, because I am female, and beneath their notice.

As a person who believes in egalitarianism, I have always seen tefillin as an outdated remnant of the old, sexist ways some Jews still cling to while I try to be a religious Jew in the 21st century. I have never viewed tefillin as religious objects. To me, they have always been a symbol of sexist exclusion.

Why would a woman want to wear a symbol of sexist exclusion anyway? We don’t want to adopt their outdated ways. We want to express our Judaism in ways that make sense in a modern, egalitarian world, a world which, I would venture to say, is a step closer to the World to Come than one in which one segment of society is excluded by another.

Just this past week, however, I began to read a book by and about the Women of the Wall, a group of women in Israel who have been fighting, since 1988, for the right to pray out loud, wearing tefillin and a tallit and with a Torah, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. I had never heard anything before about women wanting to wear tefillin.

In their book, the women explain that it is not against Jewish law for women to wear tefillin. It just upsets some religious men because they’re not used to seeing it, and many therefore are ignorant of the law regarding it, so they assume it is forbidden.

The knowledge that there are some women fighting for the right to lay tefillin puts the idea into a new light for me. Why should men claim the right to do this, and try to deny it to women? Especially Orthodox men, who claim to be bound by Jewish law? Suddenly, the idea of a woman wearing tefillin feels less like women taking on a symbol of exclusion, and more like a way to reclaim something which wrongfully has been denied to us.

Coincidentally (or not), while I was reading the book on the Women of the Wall, I came across a blog post that mentioned Tefillin Barbie.

It is particularly fitting that Tefillin Barbie was created by Jen Taylor Friedman, who, according to her website, is the first woman in modern times to have written a sefer Torah (Torah scroll, which are written out painstakingly by hand and, the Orthodox would say, only by men).

When I finally had a chance to think it all through, the rabbi’s suggestion that we lay tefillin transformed in my mind from something offensive to something that, like Tefillin Barbie, may be yet another step in the struggle of women to claim our rightful place in prayer and religious practice alongside Jewish men.


  1. Thanks for the link. I'm curious why you say your perspective is totally different from mine. I see more similarities than differences, but then you know a lot more about your persepective than I do!

  2. You said, "I have never viewed tefillin as religious objects." That's the difference: I've *always* seen tefillin as religious objects--and I want in. I refuse to be deprived of my right to use these symbols of my own religion just because I'm female.

  3. Thanks for the clarification. And that's just it. I didn't view them as religious objects before, but I do now. And, like you, I refuse to be deprived of my right to use symbols of my own religion because I'm female. (I already wear a tallit gadol to services).

    Of course, I'm lucky because I am confident nobody at my synagogue will tell me I can't wear them because I'm female. On the other hand, if I do start to wear them at synagogue, I expect I will get some push back, just like I've gotten push back from some Jewish people when I say I won't eat meat with dairy. But that's not a male/female issue, that's broader Jewish baggage.

  4. If you're the first and/or only woman in your synagogue to wear tefillin, expect to be stared at. Don't let that stop you--you'll get used to being stared at, and, eventually, they'll get used to you wearing tefillin.

  5. Thanks for the advice. If I start to wear tefillin during services, not only will I be the only woman wearing them, I will be the only person wearing them, so yes, I will be stared at.

    I probably won't start wearing them at services, though, unless and until I get comfortable wearing them at home.

    And I would work with the clergy first to try to find some allies who are willing to try them at services with me so I wouldn't be the only one.

    Plus I'd need the support of clergy and others when the inevitable backlash comes from people who are uncomfortable seeing people wear them.

    Now that I think about it, the first time I try them at services will probably be on a Saturday morning when there is no bar or bat mitzvah, so there aren't a lot of people, and the only people there are "regulars."

    Thank you for helping me to think this through a little more!

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  7. Whoa, hold that thought--tefillin are never worn on Shabbat! (They're never worn on the major holidays, either, though some do wear them until Hallel on the Intermediate Days/Chol HaMoed of Sukkot and Pesach.) I heard somewhere that the rabbis felt that a Sabbath or a major holiday is, itself, an "ot," a "sign," as the hand tefillin is described in the Sh'ma, and that, therefore, one should not wear another "ot" on Shabbat or Yom Tov.

    I suggest that you find a synagogue that has weekday (which includes Sunday) morning services, which are the only services at which tefillin are worn. Best of luck, and I hope you'll let your readers know how it goes.

  8. Thanks for the warning. I actually found that out this afternoon when I was talking to the Cantor about it.

    So I guess I'll just use them for prayers at home for now.

  9. That's a good plan, and will give you plenty of practice time, so that, when you finally lay tefillin in public, you'll be comfortable with the procedure.

    I advise you to get someone to show you how to lay tefillin. Note that there are a number of different minhagim/customs for laying tefillin, so get *one* person to show you his/her method, then stick to it.

    Note also, that the way one lays tefillin may depend on how the tefillin are constructed--there are a number of different minhagim for that, too--so make sure that your tefillin's minhag and your teacher's minhag are compatible! My husband's "shel yad"/hand tefillin is not tied the same way that mine are, so we can't lay tefillin the same way. He asked for two sets of Ashkenazi tefillin, one for a right-hander and the other for a left-hander. But, aside from mine being the leftie set, the knots are also tied diffently on the "shel yad.". Go figure. So I have to tighten mine with the bayit/box *below* the retzua/strap, whereas my husband must tighten his with the box *above* the retzua, with an extra winding of the strap around the bayit to keep it from falling down.

    This might be a good start. (That's how my shel yad looks. When my husband lays tefillin the bayit/box sits *above* the retzua/strap.)

  10. lovely and balanced, susan. thank you for the insight and glimpse into your thoughts and the process of getting there.

    admittedly, my instincts are to backlash against barbie. but of course that's not really necessary, is it?

    i'll be interested to see what approach your synagogue decides to take, and your roll in it!

  11. This thing looks rather weird on Barbie, especially when it is not should on a woman at all. The designers should have learn something about Jewish culture before making such doll and starting publicly selling it.

  12. Who says tefillin [should not be] on a woman? Can you provide scripture references?