Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Trouble with Tefillin

By Susan Esther Barnes

I'm fortunate. I don't have a lot of "Jewish baggage," those bad feelings that stem from negative early experiences with synagogues or rabbis or Hebrew school or whatever. All the Jewish stuff I remember from my childhood (and, I admit, there wasn't much of it) are positive memories.

But when I think of tefillin, the first thing I think of are stern, old men with white beards who think I'm beneath their notice. When I remind myself that is an unfair sterotype, the next thing I think of is the young men in I saw Israel in public places trying to get other men to lay tefillin, and ignoring me.

When I try to push myself past that, the third thing I think of is the Women of the Wall wanting to wear tefillin at the Kotel and being told they can't. And they don't even count themselves as a minyan.

That's a lot of negativity to lay on two little ritual objects that have never done me any harm on their own.

So I was feeling some ambivalence on Friday as I swung by the Post Office to trade in the "we have a package for you" delivery slip for the box I knew contained the tefillin I had ordered.

It had come all the way from Ashdod, Israel, and apparently it was not an easy trip. I was a bit alarmed to see the box was smashed and even ripped open on one end. It was then wrapped in US Post Office tape and stamped with a disclaimer that it had been received damaged.

I not only had to sign for the package, I also had to sign something to acknowledge that the US Postal Service said they had received the package already damaged. The nice Post Office lady told me shipments within the US are insured, but she has no idea how I'd make a claim about a smashed international package if the contents were damaged. Oh, joy.

Fortunately, (sort of - I'm still feeling ambivalent), when I got the box home and opened it, everything appeared to be in good shape. Like I'm a tefillin inspection expert, but the boxes with the prayers in them don't look broken, the leather straps are still attached, and the Certificate saying they're Kosher isn't wrinkled or torn.

The unfortunate part is, now that they're here, I need to face all that baggage I've been carrying around. I was going to say "...carrying around about them," but some helpful part of my mind is insisting that my baggage is not about these tefillin, it's about those tefillin I've seen on men who thought I had no business wearing them.

So, one day soon, maybe tonight, I'm going to take a deep breath, unwrap these tefillin, and try them on. And pray a little. And see how it feels.

Then next week I'll make an appointment with my rabbi and bring them in, so he can confirm I'm putting them on correctly. And we'll talk about them, and how I'm planning to use them.

I hope that, slowly, over time, these tefillin will help me to set aside my baggage and to make peace with those tefillin. I hope I'll learn not to feel silly praying with a box on my head and on my arm. I hope I can get comfortable with them.

Because until then, they feel a little bit like invaders from the world of "These aren't for you. You aren't good enough." I can't even begin to discover whether they have the potential to become a meaningful part of my ritual practice until I can make peace with them and welcome them into my home as friends. And that is so not where I am right now.


  1. Confidential note to Star Trek fans: Yes, you are right, that is one of the reasons I chose that title for this post.

  2. I love my tefillin. They were once worn by my great great great grandfather. New straps were put on for my Bar Mitzvah and they were checked to make sure all was still Kosher.

    Amazing to me to think how far back they go and the connection they offer.

  3. May I suggest a different route?
    Maybe you need some 'new' baggage. You should try learning a bit about tfillin and what's written inside them first. There's a message in there that's not about beards or women. It's about God and his covenant with the Jewish people and it is the reason for putting the tfilin near our hearts and heads. The tfillin are supposed to remind you of that.

  4. Jack - I hope I will learn to love my tefillin as much as you love yours.

    Risa - I have read about them, and I know what is written inside. I agree, I need to replace my old thoughts and feelings about them with new ones, and I hope that will come with time, familiarity and experience.

  5. Thank you for your excellent post, but please do not put on tefillin after daylight hours. Here's a link to one of my earlier posts about tefillin:

  6. Mazal tov! It does take a while to get used to laying tefillin, so don't worry. Just be sure to follow *one* person's minhag/custom--there are a number of customs regarding how to lay tefillin, so just pick *one* or you'll get mixed up. (Been there, done that! :)) Wear them in good health!

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