Friday, December 17, 2010

My Tefillin Are My Friends - How Did That Happen?

By Susan Esther Barnes

The last time I wrote about my tefillin, they had just arrived, and I was filled with mixed feelings about them. I wanted to make an appointment with my rabbi so he could help me feel better about them, but he was out of town for ten days. I was on my own until he got back.

I did some research on the internet and printed out a couple of different sets of instructions regarding how to put them on. This experience reminded me of the old joke which says, if you put two Jews in a room and ask them a question, you’ll get at least three answers.

There are many different opinions about how to wrap tefillin. If you’re Ashkenazi you wrap the strap around your arm in one direction, and if you’re Shephardic you wrap it in the other direction. Some instructions say to wrap it so the straps form the Hebrew letter “shin” on the back of your hand, and others don’t. There are various ways to wrap the strap around your fingers.

As if that weren’t enough, there are disagreements about how many prayers to say while putting them on, whether or not women should say the prayers, and when exactly to say them.

All this is actually one of the things I love about Judaism. There are many different customs, and as long as we don’t get caught up in the belief that there must be One Right Way and all other ways are Wrong, the discussion about why a person may prefer one way over the others can be quite interesting.

Because of the differences in the direction of the wrapping, as well as the order of the prayers inside the tefillin boxes, I had already made one decision by honoring my father and ordering a Sephardic set. The rest of the wrapping style to choose was wide open, though.

I experimented with the different ways to wrap the strap, and found that I very much liked making the letter shin on my hand. I did, however, have an enormous amount of extra strap left over to either tuck in or to hold scrunched up in my hand. I wondered whether the strap was made for a large-armed man and whether there is anything in halacha (Jewish law) that would prevent me from cutting off the excess amount.

I didn’t know how to tighten the strap on my head, due to the complicated knot in the back. The first time I tried it on, I read the entire morning service with the head box constantly slipping down from my forehead onto my nose. The box on my upper arm was a little loose, too. These issues made it pretty difficult to feel the tefillin were aiding my prayer experience in any way.

The next time I went to put on the arm box, I realized there was a plastic box protecting the actual tefillin box, and clearly I was supposed to take off the plastic box before I put on the tefillin. How I noticed and removed the plastic box from on the head box the first time and not the arm one, I don’t know. It was still a little loose and I still had a lot of extra strap, but it was better. I also figured out how to tighten the head box somewhat, so that was better, too.

And then a funny thing happened. The rabbi got back from his trip and I set up my appointment through his assistant. I emailed the rabbi to say I had a set of tefillin and the appointment was for a lesson on how to wear them correctly. He responded with, “Where did you get them? Are they awesome?” and suddenly, I discovered that all of my baggage about tefillin had somehow disappeared. Instead of making me feel like they were invaders of some kind like they had before, they had somehow become my friends. Awkward friends, but friends nonetheless. So I responded, “Yes, they are awesome.”

Unsurprisingly, the rabbi was an enormous help in showing me how to tighten the head strap so it fit even better than I had already managed. He also helped me to discover how to wrap the arm strap so the box isn’t loose and so I don’t have so much extra left over to tuck in at my hand.

The next challenge is that I’m not very fond of praying by myself, and I’m not a morning person, so the thought of getting up early in the morning to pray with my tefillin by myself is not very motivating. It would be much easier to get out of bed early if there were other people to pray with.

So, with the rabbi’s blessing, I’m going to see if I can get together enough people to come to a lay-led weekday morning service at the synagogue on some kind of regular schedule, to give myself, and others, a chance to lay tefillin and pray. I know of two other people who are interested in doing this. Only seven more, and we have a minyan. Wish me luck!


  1. Susan, this was a fabulous post where I learned A LOT about tefillin and a lot about you! I'm happy that you like them more now and that you're taking control of finding a way to put them to good use in a way that works for you.

    But what really struck me about this post was the paragraph about learning from and not getting caught up in the "one right way." trap. & to that I say: AMEN! Well done, lady!

  2. I think that one should not kiss the mezuzah.

  3. Galit - Thanks. The lesson about the possibility of there being more than one right way (and sometimes many) was a hard one for me to learn, but I'm a believer now.

    Mezuzah - I, and many authoritative sources, disagree.

  4. Correction/clarification:
    The order of the prayers in the head tefillin box is not based on Ashkenazi vs. Sepharidc. It's based on whether it follows the order or Rashi or of Rabbeinu Tam.

  5. Nu, I warned you that there was more than one minhag for laying tefillin. :)

    "I wondered whether the strap was made for a large-armed man . . ."

    Almost undoubtedly!

    ". . . and whether there is anything in halacha (Jewish law) that would prevent me from cutting off the excess amount."

    I'm trying to figure out when would be a good time for me to make an appointment with a sofer--the straps on my tefillin are so long that I have to gather them in my hands before standing, lest I trip on them! They just don't make tefillin for people who are only five feet and one inch tall. :)

  6. About the extra - You may want to ask your rabbi about wrapping more times around your upper arm before you start to wrap the seven times around your lower arm. When my rabbi had me wrap the strap 3 times around my upper arm, it kept the box more firmly in place and took care of most of the excess.

  7. And the 3 wraps around the upper arm makes a shin...I believe that is a Sephardic minhag...

  8. It's a shame to have women lay tefillin. Just have a penis implant.

  9. Anonymous -
    I don't want to be a man. I don't even want to be like a man. I want to get closer to God, and if wrapping tefillin helps to make that happen, it is no shame.