tefillin

tefillin bag; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

tefillin bag; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

Earlier this semester I took on mitzvat tefillin, the mitzvah of tefillin, or “phylacteries” as they are often referred to in English. (I am not sure why the latter word is any clearer than the former, but some have heard the Greek word rather than the Hebrew.)

Tefillin are the set of black boxes with leather straps that are worn on the head and on the arm during weekday morning prayers. They are the Talmudic solution to the exhortations in the Torah (in several places) to “bind them [these words] as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as totafot between your eyes” (Deuteronomy 6:8). The meaning of “totafot” is not entirely clear; it is often translated as “frontlets” (which, in some possibly circular logic, is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a band or phylactery worn on the forehead”). And tefillin is a rabbinic word; it’s not found in the Tanakh.

The rabbis interpreted “them” (which refers back to “these words” from an earlier verse) to mean the verses in which totafot are mentioned in the Torah; thus, each set of tefillin contains the four verses from Exodus and Deuteronomy written on parchment scrolls.

At the beginning of last semester, I borrowed a set of tefillin from the Women’s Tefillin Gemach, a free loan society (“gemach”) that, as you might guess, lends tefillin to women. Many people — including lots of my classmates — inherit tefillin from their grandparents (or maybe even parents). Obviously that is not an option for me, but the gemach exists as well for women who were born Jewish; some might have been passed over, in favor of a brother or other male relative, for inheritance of a set. Unlike wearing tallit, laying tefillin is still not all that common among women. Even among my classmates, I would estimate that less than half of the women wear tefillin, while most of the men do.

I borrowed a set of tefillin from the gemach in August, tried them on once, and then let them languish in my tallit bag. There was enough going on already during my first semester of rabbinical school, and I just wasn’t able to take on one more new thing. So I prayed last semester just in my tallit (which itself was a new practice).

still life with tefillin; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

still life with tefillin (with metal casings for the boxes); photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

During our winter seminar on feminist theology and practice, I started thinking about tefillin again, especially as we talked about changing prayer and other ritual to make it more accessible for those for whom it was not originally created. And then I came across an abridged prayerbook with blessings in all feminine G-d language. I decided that I would start to wear tefillin — and that I would learn the blessings from this book (and deliberately not learn the traditional blessings). So I say the traditional blessing when putting on my tallit — and something a little different when putting on my tefillin. It’s a way of making my own a practice that still feels very . . . male.

I also say an alternative passage from the Tanakh as I finish putting tefillin on my hand. Traditionally, one recites Hosea 2:21-22: “And I will betroth you to myself forever; I will betroth you to myself in righteousness, and in justice, and in lovingkindness, and in compassion. And I will betroth you to myself in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord.” This is certainly a lovely sentiment. However, the prayerbook I found suggested an alternative, which resonated much more with me. The passage I say is from Ruth 1:16, her devotional words to her mother-in-law, Naomi: “For where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge. Your people will be my people, and your G-d, my G-d.” Indeed, the words of a fervent convert are certainly more appealing to me than the problematic metaphor of marriage between G-d and Israel.

I learned the blessings and the passage from the Tanakh one night while working at the front desk at school (which I do two nights a week). And that same night I learned also how to wrap tefillin . . . by watching a video on YouTube! (All of the many how-to videos of course all feature older men — or IDF soldiers — so I may have found an eventual project!) That evening I just put on the tefillin and took them off, over and over and over again, until I was able to do it fairly quickly (it’s a complicated process).

tefillin barbie by jen taylor friedman

tefillin barbie by jen taylor friedman

Worn, tefillin look weird. Full stop. It’s possible that since I didn’t grow up seeing them, I find them a little more jarring than most Jews, but I think it’s more probable that they’re just odd. I say this because the first time I was shown how to put on tefillin, by my bat mitzvah rabbi, she said, “Don’t they look funny?” — and I loved her for that. However, wearing tefillin while praying has felt completely natural. It just seems right. I am so excited to continue the practice and to observe what effect it has on my prayer.

This is not to say I haven’t had my frustrations. My first barrier to overcome was my fear (or fear of my annoyance) that it would take too long to put them on. That evening spent practicing got me to an acceptable speed (and yes, I timed myself!).

What I’m having trouble getting past is the fact that tefillin are meant to be laid against the skin, and the wrapping starts at the upper arm. Tefillin were not designed with women in mind — nor for that matter were women’s clothes designed with tefillin in mind. Most men’s upper-body garments are conducive to being pushed up or aside to expose the upper arm; the same is generally not true of a lot of women’s clothes. So in the dead of New England winter, I’ve been doing one of two things: I’ll wear a short-sleeved or sleeveless shirt (with, say, a cardigan). Or I’ll wear a camisole under a more form-fitting sweater or turtleneck and wriggle halfway out of it during davenning. Both of these options make me feel considerably less modest than I’d like, especially during prayer. (Thank goodness for tallit!) And both mean that every morning I have to think, “Can I lay tefillin in what I’m wearing?” I know mitzvot aren’t supposed to be effortless — but I’m pretty sure that the men at my school aren’t thinking about this.

I’ve written this post from my perspective as a cis-gendered, female-identified student (and have admittedly used a gender binary throughout): I am also interested in the experiences of others with this practice.

What would tefillin look like if a pluralistic community, of Jews of all types, were designing them today? How would we understand words of Torah “for a sign for you upon your hand, and for a memorial between your eyes” (Exodus 13:9)?

Comments

  1. Shoshana says:

    I prayed with tefillin for several years in and after college, in the Havura community of the Upper West Side (NY) in the late 1970s-early 1980s. I stopped for several reasons, which are probably relevant but which I don’t have time to explain. I don’t remember sleeve styles being an issue then.
    After giving that set of tefillin to my daughter for her Bat Mitzva, I started again after my children were grown, feeling that I was now “using someone else’s exemption;” there was no reason why my life obligations could not accommodate tefillin, since I already prayed every morning and my synagogue community was accepting. So I did and behold sleeves became an issue. In two directions. Living in Israel, I don’t feel comfortable going out on the street with tefillin marks on my arm so in summer I always make sure to have a long sleeved, light-weight shirt available to cover up the marks if I need to go our right after praying. The winter issue is harder, and I haven’t got much to add.
    Regarding the modesty pushing sleeves up, it is not uncommon even for men who wear suit jackets or blazers to put the sleeve back on over the tefillin. In fact, some have a positive tradition to do so to symbolize do mitzvot discretely, not as a show.
    I do say “I will betroth…” which I also said to to my spouse at our wedding. That was during my previous tefillin-using period but I don’t remember having any particular thoughts about that congruence at the time (might be my memory).
    Today, when I move my wedding ring from its usual place to my forefinger (so it doesn’t come between my finger and the tefillin strap), I am conscious that the ring is returning to where it was originally placed when we stood under the huppah. For me, that is a moment of recognizing the balancing acts and adjustments we must all make between multiple commitments. At this point in my life, I find that one of the most significant pieces of the tefillin puzzle.

  2. I also started laying tefillin fairly recently, although oddly I hadn’t considered which prayer was inside the boxes. Thanks for explaining! I also haven’t considered my clothing choices based on tefillin at all. Maybe I’m not laying it high enough on my arm, but I just push up my sleeve and that usually works fine. I too have found a great change in my davening since laying tefillin. I love the physical enacting of one of our central commandments, and there is something so visceral and even primal about the binding, like a relic of ancient ritual. In contrast to the tallit, which is a gentle, enveloping object, the constriction of tefillin help me think about the halachic aspect of prayer, and what is my duty. Plus I always just enjoy doing things that I’m told I’m not supposed to do because I’m a girl 🙂 These particular tefillin too are very meaningful to me since they’re from my dad, who received them on his bar mitzvah (and never used them once!).

    • It’s certainly possible that I am too fixed on the sleeve situation. In some ways the issue feels trivial — I don’t like stretching out my clothes. Or maybe I’m wearing shirts that are too tight. Or maybe I need to tone my arms. I feel odd fixating on it, but I also want to talk about that experience as a woman.

      I really identify with how you’ve described the feeling of wearing them when praying. And I, of course, also enjoy doing things I’m told I’m not supposed to do. 🙂

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