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Tefillin: the boxes and Jewish tradition

Rabbi Yossi Eber, left, of the Chabad Jewish Center of West Pasco helps a man put on tefillin, two boxes of biblical passages.

Special to the Times

Rabbi Yossi Eber, left, of the Chabad Jewish Center of West Pasco helps a man put on tefillin, two boxes of biblical passages.

My first memory of tefillin came from a large oil painting hanging in my grandparents' house. A rabbi with a long gray beard peered down at us from the foyer wall, the little black box perched atop his head.

That box, and another one worn on the arm, contain hand-written biblical passages. It is a spiritual duty for Jewish men to wear them each morning, except for the Sabbath and most holidays, but the practice has faded among many American Jews.

When I heard that a 17-year-old boy wearing tefillin on a US Airways flight from New York caused a bomb scare and an emergency landing last week, I wasn't entirely surprised about the misunderstanding.

But the incident has put this lesser-known Jewish tradition out into the spotlight: The words "tefillin" and "phylacteries" landed top spots on search engines like Google and Yahoo.

"The tefillin, which are placed on the head and the left arm near the heart, symbolize the dedication to God with our intellect and our emotions," said Rabbi Shalom Adler with Young Israel-Chabad of Pinellas County.

"Doing this every morning is a tangible reminder of our commitment," he continued. "Although we don't advocate bringing down planes with them, it did get publicity, and people learning more about them can only be positive."

I heard this week about a teenage Jewish boy in Clearwater who felt a sense of pride wearing them in the morning at his school. His peers seemed to look on in admiration and curiosity, many now knowing what they are.

Tefillin, or phylacteries, are actually part of a biblical commandment from Deuteronomy: "You should bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they should be for a reminder between your eyes." Jewish men have been observing this custom for thousands of years.

The small black boxes contain the Hebrew prayers written delicately on parchment, and the black leather straps are wrapped around the arm and the head.

As far as I know, my father never used them, nor did my grandfather or brother. Now, as an adult, I've been learning more about my faith and heritage the past few years. My husband, who is learning along with me, started putting tefillin on last year after a rabbi brought them back from New York. He started slowly, awkwardly at first, wearing them and saying the prayers only when he remembered. Now, it has become part of his daily routine. My 4-year-old son watches curiously.

Rabbi Shmuel Reich with the Jewish Enrichment Center in Clearwater has made it part of his daily mission to get as many Jewish men to put on tefillin as possible. He visits stores and flea markets throughout the Tampa Bay area, stopping strangers to ask, "Are you Jewish?" If they say yes, he offers to help them put on the tefillin he carries with him. Occasionally they refuse, but most agree. Often, it's the first time they've ever done it. Reich calls it their "spiritual bar mitzvah."

He has put tefillin on hundreds of men since he moved to the area two years ago from Brooklyn. "Whoever I meet, everyday," Reich said. Men with tattoos, men with no prior connection to Judaism.

"That was the first mitzvah the Jewish people got when they came out of Egypt," he said. "It's the oldest Biblical commandment."

In 1967, a campaign encouraging Jewish men over 13 to do the "mitzvah" of tefillin was launched by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, leader of the New York-based Chabad, which now has thousands of branches around the world.

The Rebbe asked his followers to go out into the world and ask people to put on tefillin.

"Then it was totally unique," said Rabbi Yossi Eber of the Chabad Jewish Center of West Pasco. Now, it's becoming much more common.

Tefillin can range in price from $300 to more than $1,000. If even a single letter is missing, the tefillin is not kosher. According to Jewish law, it should be checked twice in seven years.

"But we do it a lot more than that," Eber said. "Everything physical has a spiritual element."

The tefillin, he said, is a meeting of both.

Mindy Rubenstein can be reached at

Tefillin: the boxes and Jewish tradition 01/28/10 [Last modified: Thursday, January 28, 2010 9:57pm]
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