CLEARWATER — While many people were gearing up for Super Bowl parties, some 60 men, women and children stood in the sanctuary of Congregation Beth Shalom on Sunday morning performing a 2,000-year-old Jewish ritual.
Called "laying tefillin," the ritual involves wrapping black leather straps around the arm and head. Each set of straps is attached to a small black box containing biblical passages handwritten on parchment strips.
"Tefillin were found in the caves of Qumran, so we know they are at least that old," said Rabbi David Weizman, referring to the Middle Eastern caves where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.
Those gathered at Beth Shalom on Sunday had come to join in the "World Wide Wrap," an undertaking of the Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs, known as FJMC, designed to encourage Jews to lay tefillin. The FJMC is a nonprofit organization with affiliates among conservative synagogues around the world, all of whom participate in the event on the same day each year.
The act of laying tefillin stems from four passages in the Bible, two in Exodus and two in Deuteronomy. All four contain a variation of the line, "You shall bind them as a sign upon your hand and let them serve as a frontlet between your eyes" — God's injunction to the Israelites never to forget his commandments.
One who lays tefillin winds the straps around the right arm and hand and the head. Two small boxes, each containing the four biblical passages, are affixed to the straps, one on the upper arm and one on the head. The box on the arm faces the heart; the one on the forehead is centered between the eyes and is associated with the mind.
"Tefillin connects us to God, to tradition and to our past," said Rabbi Danielle Upbin, associate rabbi of the congregation and Weizman's wife. "In tefillin, we have a visceral, physical reminder of that connection."
The arm strap, wound seven times around the lower arm, is a symbol of completeness or wholeness, Weizman said, "like the seven days of creation."
The strap around the fingers forms the Hebrew letter shin, a symbol for Shaddai, one of God's Hebrew names.
Laying tefillin is a weekday practice, since the Sabbath and holidays contain their own reminders of God's laws.
Beth Shalom has participated in the World Wide Wrap for five years and attracts veterans as well as beginners of tefillin usage. Jack Herman, 86, a winter resident of Clearwater, said he has put on tefillin since he was 13, the age Jewish children assume the obligations of their faith.
"I do it at home every morning," he said. "I get up and thank the Lord for the new day."
Men are required by Jewish law to lay tefillin, said Weizman, whereas women may do so, but are not obligated.
Palm Harbor resident Jill Grodin, 54, is one woman opting to learn the ritual.
"I've always wanted to experience this," she said. "I felt I was missing out on something by not knowing this custom."
On Sunday, 12-year-old Lauren Marsh of Clearwater was busily wrapping her arm in the tefillin for the first time.
"I thought the hand wrapping was really cool," she said, "because it spells the name of God."
Blake Lenett, president of the Beth Shalom men's club, said the organization's goal is to get everyone to put on tefillin, but he is particularly gratified when children do it for the first time.
"It's a connection to our religion and to our ancestors," he said.