“You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a frontlet between your eyes”.
I’ve never been totally convinced that the Almighty really did intend us to take a series of lines from the Torah, put them into funny little square boxes with long strips of leather attached and then to put them on every morning to pray, but I’m glad I do it nonetheless. And what about winding the strap round your forearm seven times, but without counting?
Every religion needs something a bit strange, and for me, laying tefillin is just a bit strange. It’s the spiritual equivalent of a unique selling proposition.
I grew up without tefillin and for me they epitomised everything that was wrong with religion; blind faith manifested in a ridiculous ritual. I just couldn’t get over how crazy it looked. It undermined my pride in Judaism and even made me angry and embarrassed. I saw the arm strap as a heroin addict’s tourniquet, and imagined an accompanying syringe filled with spiritual claptrap.
Perhaps this is the natural cynicism that one will find in most teenagers, especially those who grow up in an irreligious home. Maturity should have seen my cynicism become indifference. I ought to have stopped thinking how daft tefillin are and just got on with life, but that never happened. I was always fascinated by tefillin, and as my spiritual journey progressed, I realised it wasn’t going to go very far without me buying a set and learning how to put them on. That’s when I came to understand that laying tefillin, being such an obscure tradition, is something that defines Judaism.
As far as I’m aware, no other religion does anything like this. Sure, they may have their own strange customs, but they don’t make black boxes out of the hides of particular animals, put particular prayers inside them in a particular order then stitch them up and add straps with clever little knots, and a detailed set of user instructions.
I also appreciate them on an aesthetic level. Tefillin are beautiful things, and all the more beautiful when one considers how much care and attention goes into making them. How the sofer writes with his attention fully on the job in hand, not listening to the radio or thinking about the weekend. They are beautiful in that they look so perfect. They are perfectly square, perfectly black, and the straps of my tefillin fit me perfectly now that we are familiar with each other. When I wear them, and I create the “shin” on my hand, it looks great. It’s a lovely, strong, clear “shin”.
My son has recently started to lay tefillin and now I think I really understand the meaning behind these peculiar objects. His tefillin are enormous on him and the strap winds around his hand about 20 times. It keeps coming loose as the straps are rather stiff and we’re still trying to get it to fit his head properly (I think his head must swell and shrink with the weather or something).
The first time I helped him to put them on was one of the most wonderful moments of my life. Here I was, continuing a tradition that stretched back at least 2000 years. Doing my little bit. L’dor v’dor.
As he gets older I imagine he’ll wonder why on earth we do this ridiculous thing. I imagine he’ll stop laying tefillin at some point, or at least he’ll only do it occasionally. And I hope that if that’s the case they’ll sit quietly in a drawer somewhere, patiently waiting for him to rediscover them, their beauty, and the tradition they represent. And maybe he’ll start to use them regularly again one day and realise how peaceful one can sometimes feel when bound up in the straps, as I sometimes do when I daven shacharit. It may look ridiculous but it’s no more ridiculous than some of the hats I see in shul.