When I brought my tefillin in for inspection and repair to a sofer on the Lower East Side, the sign in the shop window said, “Tefillin Repaired While You Wait.” Since it takes anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes to open, inspect, repair and sew up tefillin, I figured I could go get a calizone at the Sam’s Finest Dairy Restaurant around the corner while the scribe opened my tefillin, inspected the parshiyot, made any repairs, and closed them up. The wizened little sofer opened my tefillin and informed me that one of the scrolls needed to be replaced. Everything else was fine. “Come back tomorrow,” he said.
“But the sign says, ‘Tefillin Repaired While You Wait,'” I protested.
“That’s right,” he said, “I will fix your tefillin, and you will wait.” My tefillin were ready in two weeks.
On Mount Sinai, God gave us the commandment to wear tefillin knowing that it would be 3,500 years before this generation would have the opportunity to put them on. Even though it takes only a few minutes to lay tefillin, God must still wait for us to be ready to take on this commandment. God will wait until each person is ready.
For me, wearing tefillin is spiritually satisfying. The meaning of the ritual is suggested in the passage recited as the retsuot (straps) are wrapped around one’s hand: “I bind myself to You [God] forever, I bind myself through Righteousness, Justice, Loving-Kindness and Love, I bind myself through Truth; in this way I come to know God” (Hosea 2:21-22). Just as wearing a wedding ring symbolizes the marriage bond between husband and wife, and just as the wearing of a police uniform symbolizes one’s allegiance to law and order, so wearing tefillin during morning services on weekdays (excluding Shabbat and major Festivals) indicates a Jewish person’s commitment to God, Israel and Torah. In Jewish law, tefillin are mandatory for men and optional for women.
Tefillin contain passages from the Torah, hand written on parchment, just like a Torah scroll. It is therefore the most sacred ritual item an individual normally owns. Tefillin are worn on the arm near the heart, head and hand to indicate that all of a person’s faculties should be bound in the services of God, Israel and Torah. The tefillin we wear are essentially the same as those worn by our ancestors generation after generation.
Now is a good time to bring out those old tefillin or to purchase a new pair at the BEKI Sisterhood GiftShop. Loaner pairs are also available from my office and in the George G. Posener Daily Chapel. Anyone who wishes a first-time or refresher course in tefillin is encouraged to contact me at your convenience.
Just as it is with tefillin, so it is with each of the other mitzvot. God waits patiently as we bind ourselves to God through its performance. And like tefillin, some mitzvot feel funny at first, some slide off or get tangled. But if we take the time to get used to them, they begin to fit us perfectly.
© Jon-Jay Tilsen