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Tefillin Meditation

Posted by Henric C. Jensen on August 17, 2007

As a child of maybe seven, while exploring the basement of our suburban home, I found a curious item, a velvet bag containing little boxes with long black leather straps attached to them. Hauling them upstairs I asked my father if I could use the straps for a craft project.


He took the package from my hands and drew the objects out tenderly. “I have not used these since the beginning of the war,” is what I recall him to have said. He continued: “I used to keep kosher, say the Shema every night, and pray with these every morning.” I regarded this latter statement with surprise. We went to Friday night synagogue together occasionally, lit candles, had a chanukkah menorah and a seder, not much else.


“These are called tefillin,” he explained. “They contain hand-written scrolls with verses from the Torah about love. During my term of service in World War II I lost my sense of a loving God. I stopped keeping kosher, praying and using these.” He was in the Signal Corps, I later learned. He helped lay communications lines which found him given leave to the nearest town, which was the just liberated site of Auschwitz. He was gravely injured, evacuated and spent six years in the hospital, wounded for life, leg crushed, marrow infected. His continuing survival remains a modern miracle.


My father wandered off with the tefillin. We did not discuss them again.


A year later my yiddish-speaking Grandfather Benjamin came for an extended visit. Every morning he would go to the dining room and mumble for an hour, putting on a similar set of boxes and straps (his boxes are much tinier than my father’s) and a tallit prayer shawl. My mother says at first I would watch him intently and after some weeks she found me beside him everyday, with a ribbon wrapped around my arm and a towel over my shoulders.


One day “Pop Pop” turned to me for the first time in the midst of his prayer, took off his tefillin and wound them properly onto me, uttering urgently in to me incomprehensible Yiddish. He went home the next day and enter a “rest home” not long thereafter. Often I’ve wondered, given my pixie hair cut in those times, did he think I was a little boy? Or sensing his mortality and knowing I was the only family member drawn to Judaism religiously, had he made a strategic decision?


Pop Pop’s tefillin became my own. One day they even returned to the Ukraine with me, their and his place of origin. The spiral of spirit continues.


At an Ohalah Conference (Association of rabbis and cantors dedicated to cultivating Jewish spirituality) my friend and roommate, Rabbi Shefa Gold, taught me how to meditate on sacred relationships while putting on tefillin. Here is my version of that remarkable idea:


One of the most powerful of the tefillin prayers is from the prophet Hosea and the same prayer often used as a commitment statement at Jewish weddings.


V’eirastikh li l’olam
I betroth you to me forever.
[We are in this together]


V’eirastikh li b’tzedek
I will betroth you to me equitably.
[We will share the challenges]


and with impeccability
[I will stay with you to get it right]


and with lovingkindness
[I will care for you]


and with compassion
[I want to hear your pain, your joy
to strive to understand]


v’eirastikh li b’emunah
I will betroth you to me in faith
[I will be there for you]


v’yahdaht et Adonai.
So that you will know God.
[So that you will experience what is only possible through relationship.]


While putting tefillin on, one does seven windings on the arm (see omer and other parts of this site describing the sephirot).Three of the windings are on the wedding ring finger. And all together the windings on the hand actually shape the Hebrew letter “shin”, for Shadai, a name for God as Nurturer (shadaiim are breasts or hills). This tefillin practice turns out to be a powerful ritual of commitment.


With or without the actual tefillin, you might try this:


1) Do your tefillin hand windings and address each part of the verse set above to God.
2) Do the verse set again, checking each of the statements in regard to your relationship with your committed partner, friend, parent or child.
3) Do the verse set again, do it about your relationship to yourself.
4) Repeat the verse set and again address each part to your relationship with God.


What do you notice having done this?
What changes for you with each step?
If a friend, partner or relative of yours lays tefillin also, try putting on your tefillin and doing this spiritual experiment together!

5 Responses to “Tefillin Meditation”

  1. Originally posted by Yael – August 20th, 2007 at 8:18 am

    “I love reading about women who wear tallis and tefillin. (I just posted my piece that I wrote a year and a half ago.) I have to say I love wearing tefillin. I love the feel of the leather, I love the sight of the shin on my hand, I love looking at the marks on my arm long after I’ve finished davening. There is nothing so special to me in my Jewish life as davening shaharit at minyan with tallis and tefillin.

    I have given both of my sons tefillin for their Bnai Mitzvah but so far neither of them have the some connection. Sometimes I put on theirs when I daven at home and mine are at shul. I want theirs to be worn with love as well and right now that only comes from me. But, I have hopes….”


  2. I laughed out loud when I read your piece on tallit and tefillin 🙂

    I got my tefillin about 6 months ago, and have just begun using them regularly, because I couldn’t figure out just how to do it. I am homebound, so I put them on in private.

    On top of it – I am dyscalculic – which means I have trouble learning and remembering complex sequenced actions, such as f.i dancing, playing music from a sheet and apparently laying tefillin…and then of course being stressed over not doing it correctly only adds to the difficulties.

    I had to write Ask Moses and ask

    “Dear Rabbi,

    I have recently started to lay Tefillin in the Morning.

    I have a learning disability – I am dyscalculic (similar to dyslexic) which means I have trouble learning sequences, i.e remember the different parts of a complex action.

    This means that I basically cannot remember from day to day HOW to bind the Tefillin shel Yad, particularly the second part – the part that comes after I put on the Tefillin shel Rosh. I always loose track of how many times around the middle finger it’s supposed to be.

    I don’t seem to ever get it right, without having to look it up in a book or on the internet.

    Since I am homebound I cannot ask someone else to help me.

    My question is is a violation of Torah to “get it wrong” or omit (forget) the ve-eyrastikh li le-olam?

    Will my laying of Tefillin still “count” if I do it wrong or miss the wording, as long as I remember the lehani’ach tefillin and the al mitzvat tefillin?

    Thank you!”

    To which the Rabbi replied:

    “This is great that you have started to do this wonderful Mitzvah!

    Do not worry – the Mitzvah is done by just placing and tying the Tefillin – evevn if you forget the Blessings etc. you have still performed the Mitzvah.

    This holds true for practically every Mitzvah. For example if someone blew Shofar on Rosh Hashana, without reciting the blessing – they have still fulfilled the Mitzvah of Shofar blowing.”

    So let the serenity and the spiritual experience come at a later date.

    This should take care of some of the difficulties.


  3. Yael said

    I’ve seen so many different ways of wrapping tefillin I don’t even think there is a wrong way!

    I hope you’re able to relax now, too. Glad my piece made you laugh. That was kind of the whole idea, to bring it all down to earth a bit. A man who teaches pre-Bnai Mitzah kids read this piece to them before they learned about tallis and tefillin and said it was perfect for them. No fancy smancy in my world!


  4. Reb Yudel said

    Silly Old Bear,

    Congratulations on taking up tefilin. You might want to think of making up a couple pages of charts for how to do the middle section, that you can have on the table as you put the tefilin on.

    You may be a slow learner, but don’t underestimate the effect of regular practice. It may take 50 times, it may take 500, but eventually it turns into a physical memory.

    And then you’ll be totally flumoxed when someone asks you to show them how to do it.

    In this regard, tefilin are remarkably like neck ties.


  5. Thank you Reb Yudel!

    I was most fortunate in finding a video on-line that shows the difficult part – as many people with learning disabilities, I have been compensated by G-d – I learn very well by watching others doing something, so after watching that video several times, I figured it out. Now I only have to figure out how to place the SEVEN lines of the eirastikh li…but at least I can now lay Tefiilin with somewhat more confidence than before. Now I cannot imagine Morning Prayers without…*lol*


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