Dear Cantor Matt,
Our rabbi told us that our son has to get something called “tefillin” for his bar mitzvah. He basically made it sound like he ties himself up with leather straps. Um … really?
— About to Have a Fit to Be Tied
Let me see if I can detangle this particular ritual for you before you get yourself all tied up in knots. And I promise, it sounds nothing like something out of a horror movie.
In the first paragraph of the Shema, which a lot of congregations sing together during services, there are a few curious lines of text. It tells us that we should take all of the important commandments that the Jewish people got from God and “bind” them on our arms and between our eyes.
This strange and enigmatic instruction, like many others in ancient texts, needed to be interpreted by the earliest rabbis so that everyone would know what it meant.
The answer? Tefillin.
Tefillin are actually two separate pieces — one for the arm, and one worn on the head. Each piece consists of a small hollow box that is sewn shut, and the actual straps that are used to tie around your arm or over your head. The tefillin for the head is worn so that its box sits front and center at your hairline — pretty much right between your eyes just like the original commandment reads.
The box for the arm and head both contain little pieces of parchment with the words of the Shema, and some other important biblical passages, inside. So, by wearing tefillin, someone is literally binding the commandments onto himself, just like the Torah’s instructs.
Now where do you and your son come into this process, and will anyone get hurt?
Tefillin are supposed to be worn for every morning service, except for Shabbat and holidays. That’s why most people are unfamiliar with this ritual — most b’nei mitzvah services take place on Saturday when tefillin aren’t worn. Your synagogue may require, or at least encourage, all of its b’nei mitzvah families to purchase tefillin so that they will be able to wear them at future occasions. And, depending on your temple, there may be an additional bar mitzvah requirement to attend a certain number of weekday services when tefillin needs to be worn.
If you’re unfamiliar with the ritual, putting on tefillin can feel primitive and strange. Yet, it’s because of this very feeling that I think it makes a powerful spiritual statement.
We use the senses of sight and sound over and over during most services, but with tefillin, we bring in the less utilized sense of touch. We feel the straps around the arm and it helps amplify the words we’re seeing and hearing.
It’s also a wonderful moment when a boy brings in the set of tefillin that once belonged to his grandfather or great-grandfather. Sometimes that means using a 100-year-old item passed lovingly down through the generations.
I always make a point to ask my students if they think a 13-year-old kid in the early 1900’s could have ever imagined his 21st century great-grandson wearing the same exact tefillin? Or, because tefillin was once only worn by males and now can be observed by both genders — that a kid in the early 1900’s could ever fathom his 21st century great-granddaughter wearing his tefillin? If you have a daughter, the impact of that sentiment alone is enough to make you want to loosen your tie and embrace a tradition that now has new meaning.
Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt
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