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I’m a Fundamentalist: Tefillin – Mishpatim 5779

As part of an ongoing, informal series, I am speaking occasionally on the fundamentals of Jewish life. While many of us are well-versed in the fundamentals, and far above that, I think it is important to refresh our memories from time to time about the things we think are the most essential. So you might forgive me if the following sounds preachy, but hey, I’m a preacher!

So far in the series, we have covered Shabbat and essential go-to (refrigerator-magnet) texts. Today we are going to cover what is, if we’re being honest here, perhaps one of the more ridiculous and perhaps misunderstood mitzvot of Jewish life: the mitzvah of tefillin.

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Now of course this is extraordinarily timely, because, well, it is our obligation to put on tefillin six mornings a week. So, for example, tomorrow. And not only that, but it so happens that Sunday, February 3 was the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs World Wide Wrap, which we celebrated during JJEP at Rodef Shalom with the teaching and application of tefillin.

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So first some hard truths: putting on tefillin is a little strange, and somewhat alien to those who have never done it.

And yet, I believe that this mitzvah is truly essential. In fact, I think it might be up there with some of the most important physical mitzvot: building a sukkah; removing all the hametz from your home before Pesah, for example.

Those mitzvot that require a certain amount of physical work, of doing something that requires more bodily investment than the recitation of prayers or eating certain foods, are, in my mind, the ones that bring it all home in Jewish life. You have to go out of your way to do these mitzvot. It’s kind of like dipping your toe in the water versus immersing your whole body. Putting on a tallit is easy. Refraining from eating shrimp is pretty easy. Even many Shabbat observances can be easy. But tefillin is hard. It requires familiarity with an arcane ritual and obscure scriptural readings and then there’s that whole binding-in-leather-straps thing, which for many seems a wee bit uncomfortable. Plus, I know this a deal-breaker for many: it messes up your hair.

As you may know, I am at morning services here at Beth Shalom every day except Wednesday. Most of the men who join our services put on tefillin, and also two women who join us regularly. Often, there are people who are attending services who are not “regulars” – generally people who are observing yahrtzeit (annual remembrance date of a loved one’s death). I offer tefillin to men, and to women if they are already wearing a tallit, thus signaling that they have taken on at least some of the mitzvot traditionally ascribed to men.

Nine times out of ten, that person politely declines the tefillin, and I don’t push.

Dr. Jonathan Sarna, in his magnificent history entitled American Judaism, documents how during the period of heavy immigration from Eastern Europe in the early 20th century, there were reports of men who burned their tefillin on the boat. They knew that America was a free country, where they would no longer be bound by the archaic folkways of the shtetl. The release from the ancient leather straps suggested a kind of release from ol malkhut shamayim, the yoke of the kingdom of heaven, i.e. the mitzvot.

We’re free here to put on tefillin, or not. And most of us do not. But that is nothing new; the medieval rabbinic commentator Rabbi Shelomoh ibn Aderet, aka “the Rashba,” went on a “tefillin tour” of France and Spain in the 13th century to promote the mitzvah.

Marshall Sklare, the Brandeis sociologist who chronicled American Jewry in the middle of the 20th century, suggested that American Jews are most likely to maintain Jewish rituals that:

  1. May be redefined in modern terms
  2. Do not demand social isolation (i.e. requirements that separate the Jew from the wider society)
  3. Offer a Jewish alternative to a non-Jewish holiday (e.g. Easter, Christmas)
  4. Center on the child
  5. Are infrequent (e.g. annual, rather than weekly or daily)

Mostly we think of Sklare when we think of holidays: Pesah and Hanukkah are still widely practiced; Shavuot and Tish’ah Be’Av less so.

And the mitzvah of tefillin does not make the list, because it’s every day and not child-centered. And it messes up your hair.

But tefillin scores high, I think, on the ability to redefine for today.

What meaning can we derive from tefillin? How can this curious ritual, become meaningful enough that it can become fashionable again?

So, before I answer that, I have to first give you the basics of tefillin.

  1. Where does the mitzvah come from? The four passages are as follows:
    1. Shema, first paragraph: Devarim / Deuteronomy 6:4-9, and particularly 6:8. Page 1026 in Humash Etz Hayim

      וּקְשַׁרְתָּ֥ם לְא֖וֹת עַל־יָדֶ֑ךָ וְהָי֥וּ לְטֹטָפֹ֖ת בֵּ֥ין עֵינֶֽיךָ׃
      Ukshartam le-ot al yadekha, vehayu letotafot bein einekha.
      Bind them as a sign upon your arm, and wear them as a symbol between your eyes.

    2. Shema, second paragraph: Devarim 11:13-21, and particularly 11:18. Page 1053.
    3. Ex. 13:1-10, particularly 13:9. Page 392.
    4. Ex. 13:11-…, particularly 13:16. Page 393.
  2. How do we do it? We take those words literally. The boxes of tefillin contain those four passages, written on parchment. And, just to be sure, there are two sets of them: in the tefillin shel rosh, the head box, there are four individual scrolls inserted into four individual chambers, and in the tefillin shel yad, they are all written out on a single scroll. This is decidedly old-school: we are not binding anything metaphorically; we are doing it literally.
  3. What does the word, tefillin, an Aramaic-ish term, actually mean? It is, in fact, a plural form of tefillah, our general word for prayer. So, even as we are reciting prayers with our lips in the morning, we are also binding prayers to our body to complete the experience, spiritual and physical.
  4. What are the customary symbols associated with tefillin?
    1. The Hebrew letters shin on either side of the shel rosh: one representing the three avot / patriarchs, one with four points standing for the four imahot / matriarchs.
    2. The wraps around the forearm: seven, that is, three plus four, representing once again the imahot and avot. Also, seven is, of course, the number of days until Shabbat. Also, the number of words in the verse (Ps. 145:16) Poteah et yadekha, umasbia lekhol hai ratzon – You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.
    3. The Almighty: Shaddai, shin-daled-yod on the hand. Same as on a mezuzah scroll, by the way.

And I would love to stand before you and say, “There is magic here! These boxes are special communication devices which connect us directly to God! They are amulets that ward off evil spirits! They keep you healthy!” But I can’t do that.

(They might actually protect you in the event of a heart attack through remote ischemic preconditioning, but although there was one such medical study that indicated this, I am sure that there will soon be another one that will contradict it.)

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Really, there is no magic here; only one of the most powerful, physical symbols that we have as Jews. We so understand the richness and value of our textual heritage that we display them proudly on our arms and our foreheads every day.

This is the sign of our love for our tradition, and a sign of God’s love for us.

What do we say when we wrap the strap around our middle finger? Hosea 2:21-22:

וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי לְעוֹלָם

וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בְּצֶדֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּט, וּבְחֶסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים

וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בֶּאֱמוּנָה; וְיָדַעַתְּ, אֶת-ה

I will betroth you to Me forever;

I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and justice, in loving-kindness and mercy;

I will betroth you to Me in faith, and you shall know God.

And not only do they declare our betrothal to God, but they also suggest that, every morning, we connect our arms with our heads and hearts, as a reminder that the works of my hands should reflect my ongoing struggle to ensure that my deeds are in line with my intellect and the good intentions of my soul. This binding is, you might say, a kind of suggestive intent for our actions for the rest of the day, a pre-emptive reminder of the mitzvot, of making the right choices in our interpersonal relationships.

But in case that is not enough, here is something else that might help rekindle our interest in tefillin:

In 2014, the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards (CJLS) passed a teshuvah (halakhic responsum, that is, a rabbinic opinion that answers a particular question in Jewish law), written by Rabbi Pamela Barmash, that concluded that women may be considered obligated to all mitzvot. Her conclusion, approved by the committee and therefore a halakhic option available to Conservative communities, is as follows:

The historical circumstances in which women were exempted from time-bound positive mitzvot are no longer operative, and the Conservative movement has for almost a century moved toward greater and greater inclusion of women in mitzvot. In Jewish thought and practice, the highest rank and esteem is for those who are required to fulfill mitzvot. We rule therefore that women and men are equally obligated to observe the mitzvot. We call upon Conservative synagogues, schools, and camps to educate men and women in equal observance of mitzvot and to expect and require their equal observance of mitzvot.

So here’s the kicker: in an ultimate statement of redefinition, we are all obligated to the wearing of tefillin. One of the most traditionally masculine mitzvot can be understood as applying to all of us. And we all should strive to take that holy opportunity six mornings a week.

I am ready and available to teach anybody who wants to learn. Come see me!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 2/2/2019.)

 

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I’m a Fundamentalist: Shabbat – Bereshit 5779

Usually, when I return to the beginning of the Torah, my thoughts turn to the aspects of Creation that concern our relationship with and responsibility to it. That is, our obligation “le’ovdah ulshomerah,” “to till it and to tend it,” (Gen. 2:15).

But one of the best things about Parashat Bereshit (the first weekly reading in the Torah) is that there is just so much to talk about! So something else occurred to me this week.

Rashi asks the essential question up front about Bereshit: Why start here? Why didn’t the Torah begin with the lawgiving parts of Shemot / Exodus, specifically 12:2:

הַחֹ֧דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֛ה לָכֶ֖ם רֹ֣אשׁ חֳדָשִׁ֑ים רִאשׁ֥וֹן הוּא֙ לָכֶ֔ם לְחָדְשֵׁ֖י הַשָּׁנָֽה׃

This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.

(That’s Parashat Bo – not quite the end of the Exodus narrative, but more or less the first passage of the Torah which is a series of laws.)

And Rashi answers himself by saying that the reason the Torah starts with Bereshit is that it is of utmost importance for all of us to know that God created the world.* That is a fundamental aspect of our existence, and what amounts to a postulate for all that follows. I must say that, although Rashi and I would most likely disagree on the precise meaning of “God created the world,” or for that matter, the meaning of the word “God,” Rashi is definitely onto something here. The premise that God’s metaphorical hand is active in the world, in its creation and ongoing functioning, is clearly a cornerstone of Jewish tradition, no matter how we understand this parashah.

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As you are surely aware by now, we are in the early stages of a process that will ultimately yield a new strategic plan, and there are plenty of good reasons for why now is the time for Congregation Beth Shalom to do so. I was able this week to see some of the data collected so far by the congregational survey that many of you filled out. We have now received about 220 of them, which is wonderful. One of the things that is instantly clear from some of the data is that the principles of Conservative Judaism are important to a majority of the respondents, and that many believe that a focal point for our activities should be teaching those principles and how to fulfill them.

Now, as you can imagine, this is very good news to me, because that is what I do all day long, and most evenings as well. And, as you know, there is a lot of stuff to teach in Judaism. The question always comes down to this: In the limited time that we all have, what are the essential things upon which we should focus?

I have to concede that I am a fundamentalist. No, not like what you’re thinking of when you hear that word: I am clearly not a literalist, not an extremist, not an ultra-nationalist, not one who shuns modernity. Rather I am a fundamentalist in that I believe that what we need to focus on, in this world of infinite choice and limited time, are the fundamental aspects of Judaism. So what are the fundamentals? In my humble opinion, they are these:

  • Shabbat / Sabbath
  • Kashrut / Holy eating
  • Talmud Torah / Learning the words of our tradition and making them come alive today
  • Ritual / Connecting our actions and thoughts and feelings with our tradition
  • Community

(No promises, but I am going to try to make this a series.)

Let’s talk about Shabbat. This is first on the list for so many reasons, not the least of which is that it is “created” in Parashat Bereshit. When we read the beginning of the Torah on Simhat Torah Tuesday morning, right after we finished the end of Devarim / Deuteronomy, the first aliyah ended with the following (and, by the way, the custom is for the whole congregation to recite this first, because it’s so essential):

וַיְכֻלּ֛וּ הַשָּׁמַ֥יִם וְהָאָ֖רֶץ וְכָל־צְבָאָֽם׃

The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array.

וַיְכַ֤ל אֱ-לֹהִים֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י מְלַאכְתּ֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֣ר עָשָׂ֑ה וַיִּשְׁבֹּת֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּ֖וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָשָֽׂה׃

On the seventh day God finished the work that God had been doing, and God ceased on the seventh day from all the work that God had done.

וַיְבָ֤רֶךְ אֱ-לֹהִים֙ אֶת־י֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י וַיְקַדֵּ֖שׁ אֹת֑וֹ כִּ֣י ב֤וֹ שָׁבַת֙ מִכָּל־מְלַאכְתּ֔וֹ אֲשֶׁר־בָּרָ֥א אֱ-לֹהִ֖ים לַעֲשֽׂוֹת׃

And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that God had done. (Gen. 2:1-3)

We also chant this, of course, twice every Friday evening: once in the synagogue service and once at home right before reciting qiddush. You might read from this that the framers of our tradition thought it to be fairly important.

And they were right. Shabbat is not just important: it’s essential. It’s the keystone of Jewish life.

And we need Shabbat more than ever. One of the biggest impediments to greater involvement in synagogue activities cited in the responses to the survey was time. We don’t have enough time.

And you know how unhealthy that is. I don’t need to quote you any academic studies or articles to tell you that we are all overworked, under-slept, overtired; that we don’t spend enough time with our family; that we don’t have time to eat properly; that we feel overwhelmed by the constant noise, the constant feeling of go-go-go; that we are constantly assaulted with paid messages vying for our attention: buy this, vote for that one, eat here, and on and on and on.

I am as busy as anybody here who is busy. My family is as crazed as yours, with pickups and dropoffs and instrument lessons and dance lessons and Back to School Night and everything else. And my family and I all manage to shut down for Shabbat. No appointments. No shopping. No Facebook. No television. And you know what? It’s fantastic.

(BTW, from time to time you see people who take “vacations” from social media. You can absolutely do that every 7th day. I highly recommend it.)

Our ancestors knew this, and even though they didn’t have Facebook or TV or cars or smartphones, they understood the value of shutting down every seventh day.

And what is the Shabbat dinner table, if not the altar on which we build family and community?

shabbat dinner

One of the most dismal numbers in the Federation’s community study, which came out at the beginning of 2018, was the number of Conservative-identified Jews who had been to a Shabbat meal in the past year. Do you want to guess what that number was?

It was 44%. That to me is shockingly low. But it is also an opportunity – an opportunity to teach the fundamentalist value of Shabbat: of dining together with friends and family, of shutting down and reconnecting in real time, of learning a little something of Jewish tradition, of holy eating, of expressing gratitude for what we have.

So in this regard, I have some wonderful news: We can do something about that. We are in fact doing something about that figure. And by we, I mean, all of us.

I would make a reasonable guess that most of us in this room are in that 44%. Part of the reason that you are here this morning is that you “get” Shabbat. You understand the value that it brings to you and your family. You understand how it shapes your week, how it gives you some time to unwind, to do something heady and holy and healthy.

You know that, to quote Ahad Ha-Am, “More than the Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews. You know that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his infinitely ethereal prose, called Shabbat a “palace in time” and you can feel the power in his observation that (The Sabbath, p. 93):

On the Sabbath it is given us to share in the holiness that is in the heart of time. Even when the soul is seared, even when no prayer can come out of our tightened throats, the clean, silent rest of the Sabbath leads us to a realm of endless peace, or to the beginning of an awareness of what eternity means. There are few ideas in the world of thought which contain so much spiritual power as the idea of the Sabbath.

You know that God’s having rested on the seventh day is as meaningful as God’s having created the world in the first six.

And that’s why you have to help us out in creating a Shabbat meal program.

A few brave volunteers have planned a pilot program for members of Beth Shalom inviting others into their homes for a Shabbat dinner on October 19th. The ultimate goal, and it might take a couple of years for us to do this, is to personally invite all of the other members of this congregation into our homes.

This is the realization of a fantastically fundamentalist move. If done properly, it will hit all five of the fundamentalist buttons: Shabbat, kashrut, Talmud Torah, ritual, and community.

But we need you to make it happen. We need you to be a part of it, you who “get” Shabbat. Here’s the link:

bethshalompgh.org/shabbatdinners/

Be a fundamentalist with me! Shabbat shalom!

 

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 10/8/2018.)

 
* What Rashi says is a little more complicated: “If the nations of the world should say to Israel, ‘You are thieves! You have conquered the land belonging to the seven nations of Canaan,’ they can reply, ‘The whole world belongs to the Holy One. He created it and gave it to whomever He wanted to. He first willed to give it to them, and then He willed to take it from them and give it to us.’” (Translation from The Commentators’ Bible by Michael Carasik.)

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