My first exposure to tefillin was in a basement workshop of a holy sofer (scribe) in Jerusalem. I was in Israel for my Bar Mitzvah; a lucky Brentwood, CA boy whose parents opted not only for an L.A. celebration but also for a meaningful few weeks touring the Promised Land. The culmination of the experience was a second Bar Mitzvah service at the Western Wall, surrounded by Israeli friends, relatives and curious Chassidim. I got to lein (read Torah) at the spiritual “ground zero” of our planet and forge an unbreakable bond with Israel and the Jewish People. I remember my new tefillin straps feeling sharp and rough—it would be months before the leather would soften and become comfortable on my skin. After this trip, my father made a point of praying with me in his study in the mornings before school, allowing for quality father-son time and ensuring my tefillin would actually get some use.
Unfortunately, I fell into the pattern of most of my Conservative peers and my thirteenth year would be the last I’d have any shred of active affiliation. Yes, I partially attended Confirmation, Hebrew High and youth group activities, but Judaism as I saw it was for nerds without a social life. My priorities were fitting in at public school, skiing, biking, bodyboarding and playing in bands. I was proud to be Jewish and enjoyed family Friday Night dinners, but my tefillin were relegated to an obscure closet never to see the light of day.
By age twenty-nine, wrapping tefillin still didn’t factor into the equation. My newfound interest in writing Jewish music brought me to the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity. I yearned for inspiration to compose more Jewish tunes, so I applied and got accepted to their all-expenses-paid Arts Institute in Jerusalem. Imagine the thrill of living in the elegant conference center, Mishkenot Sha’ananim, where artists of all stripes performed, collaborated and workshopped late into the nights. I wrote another three songs that would become part of my first Jewish album and bonded tightly with the international group of composers assembled from the four corners of the earth.
On the final night of the program, one of our mentors made a point of engaging me in a one-on-one conversation. Phillip said, “Sam, I’ve noticed you are a deeply religious guy.” I laughed, waiting for the punch line. “No, I’m serious,” he insisted. He had overheard me in dialogue with the Israelis on our program and noticed I always took the reverent side of theological arguments. From his observations, I seemed to be a big proponent of God. Phillip recommended I further investigate this side of my personality. When I asked how I might do that, he suggested I choose a mitzvah and make it my own. As we pondered alternatives, he asked if I had ever wrapped tefillin. “Yes,” I replied, “I received a pair for my Bar Mitzvah.” Phillip told me to try wearing them again as a daily way to remember the connection I felt in Israel.
Upon returning to L.A., weeks went by before I made it over to my parents’ house to find the aged leather in the exact place where it had been abandoned sixteen years earlier. Eventually, I felt guilty enough to actually try them on. I had little recollection of how to tie the straps or utter the appropriate blessings but I gave it my best shot. I did know enough to say the Sh’ma and V’ahavta and thank God for the gifts in my life.
The phone rang midway through my prayers. As I reached for the receiver, it dawned on me: this is my time to pray and the moment shouldn’t be interrupted. I returned to laboring over the unfamiliar Hebrew, but I paused to listen to my answering machine as it picked up the call. It was my friend Jymm Adams from the Sports Channel of L.A. asking me to serve as in-house composer for their professional sports broadcasts. I reached my strapped-up hands to the heavens and said, “Thank you, God…let’s try this tefillin thing again tomorrow!”
Once I started setting aside a few minutes each day to pray, I slowly navigated the challenging waters of the long-winded P’sukei D’zimra (Psalms of Praise) and the central prayer, the Sh’moneh Esrei. I added paragraph by paragraph onto my personal ritual, not wanting to bog down with too long a service but hoping to increase the fluidity of my reading. Soon, I tackled the majority of the Shacharit (morning) service and learned to put on my tefillin like a champ. Eventually, I managed to focus on the meanings rather than just the pronunciations of the words and learned to close my eyes and simply dwell in God’s presence. This daily exercise of faith gave me a palpable relationship with the Creator of the Universe.
At first, I saw this binding exercise as a masochistic reenactment of the Akeidah (the binding of Yitzchak), a sublimation of my will to that of the Almighty. I surmised that tefillin are a physical expression of being “bound” in a servant/Master contract with God. While contracts and covenants both bind parties to their duties, there’s a distinction between them. In a contractual dispute, the parties sue. In a covenant, one attempts to resuscitate the ailing cohort. God is not out to sue! We are in a covenantal relationship with God, our most supportive ally. Tefillin commemorate a degree of intimacy much like the covenant of marriage: When we wind them around our fingers we utter a betrothal passage (Hoshea 2:21) often recited at marriage ceremonies. For me, tefillin represent a daily chuppah (marriage canopy) moment where I get the opportunity to renew my vows with my Partner in Creation. Smart wives nudge their husbands to wear tefillin. The daily lesson in fidelity to God and self subliminally transfers to all critical relationships.
The commandment to wear tefillin is mentioned four times in the Chumash (Five Books of Moses), two of which occur in the paragraphs of the Sh’ma. It is these four passages that are meticulously transcribed on parchment, both in the head and arm boxes, with the same care as a mezuzah or Torah scroll. In the Sh’ma, our love affair with God is described as one involving all of our heart, soul and might. So, too, do we wear the tefillin on the arm (close to the heart), on the head (the seat of the soul/intellect), and might (the realm of action, on our bicep). Also, the head straps hang unevenly down toward our genitalia. Essentially, we are employing a very physical system of checks and balances, a uniting of our spiritual and material existence, our yetzer hatov and yetzer harah (good and evil inclinations), all within the realm of love.
Another virtue of this practice is acknowledging the fast connection between the Written and Oral Law. The Chumash advises us to place a sign on our arms and between our eyes, but does not tell us where that place is, what the “sign” looks like or even to employ leather and parchment. Yet, for millennia, Jews have worn the same black boxes in more or less the same way. By wearing tefillin every day, we deepen our understanding of the interdependence of Written and Oral Law and take our place in the chain of transmission.
I recommend Aryeh Kaplan’s book aptly titled “Tefillin” for anyone curious about the role of gender and the deeper mystical aspects of this mitzvah.
I believe faithful behavior like a daily appointment with tefillin elevates one’s faith into the realm of knowledge. These days, I pack my tefillin wherever I wander. I find I am often in gardens or on the rooftops of hotels looking for a quiet, aesthetic space to strap up and say my morning prayers. I know it appears strange to onlookers, but laying tefillin makes a definitive statement: “I’m Jewish, this is what we do, thanks for respecting our differences.” I welcome the questions that ensue.
Everyone I know who wraps on a daily basis has a good tefillin story, usually about their quest never to miss a day under any circumstance. One saga occurred between gigs in Virginia. I had a few days of downtime and opted to head for the spectacular Shenandoah Mountains for some chairlift-assisted downhill mountain biking and kayaking down the famous river. I found a motel adjacent to miles of peaceful cornfields, a perfect place for my prayers in a sea of maize and emerald green stretching toward the horizon, with purple mountain majesty just beyond. On one of the mornings, while enshrouded in my tallis and tefillin in the field, I enjoyed a particularly relaxed davening session. Upon finishing, I walked back to my room, blew my handy travel shofar (since it was during the month of Elul), and then placed my prayer articles back in their monogrammed velvet bags.
As soon as I zipped up the case, there was a stern knock at the door. I found myself face to face with an imposing Virginia policeman who carefully checked me out while looking nervously around my room. “Can I help you, officer?” I’ve learned to be REALLY polite when addressing members of law enforcement. He asked, “Is there a problem?” “No sir, no problem here.” “Well,” he responded, “I think there is a problem.” “OK, what is that?” “I just got a report that people saw you bound in duct tape and then heard you screaming.” I stifled a giggle, showed him my yarmulke and told him I was Jewish. That didn’t impress him. Then I slowly opened my bags to show him the leather straps inside. “Really, officer, this is what Jews wear when they pray.” After searching my room and calling in my ID, he departed; shaking his head as he walked out the door.
Wearing tefillin on a daily basis offers a lens through which I can perceive miracles in my life. Some mornings it’s opaque. On others, I enjoy a spotless view of the inner workings of Creation. Thanks to this discipline, I have a regular rendezvous with the Almighty that is nurturing and unshakeable. Ensuring I never miss this appointment has created some truly memorable moments. I’m also reminded of the power of an encouraging word: just like my mentor on the Israel program gave me the idea of tefillin as a way to connect my trip to further spiritual growth, so, too, do I offer similar suggestions to those with open hearts. Tefillin offer access to the deepest realms of the soul: a connection of mind, body and heart, a binding of servant to Master and a daily reenactment of our sacred marriage with the Creator of the Universe.
Sam Glaser is a performer, composer, producer and author in Los Angeles. He has released 25 CDs of his music and his book The Joy of Judaism is an Amazon bestseller. He produces albums and scores for media in his Glaser Musicworks recording studio. Visit him online at www.samglaser.com.