Tefillin: the ties that bind

Posted on August 12, 2005

I laid tefillin for the first time on Sunday. It’s taken me this long to find the words to write about it.

Now, before anyone starts with the “Women can’t lay tefillin!” argument, others have addressed this issue far better than I, most notably Danya in her blog about time-bound mitzvot. I’ve talked to my rabbi about this, and he has remained steadfast that since I have assumed the obligation of time-bound mitzvot, I should begin to lay tefillin as soon as I resolved my other issues around it.

I’m not going to bore you with all my other issues around it. They were obstacles and they were overcome. My current obstacles have more to do with finding time to lay tefillin and daven in the morning while also getting my children ready to start the day, getting everyone stuffed into our only car, and taking my husband to work. The easy answer is simply to get up earlier. But I have a love-hate relationship with morning. I feel better when I get up earlier, but I dread it when I’m going to sleep the night before.

I guess I’m a morning person masquerading as a night owl.

Only two weeks ago, I was writing a scene in my upcoming novel about my protagonist, David, laying tefillin. I had to imagine what it would be like in order to describe it. How would he feel? What would he think? Would it be just a habit or would it be meaningful to him, even after years of daily practice?

Fortunately, my characters – and David in particular – have a way of taking over and writing themselves, and by the time I was finished with the scene, I had a good idea of how he felt. But how would I feel?

I was delighted to discover that in this case, life imitated art.

Tefillin always seemed a little strange to me. Like practicing some sort of ancient bondage ritual with religious overtones. But then I realized that we do this sort of physical act to represent something greater all the time. My wedding ring binds me to my husband, as his does to me. A piece of jewelry or some item of clothing might be worn to help us remember a person, time, or event.

In this way, I was able to look at laying tefillin as a way of binding myself to G-d. Physically. Emotionally. Spiritually. Intentionally. There was a timelessness about it. The physical feeling forced me to focus my thoughts both inward and outward at the same time, as if my entire being traveled the length of the bond between my body and my Creator.

And the tingling! I thought at first it was an interesting reaction to all of my lofty ponderings, but as it gradually turned to numbness, it became clear that I was simply losing feeling in my fingers because I’d wrapped the strap around my arm too tight!

I know some women who have laid tefillin once and were glad they did, but didn’t care to repeat the experience. I will not be counting myself among these women. The experience I had laying tefillin was intriguing and powerful. I didn’t break down and have a spiritual experience the way I did when I hung a mezuzah on my first apartment doorpost. But it was meaningful on a far deeper level.

Will I lay tefillin again? Absolutely. As soon as I can convince myself that I really am a morning person.


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