November 20, 2018

Wearing Tefillin Is Serious Business

“There is nothing more admirable in this world than the desire to get close to God. It is an innate part of every soul to want to return to the spiritual bliss found in the Divine Presence. Luckily, that Presence also wants to draw us close.

That’s why Hashem bestowed on humanity both the Written and Oral Torah, a guide for everyone to seize life, both in this world and eternally.

As described in Ari Feldman’s recent article in the Forward, Laying Tefillin Isn’t Just For Straight Men Anymore, it is clear to me that the individuals behind “All Genders Wrap” have this very desire. They want to show the world the beauty of one of the 613 mitzvot of the Torah. For that, they deserve praise.

However, one must also recognize the power of that desire. In particular how, if used incorrectly, can send the observer even further from God.

Look at tefillin in particular. Even by Jewish men, tefillin is only worn during the day, and only during weekdays. That means we don’t “wrap” on Shabbat, or on Yom Tov, and many have the custom not to wear them during the intermediate days of Pesach and Sukkot.

Tefillin is a positive, time-bound mitzvah. With various accompanying explanations, the Jewish sages teach us that women are patur (exempt) but permitted to perform most of the mitzvot in this category. Many women eagerly take the lulav and etrog on Sukkot or hear the shofar blown on Rosh Hashanah. These actions, although only required for men, can certainly move everyone towards Hashem when taken on optionally.

Tefillin is not like those mitzvot.

Unlike the shofar or the lulav, tefillin is a mitzvah of the body, and its holiness requires extreme caution. The body must be kept clean, the mind kept pure, and natural functions like passing gas are strictly prohibited while wearing tefillin. The wearer is also not allowed to forget that they are on. Although all men will eventually become obligated, the Gemara teaches us that boys should not even begin to practice until they can be trusted to maintain this level of caution.

Most individuals today are not capable of fulfilling the mitzvah to the highest degree. In the times of the Gemara, tefillin was worn all day. Since then, the Gedolei Torah observed how far we have come from Mount Sinai. They have ruled that at best, even those obligated can only wear tefillin during the morning prayer service.”

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