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Parshas Bo (5778)

Tefillin: Men in Black

Those funny-looking black boxes and straps – they’re called “phylacteries” in English, or something like that - that each of us (men) received on the day we "became a man" …. remember them?

I remember the first time I put the Tefillin on my arm and head and wrapped the leather straps seven times around my hand and fingers. It felt so fresh and exciting!

The strange thing is, though, that I had never bothered to ask anyone, or to study on my own, why Jewish men even wear the Tefillin! I just took it for granted that when you become a bar-mitzvah, certain things just happen - you get lots of money from relatives you never knew you had, plus you get kissed and pinched on the cheek by all your great aunts and all at the same time, and you also get those funky Tefillin to wear just like your Dad got when he was "bar-mitzvahed" many years before. But just exactly why we wear Tefillin …. I was totally clueless.

Well, one can imagine the reaction of our ancestors in Egypt when they were commanded by G-d about the Tefillin the very first time!

In this week's Torah portion (see Exodus 13:9), Moses approaches the people and instructs them to write some holy words on parchment and insert them into two black boxes and to attach leather straps to them and to wear these boxes on their heads and arms. The Jews probably said, "Moses, you want us to do what?"

I am sure that the original "men in black", who were what we might today call the "generation ex-odusers", asked Moses plenty of questions about the meaning of this seemingly strange ritual, and they didn't just take it for granted like so many of us bar-mitzvah boys have done in subsequent generations.

And that's the way it should be - we should try to understand the depth of this and many other beautiful commandments, rituals and customs that have been handed down to us throughout the ages. But, unfortunately, many of us have let those lonely Tefillin languish in a basement closet under old issues of MAD Magazine like some ancient relic of a distant past.

We owe it to those very first Jews way back in the Egyptian desert, and to our own grandfathers and great-grandfathers who always made sure to put on Tefillin once a day, to at least explore for ourselves the meaning and symbolism of this strange and fascinating commandment. Here are some easy ways to do that …

For starters, you can click on for an incredibly user-friendly article all about the mitzvah of Tefillin, written by Rabbi Shraga Simmons of [The article also includes practical, how-to instruction videos and much, much more!]

I also recommend a wonderful, short, and very readable book on the subject called Tefillin (how original!) written by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, and available on Amazon or at your local Jewish bookstore (sold as a separate book or as part of The Aryeh Kaplan Anthology Vol. II).

Trust me … after reading this book, you are guaranteed to have a much greater understanding and appreciation of the depth of this fascinating ritual! [And even women who traditionally don’t wear Tefillin will learn so much from this amazing book – including the answer to the question why women don’t wear Tefillin!]

Even better, if you haven’t put on Tefillin for a very long time, then I recommend that you stop by your nearest synagogue on a Sunday morning (or any other morning of the week except Saturday) and try on a pair for size.

Hey, you might look good in leather (-;

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