Bondage and Liberation
Putting on tefillin to modern sensibilities seems like the most primitive of Jewish practices. Many of us who have walked the streets of New York or some other major city may have been accosted by a Chabadnik asking us if we were Jewish and if so, would we put on tefillin with them, an encounter that may only have confirmed our notion of how arcane and primitive the ritual is. After all, you bind yourself with almost-raw black leather thongs to hold black boxes – tribal fetishes– in a certain configuration on your head and constricting your left arm so the arm box presses into your heart. You wind the leather fairly tightly until you are truly bound. Whaaa? The modern media is fond of the image of a Chasid wearing tallis and tefillin when they want to celebrate diversity or tacitly attest to the weirdness of ultra-Orthodox Jews.
Yet, Jewish tradition attaches the highest order of mystical significance to the mitzvah of putting on tefillin every day. We recite the commandment every time we say the shema to bind them for a sign on your head and heart, and indeed that paragraph from the Shema, quoted from the Torah, along with the three other occurrences of the command in the Torah (Exodus, Deut) are also enclosed, a sort of do-loop ritual tautology: we recite the commandment to put on the tefillin, which is nothing more than a wooden box containing the same verbiage of the commandments to put on the tefillin.
Some Jews recite a personal betrothal vow between themselves and HaShem while winding the leather strap around the middle finger of the left hand, as if the leather strap were a wedding ring:
And I will betroth you unto Me forever; and I will betroth you unto Me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in loving-kindness, and in compassion. And I will betroth you unto Me in faithfulness and you shall know The Lord. Hosea (2:21-22)
You can read a lot more about it here
…two Chabad sites that give crisp descriptions of the details and background of the mizvot of tefillin. The second one by Tzvi Freeman recounts a great anecdote:
Professor Abraham Polichenco, a pioneer of computer technology, visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe [in the 1960s] and posed to him a question:
“I know that everything that exists in the world, even something that we discover later in history, has its source somewhere in the Torah. So, where are computers in the Torah?”
Without hesitation, the Rebbe answered, “Tefillin.” The professor was perplexed.
“What’s new about a computer?” the Rebbe continued.
“You walk into a room and you see many familiar machines: a typewriter, a large tape recorder, a television set, a hole puncher, a calculator. What is new?
“But under the floor, cables connect all these machines so they work as one.”
The professor nodded enthusiastically. He hadn’t realized it before, but yes, this is all that a computer is: a synthesis of media and processing devices.
“Now look at your own self. You have a brain. It is in one world. Your heart is in another. And your hands often end up involved in something completely foreign to both of them. Three diverse machines.
“So you put on tefillin. First thing in the day, you connect your head, your heart and your hand with these leather cables—all to work as one, with one intent. And then, when you go out to meet the world, all your actions find harmony in a single coordinated purpose.
In other words, the tefillin are literally what are called in geekspeak “black boxes” – programs that function, but mysteriously or in ways too complex to represent in the scale of the current description. A block box is opaque but functional. It works, but we don’t know how. In this case, tefillin are spiritual machines, connecting the physical to the metaphysical in a manner beyond description, unleashing harmony by binding us to a contract with G-d..
As such, tefillin in all their apparent strangeness to postmodern eyes, also represent the borderline across which we submit, as in bondage, to being Jews. This is dramatized in the Talmud. In Avodah Zarah 3b there’s an extended story about the nations of the world coming to God to plead their case to be let into Heaven. It’s after the Moshiach has come. We’re watching HaShem on the throne of Judgment. God gives the nations – Rome, Persia, Babylon, Greece and the others – a patient, orderly hearing to plead their case. But their defenses are clearly lies. One after another they claim their imperial ambitions were just to help the Jews study Torah and prosper, when in fact they were all self-serving: the bridges were not to help scholars get to school, it was for collecting tolls. The marketplaces weren’t for enabling livelihoods, they were brothels.
When they protest that God is biased, He makes them a deal to show his magnanimity, or perhaps simply to impress on them their deficiency. “You had your chance to accept the Torah and refused. But even now, if you perform just one of the simplest mitzvot, I’ll let you in. ” He throws them an easy test: fulfill just one mitzvah in the Torah, the mitzvah of building and sitting in a succah. However, God doesn’t quite play fair. He literally turns up the heat during their sojourn in the slave hut, and they can’t stand it. So the pagan nations kick down their succot and trample them in anger.
God then laughs at them derisively. “You want to have the delight of the Shabbat without having made the preparations for it?” He is subtly alluding to the evening before the seventh day, Shabbat, the time when He gave the Torah to Israel. His show of poor sportsmanship, though, makes even the rabbis of the Gemarah uncomfortable. Not only does he he rigged the game, but he laughs when He wins. An anonymous rabbi protests:
But you have just said ‘The Holy One, blessed be He, does not deal imperiously with his creatures?” But another responds: “True! but with the Israelites, too, it occasionally happens.”
Yes, God’s Divine Laughter is mocking. Is it possible, though, that it is also jubilant, a cry of exultation and victory at seeing His Divine Plan unfold at the end of days? The word jubilee comes from yuval – alluding to the ram and his horn, because the shofar will sound at the end of history.
When they trample their succot, the nations quote Psalms 2:3, which is the section from Tanach that is the pretext for this aggadah here:
Let us break their [the Israelits] bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us
… an echo to the other mitzvah of tefillin. And to tie down the point, then they hear the apparently good bargain HaShem has offered them, all rush to erect “a booth on top of their roofs” which evokes an image of the tefillin rosh, the box one puts on one’s head.
Avodah Zarah 4a proceeds to make the echo of tefillin explicit:
The Holy One, blessed be He, will laugh at them, as it is said, He that sitteth in heaven laugheth. … R. Jose says, In time to come idol-worshippers will come and offer themselves as proselytes… But will such be accepted? … Well, they will be self-made proselytes, and will place phylacteries on their foreheads and on their arms, fringes in their garments, and a Mezuzah on their doorposts, but when the battle of Gog-Magog will come about they will be asked, ‘For what purpose have you come?’ and they will reply: ‘Against God and His Messiah’ … Then each of the proselytes will … break their [the Israelites’] bands asunder, and the Holy One, blessed be He, will sit and laugh, as it is said: He that sitteth in heaven laugheth. [See God Laughs for more].
The tefillin (and its twin, the permanent fixture to the doorpost, the mezuzah), along with the Shabbat are listed here as the three essential tests of the convert, and thus essential tests of faith that the nations fail. But at first glance, the promise of the self-made proselytes to break the bands of the Israelites asunder sound like a promise of liberation, a cry echoing across the centuries from all the revolutions for freedom: Spartacus, the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the Russian Revolution … That would be a good thing, right?
Yet if we open the black box of tefillin’s mystery, in all its apparent primitivism, and peer inside, or if we look at the black leather straps we are commanded to bind around our heads and arms with a question and not a judgment, we can read a countermanding voice. It is a divine warning and a counter-promise against throwing off certain bonds, a cry that has called to us throughout history. This other voice of hesitation is telling us there is redemption in certain kinds of bondage. The apparent subjugation that comes from slavishly performing a ritual might actually be a form of liberation.