Tag Archives: Mitzvot

Yakov’s First Tefillin

Daniel & Yakov saying the orning prayers the first day Yakov put on tefillin
Daniel & Yakov saying the morning prayers the first day Yakov put on tefillin

When Yakov, our older grandson, turns thirteen later this week, he will be considered an adult in for purposes of religious observance. Among other mitzvot, he will then be obligated to put on tefillin every day. Tefillin, the small black boxes tied to the head and arm by long black straps, are worn by religious men when saying the morning prayers. Because laying tefillin is a positive commandment performed at a specific time, women are exempt from it; their family duties take precedence.

Each of the tefillin contains the four passages from the Torah. These specific passages command Jews to bind God’s words to their arm and put them as a sign between their eyes. Each passage must be written by hand on parchment. The words must be written in order. If the sofer, the scribe, later notices he has made a mistake, he cannot go back and fix it—he must write the whole small scroll over from the beginning.

Rabbi Rav Menachem Goldberg, the sofer who made Yakov’s tefillin, explained all this to us when he came to Daniel and Aliza’s house one evening in May. Rav Menachem had already written the parchments and made the boxes to contain them. Now he was teaching us all about the tefillin as he assembled them. Daniel and Allen would do some of the work.  Because only those obligated to perform the mitzvah can participate in fabricating tefillin,  the rest of us could not help. Yakov and Moshe were too young; Aliza and I are women. Sara was disqualified on both counts.

We each received a small piece of parchment to feel and examine. One side was smooth and the other side was slightly fuzzy, like closely shaved velvet. Only the smooth side is written on.

“Tear it,” instructed Rav Menachem. Only Yakov and Moshe were successful.

The rabbi then unrolled the small piece of parchment designated for the arm tefillin. Because the four passages were written as four distinct paragraphs next to each other, this small scroll was about one inch in height and about fifteen inches long.  He then pulled out of his plastic box four smaller scrolls, folded to about one inch square. Each of these scrolls contained one of the four passages. They would go into separate compartments in the head tefillin.

Every part of the tefillin comes from an animal source. What does the sofer write with? Sara eagerly volunteered the answer. “A feather!”

Rav Menachem pulled a long feather from his tool box. Its tip had been sharpened to a point. He also pulled out a slender piece of wood, whose stained black point had been similarly sharpened. “Moses,” he explained, “used a stick of wood to write the first tefillin. Today we also have ceramic pens to write with. The important thing is the tip—it can’t come to a point like a pen. It has to be wide. The width of the line changes, depending on its direction.”

He demonstrated by writing a few letters with the quill. Without changing his grip or twisting his arm, the wide point enabled him to write letters whose vertical lines were thinner than their horizontal lines. He handed the quill to Yakov to write with. As Yakov slowly wrote, we saw that writing with a quill pen is a skill that needs to be practiced to be done well.

Tefillin shel rosh (for the head) showing the slots for the four parchments.
Tefillin shel rosh (for the head) showing the slots for the four parchments.

Rav Menachem then placed the two black tefillin boxes on the table, open so we could see the single chamber in the arm tefillin and the small four slots in the head tefillin which would hold the parchments.

Next he pulled out two large misshapen off white pieces of what looked like plastic. “This  is what the boxes are made from. Anybody know what it is?” he asked, rapping one of them on the table. It made a sound like something hitting wood.

“Wood?” I volunteered.

He shook his head. “No, every part of the tefillin comes from an animal source.”

“So there’s no such thing as vegetarian tefillin?” Aliza asked.

“No,” said Rav Menachem. He looked around the table. We all were stumped. “It’s skin, just like the parchment. But it comes from a different place on the animal. Parchment is made from thin skin. This is from the back of the neck or the cheek.” He rubbed the back of his neck up onto his skull as he spoke. “Each box is made from one piece of the leather, carefully folded.”

Now it was time to assemble the tefillin. The rabbi held the head box open so Daniel could insert the small folded parchments in their designated slots. They were a tight fit and didn’t slide in easily, but Daniel managed the job. Despite going in a bigger hole, the parchment for the arm also required a firm touch to insert.

Now it was time to sew the boxes closed. Rav Menachem held up a card around which was wrapped thin beige cord. “And this is…?” he asked.

Allen said “Gid” in Hebrew at the same time as I said “Tendon.” We were both right.

Rav Menachem picked up the head box and held the bottom and top together with a vise. He threaded a needle with the tendon and handed it to Daniel to sew. The holes in the edges of the box were predrilled, but nonetheless it was difficult to pull the needle through. Daniel had to use a small needle-nosed pliers to do the job.

“Perhaps Saba would like to help sew the tefillin?” Rav Menachem asked. 

Sewing the tefillin box
Allen sewing the tefillin box

Allen nodded, took off his glasses to see the small holes better, and finished sewing the last side of the box.

But the job wasn’t done yet. To be kosher, the box must be closed completely, which meant sewing the edges again. This time the needle went through each hole in the opposite direction so that there was an unbroken line of stitches around the entire perimeter. The second time around was more difficult because the holes already had some tendon in them. Daniel and Allen needed to use the pliers to grip the needle on almost every stitch.

The process was repeated with the box for the arm.

The last step in making tefillin is attaching the straps that bind them to the arm and the head. The arm straps are easy. The wearer simply wraps them as tightly as he needs every day.

The strap for the head has to be measured to fit the wearer’s head. After threading the strap through the slot in the head tefillin, Rav Menachem placed it in the correct spot on Yakov’s head. He then carefully measured the strap and marked it. Placing it on the table, he explained the knot as he tied it. The knot has mystical significance, because, looked at in the right way, it shows the letters of the word “Shad-dai,” one of the names of God. When Moses begged to see God’s face on Mount Sinai, God replied that no one could see His face and live. But He granted Moses the sight of His back. This knot was what Moses saw when God passed by him.

What could be done at the house was completed. Rav Menachem carefully put Yakov’s tefillin in a plastic box, which he packed in his tool box along with all his supplies. He would take it all back to his workshop in northern Shomron to do the finishing work: sealing the edges, polishing the straps, checking that everything is perfect.    

Two weeks ago Yakov wore his tefillin for the first time. By the time he is required to put them on daily, he will be able to put them on quickly and, more important, correctly.

The first time Yakov put on tefillin, his teacher checks to make sure he has done so correctly
The first time Yakov put on tefillin, his teacher checked to make sure he did so correctly. Like many religious men, Yakov will not wear a large tallit (prayer shawl) until after he marries.

These tefillin were constructed as described in the Gemara. Of course, the Gemara’s description, having been edited in 600 CE, may not have been exactly correct in all its details. When two thousand year-oldtefillin were found at Qumran, the Essene settlement near the Dead Sea, they attracted much interest and excitement. If the find was authenticated, they  were the oldest ever tefillin found. Finally, the scholars thought, we will learn how tefillin are really supposed to be made. Imagine their surprise when, after thorough examination, the tefillin were found to be almost exactly the same way as tefillin have been constructed for centuries.

Just like the ones Yakov has recently started to put on to say the morning prayers.

Rosh HaShanah: Counting Guests

Symbolic foods for Rosh HaShanah Photo by Susie Lubell via Flickr Creative Commons
Symbolic foods for Rosh HaShanah: apples, honey, carrots, beets, pomegranate, leeks, dates, head (usually fish or sheep head, here head of cabbage) Photo by Susie Lubell via Flickr Creative Commons

I once read about a tribe somewhere on an island in the Pacific, or maybe it was in Africa, that had such a primitive culture that they counted “one, two, many.” I felt like I had suddenly joined them on Rosh HaShanah this year.

As on almost every Shabbat that we are home, we invite some of the students at Machon Meir to have a meal with us. Sometimes, Allen (known to them by his Hebrew name Baruch) says to someone in his Gemara class, “If you don’t have other plans, would you like to join us for dinner Erev Shabbat?”

Most weeks the invitations are second hand. Baruch tells the madrich  (dorm counselor) that we have room for two or four guests, and the madrich sends us students who have signed that week’s “Hospitality Needed” list.

Almost every week we also end up with last minute guests. Somebody forgot to sign the list, or suddenly couldn’t face a noisy dinner with a hundred other students, eating institutional food and singing Shabbat songs through the meal. Sometimes a young man, still unfamiliar with our Jerusalem neighborhood, forgets where his host for the evening lives. Or perhaps he was supposed to meet his host at evening services, and the host didn’t show.  

Whatever.

Baruch returns from synagogue bringing an unexpected guest or two.

I’ve learned to cope with it. I cook generously for Shabbat. We always have what to feed hungry students. We have plenty of chairs—we have a stack of plastic chairs we bought to use outside in the Succah. The problem can be finding room at the table. Which brings me back to Rosh HaShanah.

I thought I knew how many guests I was feeding at each meal. I had made menus and cooked, complaining about the lack of a big freezer as I did so. Back in the US, I cooked during the summer for the holidays. By the end of August, the freezer was filled with gallons of chicken soup and vegetable soup, lasagne and chicken casseroles, apple and peach pies, and pumpkin, chocolate chip, and chocolate cakes. Maybe I’d made some round challahs, studded with raisins, for the holidays and frozen them as well.

But my Israeli top-of-the-refrigerator freezer won’t hold all that. So I started cooking the week before Rosh HaShanah. After squeezing the chocolate chip cakes in, I could barely close the freezer door. To accommodate liters of chicken soup, I moved two chickens and the brisket into the refrigerator, where they could defrost slowly before being cooked. The lasagne would stay in the refrigerator from Thursday until Tuesday. Friday morning and Sunday then became marathon days of cooking and cleaning.

By candle lighting time, I was ready for Rosh Hashanah. I walked to our son’s house for dinner. I felt secure in the knowledge that all I would have to do on Monday and Tuesday would be to warm up the main courses and chop some parsley to add to a salad.

And that’s where it all began to go crazy. I had planned a dairy meal for lunch on the second day of the festival. Four meat meals in three days is too heavy for me, so I prefer to have at least one dairy meal. The second day Daniel and Aliza were coming for lunch, and I knew they like lasagna. Except, as Aliza reminded me, two of the children don’t eat lasagna and would probably refuse to even taste the corn pudding. Rather than serve them plain pasta for the festive meal, I mentally changed the menu to pot roast and chicken. There were sure to be enough of both left over from the previous two meals

Baruch set the table for eight people for lunch before he left for synagogue Monday morning. The pot roast had cooked on the plata (warming tray) all night; when I got home I put the cooked potatoes and salmon on the plata to warm up.

Since none of our guests from the Yeshiva had ever been here before, Baruch stopped there before coming home. Although most of the students were new this year, they were not strangers. I had met them all during the English department’s Shabbaton in Tekoa, just two days earlier. One of the expected young men was a no-show, so I quickly removed one place setting from the table.

Monday evening everyone arrived at once. It seemed like a large crowd. By the time Baruch came in, at the end of the line, I didn’t need him to tell me we had three extra guests. That made eleven people to fit around our table, a table made to seat eight people comfortably when the extra leaf is in place, and ten if they don’t mind a little crowding.

 While Baruch, with the help of several guests, added three place settings and chairs to the table, the sister of one of the students came into the kitchen to help me. She is spending this year working as an intern at a high-tech company in Tel Aviv, and had stayed overnight with us during the summer. That weekend, as now, she helped with last minute preparations for the meal. While she washed three wine glasses, I put six or seven chicken schnitzels on the plata,  and got the salads out of the refrigerator.

I moved the symbolic foods for the holiday to the table: apples, to dip in honey so we have a sweet year and pomegranate, so our merits increase to the number of seeds in a pomegranate. Some of the foods are eaten because their Hebrew or Yiddish name lends itself to a fortuitous play on words. Thus, we also eat carrots and black-eyed peas to increase our merits, beets so our enemies will be removed, dates so that our enemies will come to their ends, and pumpkin or another gourd so that decrees against us will be torn up.

Everybody had enough to eat. If Rosh HaShanah is a sign for the rest of the year, this was going to be a year of good food and stimulating conversations with good friends.

Lunch the second day was Daniel, Aliza, and their four children. Two friends our age also came from the Yeshiva, one of whom was expected. But we had enough leftover pot roast and roast chicken, plus another package of store-bought chicken schnitzel for the main courses, enough salads, and enough cake and apple pie for dessert to make sure no one went away hungry.

Later I reflected on  the holiday. We served meals to 22 guests, plus Baruch and me at each meal. Five states and eight different countries–Switzerland, Poland, Germany, India, Namibia, South Africa, the US, and Israel (native born)– were represented at the table. We all spoke English, with an occasional smattering of Hebrew thrown in for good measure.

Thank G-d for the stores that sell disposable dishes and flatware. If not for them, I’d have spent half the holiday washing dishes and silver. As it was, I had to wash all our silver kiddush cups, the wine glasses, and every serving spoon, bowl, and plaltter that we own, twice. 

Hachnasat orchim, hospitality to guests, is considered an important mitzvah. In the morning prayers every day, we include this in the list of mitzvot whose “fruits a person enjoys in this world but whose principal remains intact for him in the World to Come.” We have been in the habit of inviting friends, Yeshiva students, and Birthright participants to fulfill the mitzva. And it’s always fun to see what we have in common with people from all over the world, and to learn how people manage in places where there are few Jews.

Of course, I’m not the only one who cooks for an unknown number of people on Shabbat and holidays. I was discussing the situation last week with Ruth, who lives in the Old City. Her late husband frequently brought tourists who were at the Kotel home for Shabbat dinner, so she was always prepared for extra guests. She said, “But of course, you always know in advance the number of people who will be at your table—many!”

So I’m not the only woman in Jerusalem who counts, ”one, two, many!”