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Oakland, CA

 My name is Ariel Root Wolpe. I am a Jewish musician, artist, and community organizer. I love figuring out spiritual community and transforming people's hearts through music.


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The Mitzvah of Tefillin and Shema

Valerie Wolpe

In the 21st century, after thousands of years of Jewish, adult, able-minded men adhering to an evolving halakha, the Conservative movement declared that women were equally bound by all the halakhic obligations. For the first time in history women were required by Jewish law to wrap tefillin and pray the Shema. Although I was raised in an egalitarian, religious conservative household, I was never taught how to wrap tefillin. My bat mitzvah training didn’t include teachings or instruction on tefillin, and although I received a tallit, the other physical mitzvah one fulfills during prayer, tefillin was never mentioned. Either no-one thought I would wear it, or it was still seen as a man’s obligation. 

When my Zadie, Rabbi Gerald Wolpe zikhrono livrakha, passed away in 2009, I inherited my first set of tefillin. I  treasured it as my heritage and connection to him, but didn’t know how to use it, or feel moved to. The next time I took it out was the first day of rabbinical school. That morning in shacharit, every woman around me davened with tefillin on her left arm and between her eyes. I realized I was missing out on something I didn’t understand, and I went home, learned how to wrap, and the next morning I prayed with tefillin for the first time in my life. In that moment I sorely wished that my Zadie, or my father, had taught me how to wear tefillin, instead of a youtube video. Since then I’ve craved a deeper connection to tefillin, an intimate awareness of its power and place in prayer, and of its history. I decided to explore the halakhic role of tefillin in praying the Shema, hoping it will bring me one step closer to a meaningful relationship with a beautiful custom and halakhic obligation. I will share with you a bit of what I’ve learned. 

In Hilchot Tefillin, Rambam, a 12th century rabbi who wrote the Mishna Torah, begins the chapter by teaching us:

Four passages [of the Torah], Kadesh Li and V’hayah ki y’viacha Ado’nai  in the book of Exodus (13:1-10 and 13:11-16) and Shema and V’haya im shamo’a (Deut 6:4-9 and 11:13-21) should be written separately and covered with leather. They are called tefillin. They are placed on the head and tied to the arm.”(Hilchot Tefillin 1:1)

ארבע פרשיות אלו שהן קדש לי והיה כי יביאך יי' שבספר ואלה שמות ושמע והיה אם שמוע הן שנכתבות בפני עצמן ומחפין אותן בעור ונקראין תפילין ומניחין אותן על הראש וקושרין אותן על היד.

Rambam goes on to explain that tefillin is such a sacred mitzvah that when one wears tefillin, she must be fully attentive to the mitzvah: if she is unable to concentrate, she is forbidden from donning them. Wrapping tefillin is powerful sign that Jews are bound to God in history, love and law, we must be conscious of that. Each tefillin contains the above passages in the order in which they appear in the Torah, passages which represent the everlasting covenant between God and Jewish people. Since the latter two are found in the Shema prayer, it makes sense that there is a powerful connection. Rambam tells us:

Our sages declared “whoever recites the Shema without tefillin is considered as if he is giving false testimony. (Hilchot Tefillin, Halacha 26)

אמרו חכמים כל הקורא קריאת שמע בלא תפילין כאלו מעיד עדות שקר בעצמו.

So it seems I’ve been missing out - and according to some, transgressing by praying without tefillin.  Others say it isn’t a transgression, you just haven’t fully fulfilled the mitzvah of the Shema. The Sefer Ha-Chareydim writes that when one says during the Shema, “and you shall love the Lord” she should introduce the love of God into her heart, so that she speaks the truth. (Mishna Berura, Tefillin 25:4) To me, this means that it is important that our intention motivate our actions, and also that our actions symbolize our intention. We mean what we say, and we act out what we mean. 

The Mishna Berura gives us a beautiful explanation of the state of mind one should have when donning tefillin, and the way to lift our consciousness of the Creator when fulfilling this mitzvah:

When one dons tefillin, she should have in mind that the Holy One, Blessed be God, who commanded us to place the relevant four passages which contain the uniqueness of God’s Name and the Exodus from Egypt, on the arm opposite the heart and on the head against the brain, so that we should remember the miracles and wonder which God performed for us…In view of this, one will subject to the Holy One, Blessed be God, both the soul, which is situated in the brain, and also the heart, which is the root of the desires and the thoughts. In this manner one will remember the creator… (Mishna Berura, Tefillin 25:5)

יכוין בהנחתם שצונו הקב"ה להניח ארבע פרשיות אלו שיש בהם יחוד שמו ויציאת מצרים על הזרוע כנגד הלב ועל הראש כנגד המוח כדי שנזכור נסים ונפלאות שעשה עמנו שהם מורים על יחודו ואשר לו הכח והממשלה בעליונים ובתחתונים לעשות בהם כרצונו וישתעבד להקב"ה הנשמה שהיא במוח וגם הלב שהוא עיקר התאוות והמחשבות ובזה יזכור הבורא וימעיט.

I love this metaphor - imagining the soul in my head, and my desires stemming from my heart. It is amazing to see these ideas articulated over a hundred years ago. Here, the focus is on remembering - binding ourselves with tefillin is like a physical chain, a connection with that that has happened before.  Therefore when we pray, we feel the touch of our stories and our ancestors on our skin.  In such an intellectual tradition, it is a blessing to have the kinesthetic mitzvah of binding our arms and heads to ground us into our bodies as we pray. In such an intellectual tradition, it is a blessing to have the kinesthetic mitzvah of binding our arms and heads to ground us into our bodies as we pray.

These passages of halakha on tefillin and Shema teach me a beautiful truth about the Jewish tradition: that of humility before action. As we read the Shema, the Gemara instructs us to accept the “yoke of heavenly sovereignty", to surrender ourselves to the abundant love of God and accept our dependence in this world. The tefillin is a symbol of our bond to God and to the world, as well as the spirit world, and helps us remember the miracles in our history, to let the God’s love and power enter our beings through a physical metaphor. And in return, we must take responsibility for our intention and how we act that out for ourselves and the world. 

I look forward to what else I will discover as I continue the practice of wrapping myself in the words of the Shema, and watching women around me do the same.

Happy Hannukka,