Dr. Gerhard Falk

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Enjoy Yourself & Meet Your Jewish Brethren - Every Morning


    If you have the time to get there before going to work in the morning, or if you are retired or on vacation, then you can go to “shul” at 7 a.m. or at 7:30a.m. in any orthodox or Torah-true Beth Hamigdosh or in one of our Conservative synagogues. If you do you will see most of the men put on two small square cases of leather to which long leather thongs are attached. One of these cases is worn on the forehead and the other on the upper left arm The arm-thongs are wrapped around the arm and around the fingers of the left hand. The head-thong is left to hang down on either side of the wearer’s head.

    These boxes are called tefillin, a Hebrew word which is usually translated into Greek and rendered Phylacteries. That is a Greek word meaning a charm or an amulet, i.e. a safeguard, so that it has no meaning for us. No doubt there are some who believe that wearing such a contraption will protect them from whatever evils come to us.

    The word tefillin refers to the word Hebrew for prayer, tefillah.  In Aramaic, a language still spoken by some Lebanese, the word refers to a sign or an amulet.

     The leather case attached to the forehead contains four compartments. In each there is a parchment including one of these four sections of Torah. The first of these is  known as Chapter 6:4-9 of Deuteronomy, or “a copy of the law.” We call the book “Devorim,” or “the words.” Chapter 6, verses one to nine contain the prayer generally called “The Shemah”. This is recited three times every day by those who pray in the morning (Shacharith), in the afternoon (Minchah)  and in the evening (Maariv) [Maariv also means west. Hence the Kotel Hamaariv, or Western Wall, in Jerusalem].

   The words inscribed on a parchment and placed into one of the boxes of the tefillin are these: Hear, Israel, the Lord Our G’d the Lord is One. And you shall love the Lord, your G’d,  with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words which I command you this day shall be upon your heart and you shall teach them diligently to your children and talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk on your way and when you lie down and when you get up. And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. Now look up the rest of this passage in your copy of the Torah and read it. Go ahead. Do it now.

    Another passage of Torah found on parchments in the tefillin boxes is Deuteronomy 11:13-21. This passage promises that G’d will reward those who follow his commandments. It also has some unpleasant warnings for those who don’t. Go ahead. Look at it now.

    There is a third passage in one of these tefillin boxes. Written on parchment is Exodus 13:1-10. We call Exodus Shemoth because that is the third word in the first sentence of the second book of the Torah.  Shemoth means names. The sentence is, “These are the names of the sons of Israel.” Now take a look at that chapter and those verses. These sentences refer to our duty to remember our redemption from Egyptian slavery and therefore from all slavery, including the recent Nazi enslavement and murder of our brethren.

    The final section of Torah stored in one of the tefillin boxes is taken from Exodus 13:11-16, which once more tells us to teach Torah to our children, to remember our liberation from slavery and to wear the tefillin. Go ahead. It won’t hurt you. Take a look at your Torah and read the whole passage from Shemoth.

    In Europe and here, Jewish boys, and perhaps now some girls, learn to “lay tefillin” before becoming Bar Mitzvah. Tefillin are only worn during morning prayers but not on Shabbat and other Holy Days. There are numerous rules as to how these tefillin shall be attached, how they shall be worn, and what prayers must be said as one does this. There are other rules as to how these tefillin are to be removed. Above all there is the rule that a person putting on tefillin shall not talk during that procedure. Is that possible?

    It occurs to me, as I write this, that we are always willing to view the customs of African natives, Mongolian savages, North American Eskimos, the Kwakiutl of Vancouver Island, and most important, the customs and ceremonies of our non-Jewish neighbors. So why not take a look at tefillin? Go to “shul” tomorrow morning. Take a look. Greet your friends and go to a restaurant afterwards and together enjoy a cup of coffee, a bagel and great conversation. You’ll love it so much you’ll come every day. Do something for yourself. Give yourself a break. It’ll cost you nothing to go to “shul”, “no cost, no obligation,” and you’ll see it is much more fun than watching that idiot box known as television. Believe me, if I were not obliged to be at work each day at 7:30 a.m. I’d join you.

Shalom u’vracha.


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