Tefillin: The Pulse of Israel


Tefillin: The Pulse of Israel

by Rena Udkoff - Jerusalem

May 23, 2017

In honor of 50 years since the reunification of Jerusalem, when the Lubavitcher Rebbe introduced the Tefillin campaign, we are bringing this article out of the archives. 

As head of the Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, Yossi Cohen’s routine is anything but humdrum. Beginning his day at the crack of dawn, the recently appointed director is responsible for counterterrorism and the security of the Jewish state. He fields phone calls from parallel agencies around the world, briefs his top operatives, and keeps in close contact with Prime Minister Netanyahu. But before he heads for the office, Cohen takes some quiet time to practice an ancient ritual.

Every morning, the head of Israel’s most important intelligence agency pulls out a satchel containing tefillin (phylacteries), two black boxes with leather straps, and binds them around his head and his arm as he recites a blessing. The small boxes contain scrolls of parchment inscribed with Torah verses, and have been worn by Jewish men in prayer since biblical days. The ritual has a way of centering Cohen, rooting him in his past as he works to stay ahead of Israel’s enemies in a fast moving world of intrigue and espionage.

Chasidic philosophy teaches that tefillin serve as a conduit, linking the physical with spiritual in the Divine service of the Jewish male. But, as with many Jewish traditions that fell out of practice over time, so too with tefillin. When the Lubavitcher Rebbe launched a worldwide tefillin awareness campaign in the days leading up to the Six-Day War of June 1967, the black boxes were an obscure ritual item to many among the largely unobservant Israeli public.

The Rebbe insisted that the mitzvah has deep spiritual potency. “When one puts tefillin on his head,” he said quoting the Talmud, “he projects fear over our enemies wherever they are.” Thus was born a groundbreaking campaign, the first of the Rebbe’s popular mitzvah initiatives, which caught fire in Israel and beyond. Worldwide, Jewish men and boys over the age of 13 responded to the invite to roll up their sleeves and perform the mitzvah for the sake of Israel’s security. The miraculous victory that brought the war to a swift, dramatic end sparked a euphoric feeling of Jewish pride among Israel’s citizens and world Jewry.

In the days following the Six-Day War, Chabad rabbis and volunteers helped thousands bind tefillin at the newly liberated Western Wall. On the streets of midtown Manhattan, in central Paris, London, and a thousand other places, Jews gravitated to the Chabad students and rabbis who were offering them a chance to bind tefillin for Israel’s well-being. With Jerusalem’s reunification, Chabad activists set up a permanent tefillin booth at the Western Wall.

Spiritual Inclusion

Though the daily, weekday wearing of tefillin is among the most fundamental commandments observed by Jewish men, “You shall bind them as a sign upon your head, and they should be a reminder between your eyes” (Deuteronomy), many Israelis may have only performed the practice at their bar mitzvah. According to a Ynet-Gesher poll, some 90 percent of Israeli boys celebrate their bar mitzvah with a traditional ceremony in which the boy reads from the Torah and puts on tefillin. A much smaller segment of the population commits to regular daily tefillin use following the bar mitzvah.

According to an Israeli study from 1965, some 79 percent of Israeli Jewish men owned tefillin, but only about a quarter put them on regularly. About half did not use them at all. Chabad set out to reverse those downward trends, and since the Rebbe's call to action in 1967, millions of Jews around the world have wrapped tefillin with Chabad.

The offer of sharing the mitzvah with any Jewish male represented a radical shift in philosophy. “The tefillin campaign was revolutionary in the sense that prior to the initiative an Israeli was either religious or not religious,” explains Rabbi Menachem Brod, spokesman of Chabad in Israel. “Chabad came in with a new message that no matter your level of religiosity, you can and should participate in a mitzvah, even just the one time.”

The message was at first greeted with open criticism from certain quarters. Orthodox detractors bristled at the idea of inviting a non-observant Jew to wrap tefillin, and in secular Israeli strongholds such as Tel Aviv, the young Chabad men offering tefillin were seen as a threat to their secular lifestyle. But today, certain orthodox groups are imitating Chabad’s model with their own tefillin stands. And secular Israelis have come to see Chabad’s outreach as an expression of inclusiveness and Jewish unity. The Israeli public, says Brod, has largely warmed to Chabad’s innovative thinking. “Presenting religious experience as a ‘continuum’ was a message of spiritual inclusion that softened the stark divide between the religious and the non-religious in Israel.

Nitzan Dery, a 47-year-old father of three, says that though he is “not exactly religious,” an encounter with a Chabad student who invited him to put on tefillin moved him to connect with his heritage. “I hadn’t put on tefillin since my bar mitzvah,” admits Dery. “Every Friday, I used to pass the Chabad stand and turn down their requests to wrap tefillin, until one day for whatever reason I said yes.”

The simple act struck a chord with him, and he began seeking out the Chabad boys so that he could perform the mitzvah. “Eventually, I realized that though I may not keep other things, tefillin was something I wanted in my life—a point of Jewish connection that I can commit to daily.” The Nahariya native dusted off an old pair that was handed down to him from his father, and has donned them every weekday since.

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