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«The Man Who Mistook His Tefillin for a Hat The Man Who Mistook His Tefillin for a Hat James Kugel Tefillin, sometimes called “phylacteries,” are ...»

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37 The Man Who Mistook His Tefillin for a Hat

The Man Who Mistook His Tefillin for a Hat

James Kugel

Tefillin, sometimes called “phylacteries,” are two little black

boxes, inside of which are parchments inscribed with certain biblical

passages. They are worn by Jews during morning prayers: one of the

boxes is tied to the upper arm with a leather strap, and the other is

connected to a leather headband, so that it sits on the hairline at the

top of the forehead. Tefillin are worn inside, usually in the synagogue or, if one prays at home, then at home. While it is theoretically permitted to wear tefillin outside as well, in practice this is rarely done today, in part because of the various restrictions mentioned in connection with their use.1 A hat, by contrast, is made to be worn outside, in the street. In Judaism, it is an altogether ordinary object. True, the Talmud instructs Jews to cover their heads when walking any distance greater than the minimal “four cubits” (six feet) as a sign of modesty and submission to God. But what kind of hat is a matter of indifference, indeed, any form of head-covering will do. Thus, these two objects, the “head” part of the tefillin and the hat, are each worn on the head, but they are in some sense opposites, the one sacred and the other ordinary, the first belonging to the world of the inside and the second to that of the outside.

For this reason, I will need to explain how it happened that Morris Kleinberg, an otherwise scrupulous observer of Jewish laws and customs, stepped out of his Manhattan apartment building one day wearing the “head” part of his tefillin instead of his customary fedora.

38 James Kugel It had all started earlier that morning. Kleinberg, having overslept, failed to attend morning prayers at the synagogue, as was his custom.

Now he had to pray hurriedly at home instead. Of course, his regular tefillin were kept next to his seat in the synagogue, but Kleinberg had been careful to acquire a second pair, which he kept at home in case of just such an emergency. He thus strode purposefully into his living room, opened the drawer in which this home pair of tefillin was stored...and then suddenly realized that half of the pair was missing. Some weeks earlier, he had noticed a white spot on the black lacquer of his arm-tefillin and had brought it to the synagogue to be retouched, since white spots are forbidden. There it remained; Kleinberg had simply forgotten to pick it up. Now, all he had available was the head part of his tefillin and the headband to which it was attached. Is it permitted for one to pray with the head part on one’s head but without having the arm part strapped to one’s arm? Kleinberg was not sure, but on reflection, he decided that it must be and so proceeded to place the head-tefillin on his head as usual, saying the appropriate blessing.

If only he had the other part bound tightly to his arm, he surely would not have failed to remove both it and the head-tefillin at the conclusion of his prayers. But somehow, sliding his suit jacket back over his shirtsleeve and encountering no encumbrance of the arm box, he forgot the head-tefillin entirely. Stranger still: the slight pressure exercised by the leather headband on his temples somehow convinced him that he was already wearing his everyday hat. Thus it was that he left his apartment that morning with the head part of his tefillin on his head instead of his hat.

“Good morning, Hector,” he said to the doorman as he stepped outside. Hector, an undiscerning sluggard, grunted his usual vague response and otherwise said, and indeed noticed, nothing. Kleinberg spotted a cab as soon as he reached the curb and hopped in,

announcing the address of his company’s building in a clear voice:

“Broad Street, corner of Pine.” He was somewhat puzzled to see the cabdriver peer inquisitively into the rearview mirror once or twice.

39 The Man Who Mistook His Tefillin for a Hat

He in turn glanced at the name printed on the driver’s certificate:

Tan Wing-mei. Kleinberg said nothing. Arrived at his destination, he proceeded on his way to the corner coffee shop to pick up his morning espresso. As he walked down the street with the little black box still strapped to his head, its leather straps dangling down next to his tie, Kleinberg felt one or two passers-by staring at him. A woman even raised her index finger as if to say something, but Kleinberg hurried by. What is with these people? Pilar, the girl behind the counter at the coffee shop, smiled broadly at him when he came in and hurried to bring him his espresso. She said not a word. Kleinberg also stopped at the corner kiosk, as was also his custom, to pick up that morning’s Wall Street Journal. Everywhere people now seemed to be looking at him a bit strangely, but this did not particularly trouble him. He had long ago noticed that people sometimes do stare. New Yorkers are so used to everyone being enclosed in an halo of resolute indifference, one that is specifically designed to separate each from the other, that when someone (usually an out-of-towner, or sometimes a resident whose halo has mysteriously come loose)— when someone seems to be walking about without this protective film, all eyes are magically drawn to him. That must be it, thought Kleinberg, who had experienced such staring before; it must be one of those mornings. Thus it was that he entered his office building with the incongruous head box still strapped to his forehead. It was only when he reached the elevator that Jamal, the morning elevator boy, looked up and said, “Hey, Mr. K., what’s that on your head?” Kleinberg instinctively lifted his hand to where his hat ought to have been and only then discovered to his horror that the head box that he thought he had returned to its place in the drawer had in fact been in plain sight since he had left his apartment. “Oh!” he exclaimed, and then again, “Oh! Oh!” He quickly removed the head box and stuffed it and its leather straps into the right pocket of his jacket. “What was that?” Jamal persisted. “Nothing, just a... nothing,” Kleinberg answered. Thus ended a mildly embarrassing incident, whereby that which belongs to the inside was mistaken for that which belongs to the outside.

40 James Kugel # But this is not quite all there is to say on the matter. I believe that, considered from a distance, Kleinberg’s error that morning had a kind of symbolic quality to it. In fact, I like to think of him rounding the corner of Broad and Pine Streets with the head part of his tefillin firmly planted on his forehead and its straps a-flapping, his own expression mingling determination with a touch of bewilderment, just now passing that woman who raises her finger to question what she is seeing, as a kind of statue, or rather a tableau vivant, of Judaism itself. In particular, I believe he is at this moment a near-perfect embodiment of what is perhaps Judaism’s most striking characteristic, what might be called its concern for the “sanctification of daily life.” Before getting to that subject, however, I wish to start off with a more down-to-earth question, the one that Jamal asked a minute ago: “Hey, Mr. K., what’s that on your head?” What is it indeed?

The thing that Kleinberg had on his head was a small leather cube, approximately one inch square, inside of which were four separated compartments. Each compartment contained a different piece of parchment inscribed with biblical verses: Exod. 13:1-10 in the first, Exod. 13:11-16 in the second, Deut. 6:4-9 in the third, and Deut.

11:13-21 in the fourth. Kleinberg, it must be admitted, had only the foggiest notion of his head-tefillin’s contents; it was enough to know that the little box, along with the box of the arm-tefillin, had to be worn for morning prayers. But the reason why these passages were the ones enclosed in that little black box, and the reason why this fairly odd-looking accoutrement should have found itself on his head in the first place, are not straightforward.

The Torah says, in the four passages just mentioned, that its words are to be bound “as a sign upon your hand, and as frontlets between your eyes.” Actually, the “frontlets” part is something of a guess; no one knows for sure what the word totafot means in Hebrew.2 In one of these four passages (Exod 13:9), the word “memorial” (zikkaron) appears instead of totafot, but this hardly clarifies things. But quite 41 The Man Who Mistook His Tefillin for a Hat apart from the precise meaning of the words, a real question arises from a reading of these four passages: what exactly are people being told to do?

About this there is a historic debate. Some Jews (notably some Karaites, who flourished in medieval and early modern times;

apparently the Samaritans as well, and probably some Jews in more ancient days) maintained that this commandment does not involve actually tying anything to one’s arm or head. Rather, exponents of this position argue, its aim is to instruct Jews to hold the Torah’s words dear, binding them close, as it were, to one’s head and heart.

And the exponents do have a point. One of the four verses, Deut 11:18, says more specifically: “You shall put these words of Mine on your heart and on your soul; and you shall tie them for a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as totafot between your eyes.” The second part of the sentence seems to be a metaphorical reiteration of the first part: “Don’t ever let these words of Mine be far from you! Tie them to yourself, keep them forever close!” Such a reading is supported by other verses in the Bible. Proverbs 6:20-21 says, “My son, keep your father’s commandment and do not neglect your mother’s teachings;

tie them upon your heart forever and bind them around your neck.” This certainly does not seem to be a reference to tefillin; is it not simply the case that the parents’ teachings are to be cherished and held close, and for that reason are compared to some sort of ornament worn close to the body? The lovesick maiden of the Song of Songs similarly says to her beloved, “Set me as a signet upon your hand, as a signet on your arm” (8:6), once again in the sense of, “Don’t forget me, not for one minute!” Once again, an external ornament is invoked to

signify metaphorical closeness. Another passage in Proverbs reads:

“My son, do not forget my teaching, and may your heart keep my commandments... bind them around your neck, write them on the writing tablet of your heart” (3:1-3). Just as there does not seem to be any physical writing tablet on a person’s heart, so the previous “bind them around your neck” ought likewise to be seen as figurative speech, a metaphor for keeping the parent’s words constantly in mind. So, all in all, it might seem that the whole idea of binding the 42 James Kugel tefillin to one’s arm and head is a kind of literalization, turning an originally metaphorical commandment into a physical act.3 And yet, this commandment was not understood metaphorically— not in rabbinic Judaism and not in at least some Jewish groups in pre-rabbinic times, as may be evidenced in a number of sources.4 The reasons are no doubt complicated, dependent on both exegetical and other considerations.5 But what I wish to suggest here is that the decision in favor of actual, physical tefillin is altogether consistent with a particularly striking aspect of the “sanctification of daily life” mentioned earlier. Almost wherever possible, biblical commandments that might otherwise seem to be non-specific and/or addressed to one’s internal state of mind are concretized into specific, external acts, so that, faced with a choice between “Keep these words in mind” and “Physically attach these words to your head and arm,” Judaism has— odd as it may seem—generally opted for the latter from ancient times

on. Let me mention a few other examples of this same tendency:

Deuteronomy 30:20 urges Israelites to “love the Lord your God, to obey Him and hold fast to Him, for by this you will live and long endure upon the land that the Lord has sworn to give to your forefathers...” There is nothing particularly mysterious about the phrase “hold fast to Him.” It occurs elsewhere in the Bible in similar contexts: “serve Him and hold fast to Him” (Deut 10:20) “to walk in all His paths and to hold fast to Him” (Deut 11:22), “to keep His commandments and to hold fast to Him” ( Josh 22:5). In all these, “holding fast” implies following closely all that God has ordained. But that is not how this

phrase was interpreted in rabbinic texts:

And hold fast to Him: But is it indeed possible for a person to ascend on high and hold fast to fire—since it is said elsewhere “For the Lord your God is a consuming fire” [Deut 4:24] and “His throne is of tongues of flames” [Dan 7:9]? Rather [it means]: Hold fast to Torah sages and their students and I will account it for you as if you had ascended on high (Sifrei Debarim 49).

43 The Man Who Mistook His Tefillin for a Hat Here, the impossibility of “holding fast” to God physically has not led to the obvious metaphorical explanation of the phrase. Rather, this metaphorical embrace has been, as it were, brought down to earth and connected to something altogether concrete and close at hand, “Torah sages and their students.” This, in turn, was further

concretized and specified in later sources:

To love the Lord your God and to hold fast to Him: But is it possible for someone to cling to the Shekhinah [God’s earthly presence]? Rather, anyone who marries his daughter to a scholar of Torah and conducts business with Torah scholars and causes Torah scholars to benefit from his possessions, Scripture accounts it as if he is clinging to the Shekhinah (b.

Ketubot 111b).

So it is with other mitzvot as well. The commandment to “love the Lord your God and to serve Him with your whole heart” (Deut 11:13)—which, considered on its own, might seem to address a person’s whole attitude toward the Almighty—was taken as a reference to a specific act, namely prayer (b. Ta‘anit 2a), and this understanding was then further codified by Maimonides as the requirement that each person pray to God at least once a day.6 This is another act of specifying and concretizing.

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