Tefillin: The Pulse of Israel

Tefillin: The Pulse of Israel

by Rena Udkoff - Jerusalem

May 23, 2017

Go to Where the People Are

The ability to meet each Jew on his own level, wherever he is, may help explain the success of Chabad’s tefillin campaign. Since its inception, the campaign sought to make tefillin easy and accessible to any Jew. Mitzvah mobiles are a standard street fixture and pop-up tefillin booths have become part of the landscape. In Israel, every Friday, waves of volunteers—from students to seniors—encourage men to put on tefillin prior to the start of Shabbat. Many Chabad men carry a pair of tefillin with them “just in case.”

In a nod to the country’s “Start-up Nation” mentality—Israel is one of the world's most vibrant technology communities outside Silicon Valley—Chabad even developed a tefillin app that reached position #27 in the Israeli app store.

The ubiquitous campaign brought Jewish pride and precepts into public consciousness. The idea, to have “your Jewish blood pressure taken”—a play on the tefillin bindings of the arm—resonated beyond traditional Jewish circles. Today, Israelis can expect to be stopped at a bus station in Tel Aviv, on a college campus in Haifa, or even in their own office, with the offer to wrap tefillin.

Rabbi Mordechai Siev, a Chabad rabbi and American transplant, first started manning a tefillin stand when he arrived in Israel in the mid-80s. The language barrier was a non-issue, as no words needed to be exchanged.

“Often when people see a tefillin stand in Israel, they’ll just come over. They don’t even say anything and just start wrapping,” the rabbi says, estimating that a little less than half of Israelis are able to complete the ritual on their own. “Others know how to do it but if Chabad wasn’t there they may not bother.” One volunteer explains that often when he asks passersby if they put on tefillin they will reply in the affirmative. Yet when he asks if they had put on tefillin that day, many reply “I haven’t had a chance” or “I forgot.” The convenience and accessibility of the Chabad tefillin stands ensure that they can perform the mitzvah on the spot.

Arms for Israel

In late February, U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro ran in the Tel Aviv marathon. During the race, he stopped to don tefillin with the help of Chabad representatives who were present along the route. Upon completing the race, the ambassador proudly broadcast his mitzvah to his Facebook and Twitter followers.

Politician photo-ops with tefillin have become a bit of an Israeli tradition. In an encounter widely publicized in Israeli media, Israel’s late prime minister Ariel Sharon, accompanied by other high-ranking IDF officials, visited the Western Wall soon after the 1967 war and agreed to wrap tefillin with a Chabad rabbi. Sharon told reporters that it was the first time he had put on tefillin since his bar mitzvah. Before long, it was all over the news. Inspired by his act, many Israelis followed suit—some for the first time in their lives.

The Israeli army in particular has become a tefillin touchpoint. Military service in Israel is mandatory, and the IDF is thus fairly representative of Israel’s diverse population. Chabad’s presence at army bases and its volunteer activities with IDF soldiers has given Jews of all stripes a tefillin experience. “Chabad’s tefillin efforts are intrinsically connected to the Israeli army, as the danger facing its soldiers was the impetus for its founding,” Brod explains. “We make a special emphasis to reach out to and engage IDF soldiers.”

And their children. Ever since the Six-Day War, Chabad has hosted an annual bar mitzvah ceremony for the children of Israel’s fallen soldiers. At each emotional celebration, the children are presented with a gift by Israel’s leaders: a set of their own tefillin. This past April, 110 orphan Israeli children celebrated their bar and bat mitzvahs with Chabad in Jerusalem.

Tying the Physical and the Spiritual

With thousands of visitors passing through daily, Chabad’s permanent stand at the Western Wall (the Kotel) has become a landmark at Judaism’s holiest site. Chabad representative at the Kotel, Rabbi Shmuel Weiss, says the stand serves on average, 500 men a day in the winter, and over 1,000 men a day during peak summer travel season. On Jerusalem Day, when around 20,000 youth visited the Kotel, the number topped off at around 1,500.

The stand opens at at sunrise and runs non-stop until sunset, the last minute that it is permissible by Jewish law to put on tefillin. Weiss says many have come to rely on Chabad’s services. “Some say ‘I won’t put on tefillin this morning since I am going to the Kotel and I’ll put it on with Chabad there’.” Conversely, others who do not normally do the mitzvah see it as an opportunity: “I am at the Kotel, how can I not put on tefillin?”

In a personal narrative describing how he wrapped tefillin with Chabad at the Kotel, journalist Liel Leibovitz wrote in a recent article that the meaningful encounter led him to daily tefillin observance. Despite not “fully understanding” why he does this, “no matter how I choose to manifest my relationship with the Creator, I start each day by acknowledging that this relationship exists, that it matters, and that everything that follows in the day should be, in part, a reflection on how my thoughts and my actions conform to or challenge my faith.”

Weiss expounds on the phenomenon. “In the Land of Israel, we believe that everything physical has a spiritual element.” It is when the straps and boxes of coarse cowhide containing the loftiest of Jewish prayers are placed on the head and on the arm, that they both meet.

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