If you view each mitzvah as an opportunity, then you will certainly immediately fulfill any available mitzvah. This attitude is described in the Talmud as “Ein ma’avirin al ha-mitzvos, we do not pass over a mitzvah”. I follow a curious practice in removing my tefillin that, I was taught, exemplifies this attitude in view of a twentieth century change in technology. The Gemara (Yoma 33b) states that you may not pass over your hand-tefillin. Tosafos (ad loc., sv. avurei) offers three explanations of this passage, among them Rabbenu Tam’s ruling that you must arrange your tefillin in their bag so that when you remove them in the morning your hand first reaches the hand-tefillin. The reason is that the rule, based on a biblical inference, is that you must first put on your hand-tefillin before your head-tefillin (Menachos 36a). If you mistakenly lift your head-tefillin first, you would theoretically have to put it on first so as not to pass over that mitzvah. However, because of the above rule, you must put it down and take your hand-tefillin first.

Seize the Mitzvah

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I. Arranging Tefillin

If you view each mitzvah as an opportunity, then you will certainly immediately fulfill any available mitzvah. This attitude is described in the Talmud as “Ein ma’avirin al ha-mitzvos, we do not pass over a mitzvah” (link). I follow a curious practice in removing my tefillin that, I was taught, exemplifies this attitude in view of a twentieth century change in technology.

The Gemara (Yoma 33b) states that you may not pass over your hand-tefillin. Tosafos (ad loc., sv. avurei) offers three explanations of this passage, among them Rabbenu Tam’s ruling that you must arrange your tefillin in their bag so that when you remove them in the morning your hand first reaches the hand-tefillin. The reason is that the rule, based on a biblical inference, is that you must first put on your hand-tefillin before your head-tefillin (Menachos 36a). If you mistakenly lift your head-tefillin first, you would theoretically have to put it on first so as not to pass over that mitzvah. However, because of the above rule, you must put it down and take your hand-tefillin first.

To avoid this awkward setting aside of the laudatory attitude toward the mitzvah, you should arrange your tefillin in their container so this situation never arises. Make sure your hand always reaches your hand-tefillin first. This is all standard practice, as is arranging your tallis in front of your tefillin so you put it on first (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 25:1, 6). Common practice is to place your hand-tefillin on the left side of the bag so that your right hand reaches it first. However, I was taught to do something extra.

II. Unzipping Tefillin

R. Feivel Cohen once taught that the rule must be modified slightly. Allow me to offer my explanation of his position. The Arukh Ha-Shulchan (ad loc., par. 19 – link) explains that when you open your tefillin bag, both of your tefillin are set before you and you naturally reach to the left, where your hand-tefillin lie. However, technology has changed since then. The zipper was invented in 1917 (link) and quickly became standard on clothing. At some point, the zipper also became standard on tefillin bags. When I unzip my tefillin bag, my hand starts on the left, near the hand-tefillin, but ends on the right, near my head-tefillin. After I unzip the tefillin bag, my hand is closest to the head-tefillin and I should, at least theoretically, grab the opportunity to put on my head-tefillin. For the above reason, I must instead set aside that attitude and pass over the head-tefillin for the hand-tefillin.

R. Feivel Cohen did not mention the technology issue but ruled that the above practice is sub-optimal. He therefore said that you should only unzip your tefillin bag halfway at first, so your hand is right next to the hand-tefillin while the head-tefillin remains behind a closed zipper. In this way, you need not pass over the head-tefillin. While I recall him quoting a specific proof, which we will address soon, this still struck me as odd. Nevertheless, since I attended his synagogue I adopted the practice, which I continue today over fifteen years later.

III. A Different Approach

I recently came across an explicitly dissenting view. The prolific R. Menachem Kasher published his first article at the age of 15 on the issue of refraining from passing over a mitzvah. He received a lengthy response from R. Chaim Moshe Elyashar of Jerusalem, whose name I do not recognize. R. Kasher published this exchange in his Divrei Menachem (vol. 1, nos. 37-38 – link). R. Elyashar quotes the Shorshei Ha-Yam, a book which I also fail to recognize, as saying the following: The rule of not passing over a mitzvah only means that if you are ready to perform that mitzvah, do not get sidetracked and do something else. Therefore, if you are reaching for one of your tefillin to put on and accidentally take your head-tefillin first, you must put it on (if not for other considerations) because you took it with the intent of performing the mitzvah. That is why we arrange our tefillin carefully. However, you may intentionally take one out to place aside so you can take the other.

According to this view, you need not unzip your tefillin bag only halfway. Even if your hand ends up closer to the head-tefillin, you did not unzip the bad for the immediate purpose of removing the tefillin nearest your hand. Therefore, the rule against passing over a mitzvah does not apply.

IV. Passing Rooms

However, R. Cohen’s prooftext seems to run counter to this approach. The Mishnah Berurah (25:4) offers an uncharacteristic ruling without precedent on this subject. He writes that if someone intends to pray at home and passes the room in which his tefillin are stored, while his tallis is in a farther room, he must put on his tefillin immediately so as not to pass over this mitzvah. Apparently, the Mishnah Berurah does not limit the rule to only cases in which you are trying to perform the mitzvah. Even when you are walking by, you may not pass the mitzvah opportunity. (See also the language of the Arukh Ha-Shulchan above.) Therefore, R. Cohen ruled, when you unzip the tefillin bag completely, your hand is closer to the head-tefillin and due to other considerations you must pass over that mitzvah. It is better to unzip the bag only half-way to avoid the situation.

I am not issuing a ruling or condemning those who unzip their tefillin bags all the way. However, the change in technology brought about by the zipper seems to demand a renewed (if somewhat belated) look at this halakhah.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student has served two terms on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and currently serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

34 comments

  1. Who was it that used the term “fetishization of halacha”? That is what this post reminds me of.

  2. Presumably someone with little Yiras Shamayim.

  3. Or you can get a bag whose zipper opens in the other direction. 🙂 Or simply rearrange the tefillin.

  4. The recommendation of the posekim (see MB 28:7) based on the plain reading of the Shulhan Arukh should obviate this problem altogether – namely the shel yad should be placed in the bag above (but not directly over, per the MA) the shel rosh. That way, even when the bag is fully unzipped, the shel yad is still the closest.

  5. Common practice is to place your hand-tefillin on the left side of the bag so that your right hand reaches it first.

    The Kaf HaHayim 29:14 says that either way you do it is fine (either right or left) as long as you’re consistent and get yourself used to doing it one way.

  6. Oops…that’s really 28:14

  7. 1. i never understood the presumption that the right hand reaches to the left side of the bag. can we simply place the shel yad on the right side of the bag?

    2. don’t zip the teffilin bag!

    3. the new hard, plastic, cylindrical teffilin “tiks” that many boys get as Bar Mitzvah gifts, solves this problem. the shel yad is placed on top of the shel rosh.

  8. “He received a lengthy response from R. Chaim Moshe Elyashar of Jerusalem, whose name I do not recognize.”

    Well why didn’t you just ask Rabbi Google… http://he.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D7%97%D7%99%D7%99%D7%9D_%D7%9E%D7%A9%D7%94_%D7%90%D7%9C%D7%99%D7%A9%D7%A8 He was the son of the Rishon Litzion Yaakov Shaul Elyashar. He helped put out his fathers seforim.

    “R. Elyashar quotes the Shorshei Ha-Yam, a book which I also fail to recognize”
    Again you could have made a simple search and found the appropriate page. http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=7227&st=&pgnum=69

    Regarding the Mishna Berurah it is incumbent to see what he claims is his source. He says that his chiddush is evident in Yoma 33B. But there also we are talking about one that intends to do both mitzvohs now. See here for more proof against this chiddush http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=48300&st=&pgnum=63.

    But the main problem with this hanhagah of yours is that the question of ein mavirin might not ever start. As I understand it the essence of this rule is that it should not look like you are rejecting a mitzvah even temporarily, to both the onlooker and yourself. I don’t see how this is applicable in when taking tefilin out of the inside of tefilin bag when both of tefilohs are just inches away. Does the onlooker notice that you ‘skipped’ over one? Do you yourself feel that you made a noticeable movement to pick up the shel yad over the shel rosh?! The way I see it 2 inches is not going to make it or break it. The poskim are referring to a long tefilin bag where one tefilah is place in front of the other. In such a situation the rule is applicable, but not with the modern wide type common today.

  9. Ahh, if only we were so careful to seize every mitzvah that presented itself.

    But alass only lip service is given.

  10. I think that this is just one more way to show how we need to be consistently conscious about the manner in which we perform mitzvahs. Current leadership thought is saturated with the need for consciousness. So too in our performance of Mitzvahs, we should manifest a deep consistency of action coupled with an awareness of the special nature of every mitzvah.

    I LOVE THIS BLOG!!

  11. so why should it be permissible to pick up your tallit or tfillin bag and not put them on immediately (i.e go to shul first, or walk from the shul storage spot to your seat…)
    KT

  12. Jacob: That’s only good if your tefillin bag or case is deeper than it is wide. That’s not the case for most.

  13. to AZ: Regarding the tefillin cylider “tik”. I always wonder how the following is not a problem. The Shel Rosh is a higher level of kedusha then the yad(you can’t reuse a shel rosh strap for the yad) and you should never place another item of less kedusha on top of it so I don’t understand how those “tikkim” are permissible. Maybe someone has an answer or Ari has another topic to research.

  14. BTW the half zippeer approach leads imho to a longer hefsek between putting on the shel yad and shel rosh as well as a shorter time of wearing both tfillin at the same time.

    She-nir’eh et nehamat Yerushalayim u-binyanah bi-mherah ve-yamenu,

  15. My own riff on Zach and Ephrayim:
    Seems to me like the half-zipper question falls short of the threshold of “significance.” i.e., it would not occur to the average person that sliding the zipper all the way open is in any way bypassing the shel yad. It’s just the normal way of opening the bag. On the other hand, slipping past tefillin on top to access a talis underneath would indeed be a noticeable bypass.

  16. That’s why the tallis, as per the CC in the MB, goes on top of the tefillin.

  17. Here is a solution I just rhought of: a tefillin bag with two compartments, side-by-side, each with its own zipper. (Of course, you would have to make the bag a little bit bigger, since each compartment is separate and thus each needs its own “wiggle room.” But that should not add more than an inch or so.) You could even label each compartment – “shel yad” and “shel rosh.” That would sure help you remember.

    Any reason such a design would be a problem?

  18. Good idea. I love these new “frum” chachkes and inventions, and collect them all the time. This one would be great and very useful. Much like the tefillin sweater 🙂

  19. What is a “tefillin sweater”?

  20. @YitzNewton: “On the other hand, slipping past tefillin on top to access a talis underneath would indeed be a noticeable bypass.”

    How is that more noticeable? and does it matter that the talis is closer to the person’s hand(s) than the t’filin (e.g. the zipper/opening of the talis bag is closer than where the t’filah shel yad is located)?

    I second Nachum’s “simply rearrange the tefillin”: if RFC is your poseiq and you use today’s standard zipper bag for your t’filin, arrange your t’filin such that the shel-yad is closest to the edge where the zipper’s slider lies when the bag is fully unzipped. Case closed :).

  21. Why should opening a zipper make a difference? If you approach (an open) bag from the shel-rosh side, will you also run into a problem? Also, how is the Mishnah Berurah a proof-text against the earlier Shorshei Ha-Yam? And while the Mishnah Berurah might disagree with it, that doesn’t mean he agrees with R. F. Cohen.

    Though I wonder what the ‘onesh’ is for unzipping one’s tefillin bag too far.~

  22. R’ Gil,
    Do you read this ולכן פותח הכיס ופונה לשמאלו להשל יד ומניחו, ואחר כך נוטל השל ראש מהכיס ומניחו. as “you naturally reach to the left” in terms of it’s one’s nature to reach left or that since the shel yad is always on the left you have trained yourself to always reach left?
    She-nir’eh et nehamat Yerushalayim u-binyanah bi-mherah ve-yamenu,

  23. Kashadar: But you need to put the shel rosh on the bottom to reach it second. Stira in chumras! Short answer: Don’t rest it on its bottom.

  24. my right hand, like that of most humans, is on my right side. accordingly, i have always put the tefillin shel yad on the right side of the bag, closer to my right hand… does the ‘common practice’ mean that it should be on the left side of the bag, from the bag’s perspective?

    irregardless, (not a word, i know, but it’s fun) i was taught that we should strive for zerizus, but stay away from neurosis… becomming sidetracked with questions like whether to half-zip or full-zip the tefillin bag takes one’s attention away from bigger issues. unless one has mastered all of shas and poskim and acts with perfect middos, there are probably bigger issues to learn about than this. accordingly, prioritize. that’s not to say that it’s bad to spend a little time on silly questions like this. hashem demands that we enjoy life, and these things can be fun, as long as we keep it in perspective.

  25. My tephillin (and tallis) bags use velcro – no problem 😉

  26. What were the avi chai numbers from 2009 and how do those impact the outcome of the study?

    I feel less informed than I was before I read the “article”

  27. Sorry, I posted that on the wrong page. You can delete both of these messages.

  28. @MP: I dunno, to me slipping my hand past something to get something else behind it is qualitatively different than sliding a zipper to normal full-open position, instead of half-open position which falls all of 10cm before full-open. I can’t explain it any better than that, so perhaps it’s a judgment call.

  29. Nachum – zoruch iyun

  30. Zach wrote:

    “Who was it that used the term “fetishization of halacha”

    I agree with R Gil’s assessment-all of halacha is rooted in sweating the details of what is lchatchilah, bdieved, etc.

  31. There is another way we can seize the opportunity to fulfill a mitzvah, by using our own ingenuity and compassion, and without necessarily worrying about halachic details. That is, jump at the opportunity to perform an act of kindness for someone, always keeping an eye out for what gemilus chasadim you can perform. Gemilus Chasadim is described often as one of the “devarim” rather than mitzvos, but even if it is not technically a mitzvah it falls within the all-encompassing mitzvah to love your fellow as yourself and to emulate G-d’s trait of compassion.

  32. My tallit is behind my tefillin because it’s bigger. But I rest the bag on its bottom, and the tallit sticks out above the tefillin, so I’m not passing over anything.

  33. MiMedinat HaYam

    i was taught that if you pull out the shel rosh first, you quickly cover it up with the tfillin bag, and put on the shel yad. in contradistinction of if you pull out the tfillin before the tallit, you put on the tfillin first, then the tallit.

    2. before this newfangled technology you are talking about, they must have use these little round plastic disks with 2-4 holes in them. they would present the same issues. (in fact, some tfillin bags still use buttons). so i doubt this fisrt came about through rav kasher.

    speaking about prominent mizrachi leaders, i’m surprised no one recognized rav elyashar as the Rishon LeTzion early in the 20th century. per http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacob_Saul_Elyashar. (while on this subject, historical question: how did the Rishon LetTziyon evolve into Rav HaRashi status, or more precisely, how did the (somewhat) charedi sfardi rabbonim allow it to become a (then) tziyoni position?)

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