Respecting Our Tefillin

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

Parshat VaYishlach: Treating Our Tefillin Properly

A fact Aruch HaShulchan will mention more than once in Orach Chayim 38: the mitzvah to wear tefillin applies all day. We currently restrict them to our morning prayers, for fear we cannot maintain proper bodily cleanliness and sanctity, an idea that shapes our current chapter.

When Our Stomachs Aren’t Good

The first five se’ifim of AH focus on someone with an intestinal illness. Tur and Shulchan Aruch exempted such a man, based on Chullin 110a, where a man told R. Chisda he wasn’t wearing tefillin because of his digestive issues. In contrast, Ketubbot 104a tells us Rebbe (R. Yehudah HaNasi, the Torah leader of his generation and the editor of the Mishnah) had stomach problems, needed to relieve himself frequently, would take his tefillin off each time, and then put them back on.

In se’if two, AH instinctively rejects the possibility Shulchan Aruch meant this to be a blanket exemption. In Chullin, for example, the conversation with R. Chisda happens in a non-prayer moment, at a time when Jews wore tefillin all day. Unfortunately for his claim, Tur and Shulchan Aruch had already written that we currently wear tefillin only for prayer; their then also exempting someone with a bad stomach sounds like they mean even then.

The Extent of the Exemption

Nor can he accept the possibility an illness makes it prohibited to wear tefillin, since Rebbe did. Granted, he was greater than us, but if it was forbidden, he wouldn’t have done it.

Adding to our problems, Rema cited Mordechai, someone who is ill in other ways is also exempt, if he cannot focus on tefillin. AH argues those people are supposed to put on tefillin at any points when they have a break in their symptoms. To AH’s mind, that’s not yet different from our intestinal sufferers, whom he thinks should wear tefillin for Shema and Shemoneh Esrei if they can.

In se’if four, he concedes Shulchan Aruch seems to disagree, that for most illnesses, the problem is only the symptoms, so such patients can and should put on tefillin when possible. People with stomach problems often have side effects arise at unexpected times, like expelling air and/or diarrhea, and cannot take off their tefillin as often or as quickly as necessary. And yet, AH thinks even such a person should wear tefillin for Shema and Shemoneh Esreh if he can do so without a problem (he includes the possibility of putting on tefillin after the blessing of ahavah rabbah, right before Shema, if the window is that small).

He adds (without a source I saw) the essential worry is tefillin of the head; if this man knows he can remove those should a sudden stomach issue arise, he should wear tefillin for prayers.

Type one of honor for tefillin: being sure not to wear it when bodily problems are likely to present.

Why Women Should Not Wear Tefillin

In se’if six, AH uses the discussion so far to answer a question I have heard more than once, why halachah objects to women wearing tefillin in particular, when there is no halachic resistance to their fulfilling other mitzvot from which they are exempt, like shofar, sukkah, and lulav.

The answer starts with our distrust of men to maintain the proper bodily cleanliness (not to expel air, burp, etc.), and therefore minimize the time they wear them to the extent possible. But men are obligated, so they have to do something. For women to decide to undertake what a high percentage of men will fail to handle well makes too little sense to allow.

However, AH throws a bit of a wrench into the works, because he raises Eruvin 96b, which says Michal the daughter of Shaul wore tefillin and no one objected. He suggests she was known to be righteous, someone who could be trusted to treat the tefillin properly. [Once that’s said, of course, some today will argue they, too, can be careful about their bodily functions while wearing tefillin.  He doesn’t say more, so neither will I.]

Thoughts That Conflict with Wearing Tefillin

In se’if seven, AH notes Shulchan Aruch’s ruling that a man may not think about women while wearing tefillin, and if he is certain he will, better not to wear them. Rashi to Sukkah sounds like such thoughts do not prohibit the wearing, but AH thinks they are at least heseiach ha-da’at, losing sight of the fact one is wearing tefillin, which Shulchan Aruch linked to kalut rosh, inappropriate frivolity.

In se’if nine, AH brings that up in terms of weddings, if the festivities carry through until morning, where drunkenness and general frivolity might lead us to think the whole wedding party should not put on tefillin.

Rema, however, considers the very fact of stopping the party for davenen also snaps people out of their wedding mode, sufficiently reminds them of the proper mindset of prayer to also allow wearing tefillin. Except that other authorities thought the group should be exempt because they are involved in a mitzvah, an idea Rema is willing to accept particularly in the summer (shorter nights), if the groom is still present.

Mourning and Tefillin

At the other end of the emotional spectrum, Amos 8;10 spoke of the first day of mourning as sad/bitter, leading the Gemara to exempt a mourner on that first day, because tefillin are a marker of pe’er, splendor, contraindicated on such a day. After the first day, the mourner does put them on, and would not take them off even if panim chadashot came, a new person with whom this mourner has not yet commiserated.

Normally, panim chadashot rejuvenate a lifecycle experience, the happiness of a wedding or the sadness of a loss. For tefillin, we apparently do not think the emotions raised by seeing the new person negate wearing tefillin. AH does think a mourner should wait until the panim chadashot person leaves before putting on tefillin, but I have not seen this done, perhaps because we have restricted tefillin so fully to the world of the ritual.

We might think a mourner counts as mitzta’er, someone in distress, for whom tefillin are an added bother. AH thinks mourning lasts long enough for it to be untenable to apply this status the whole time. Tisha B’Av morning, he says, we are too enveloped in our recalled national tragedy to don tefillin, but by Mincha the pain has worn off somewhat, and we put them on.

Se’if fourteen notes that mitzta’er includes all sorts of pain that disrupt full concentration. Theoretically, someone who is cold or has pain in their teeth would be exempt, although AH doesn’t think we act that way, for reasons he does not know.

Writing Sta”M, Studying Torah

Se’ifim 11-13 and 15 raise other possibilities for exemption from tefillin, such as a scribe who is writing a mezuzah, tefillin, or a Torah scroll. Usually we say that if a fleeting mitzvah comes along, we undertake that mitzvah rather than the one we could come back to later. If the person has already started, though, he is an osek, is involved with a mitzvah, and need not stop.

Two significant caveats: that halachah was formulated when people did not take money for writing such parchments, did it purely for the mitzvah; while there are reasonable justifications for taking money, AH sees no reason to time one’s writing to the time for prayers.

Similarly, in theory, Mechilta Bo exempts one studying Torah from wearing tefillin (because Torah study accomplishes what the tefillin were supposed to). Nonetheless, especially when we wear tefillin so briefly, AH thinks the person should clearly take the time to wear the tefillin and then get back to study.

The Last Note

If it were me, I’d have stopped the siman here. However, Shulchan Aruch added se’ifim 11-13, so AH includes them in one se’if, 16. A student should not remove his tefillin in front of his teacher, AH assumes because it means he will be bareheaded, however briefly [I could have imagined the answer is more about setting aside a mitzvah, even if it is common custom, is not to be done in full view of one’s teacher.]

The rule does not include a father, for reasons AH finds unclear [if the problem isn’t the lack of awe in being bareheaded, it could be that a father’s role is less focused on observance of mitzvot for the choice to take off tefillin to be less an implicit slap in the face]. And if one must choose between buying a mezuzah or tefillintefillin come first, although people obligated to show signs of mourning for other reasons—a menudeh, a person in the process of being disciplined by rabbinic authorities, or a metzora, someone suffering an isolating, Heaven-sent illness– should not wear tefillin.

The siman teaches us about the frame of body and mind required for tefillin, all part of treating them with proper respect, some details of which appear in Scripture, some not.

About Gidon Rothstein

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