Each weekday morning I drape my tallit, my prayer shawl, over my head, and suddenly it is dark. I block out all distractions for a completely private moment with God. I inhale a deep breath of clean morning air, thinking about life and Jerusalem’s light and the kindness that God has bestowed on me, and say in Hebrew: “How precious is Your loving kindness, O God! The children of humanity take refuge in the shadow of Your wings.”
With my white and gray tallit now wrapped around me, I take my tefillin, phylacteries, out of their worn velvet bag. Along with my first pair of tefillin, the bag too once belonged to my husband’s great uncle—who, it is fair to say, would not be thrilled to know that I, a woman, am the inheritor of his tefillin. Although it is not prohibited for women to wear tefillin, traditionally only men have worn them, except for a few exceptions recorded throughout Jewish history. Michal, the daughter of King Saul and King David’s first wife, the Talmud tells us, “wore tefillin and the Sages did not protest her action.” (There is also a tradition that the three daughters of Rashi—the 11th century French Biblical and Talmudic commentator—wore tefillin, as did Ghana Rochel Werbermacher, the Maiden of Ludomir, a Hasidic woman who had a large following in the 19th century.)
In the past two decades, since women have been given the opportunity to become rabbis in the Conservative movement and must, as a requirement for ordination, wear tefillin every morning when they pray, there have been more women taking on this practice. But I cannot think of more than 20 women I know of who are not Conservative rabbis and who wear tefillin.
When I was in grade school, as the boys in my class came of bar mitzvah age, they began to show up for school tefillot, prayers, in the mornings with their tefillin, which are worn during morning prayers on weekdays. Since the boys were three years old, they had always worn their tzitzit and kippot, while the girls did not, but at that point in my childhood, those inequities seemed merely due to a sociological gender difference, comparable to the boys having short hair and the girls wearing skirts and dresses. It was more of a dress-code disparity that didn’t hold great religious significance for me. However, when those same boys who had for years been wearing their kippot and tzitzit showed up in seventh grade with their blue velvet bags containing their shining new leather tefillin, I was bothered terribly by the fact that they had something tangible to show for their new status as adults in our religion and I had nothing. Coming of age for my male peers meant taking on more mitzvot, while for me it meant being excluded from them. This was a harsh and poignant awakening to my place as a young woman in Jewish religious life.
When my brothers reached the age of bar mitzvah, they received their own pairs of tefillin. I got my ears pierced. Ten years after my bat mitzvah, I told my mother, “If and when I have daughters, I want them to do all the mitzvot, including the ones they aren’t obligated to perform.”
“Like what?” my mother asked.
“Like tefillin,” I immediately answered, as though it was an obvious observation. Of course my daughters would pray with tefillin, I thought. That’s when it occurred to me: How could I expect a daughter of mine to put on tefillin if I didn’t do so myself? I would have to be a role model for her. I would have to commit to putting on tefillin every morning, and I would have to start before my children were born, not after.
The next morning my husband, Jacob, presented me with my first pair of tefillin. He stood behind me and demonstrated how to wrap the straps that attach to one of the boxes around my arm and put the other box on my head, letting the straps from that box hang down my torso. He told me at which point in putting on the tefillin I should say the brachot, the blessings.
I felt in one part of me as if I were doing something wrong by donning this ritual object. At the same time, I knew that what I was doing was so very right, and at that moment, in a place deep within myself, I felt reborn as a religious Jewish feminist. The two worlds of my childhood—the modern and the Orthodox—actually met fully. For the first time in a long time I did not feel torn apart as I recited the biblical verse in the Sh’ma about tefillin.
Nevertheless, wearing the tefillin was distracting at first. Five years later, I’ve come to see this heightened awareness of the tefillin as part of the point of wearing them. They help focus me on my prayers and the words I am saying. Prayer now requires for me the additional concrete physical act of wrapping the tefillin and the commitment to performing this act every day. It is easier to rationalize away a commitment to daily prayer alone, because prayer can be so amorphous and subjective. If I didn’t have time to devote to sitting and praying at home in the morning, or going to synagogue, I could tell myself, “Well, I’ll just pray on the bus or as I walk the kids to school.” But with tefillin this is not an option; therefore, my prayer act has become more serious and deliberate. My commitment to wearing tefillin when I pray has forced me to set aside this much-needed time each morning to spend with God.
The source of this practice is in the ancient biblical text: “And you shall tie them as a sign on your arm, and they shall be an emblem between your eyes.” When I read this verse in Deuteronomy, I feel the words speaking to me. Having donned both my arm and head tefillin, I recite the following verse, meditating on my personal brit, or covenant, with God: “I will betroth you to Me forever, and I will betroth you to Me with righteousness, justice, kindness and mercy. I will betroth you to Me with fidelity, and you will know God.”
How will I strive to fulfill my side of the brit today? The tefillin remind me that my obligation to help bring God’s divine plan into the human world is through the actions of my hands and the thoughts in my lead. If my thinking remains holy, so will my deeds. With two small children, I know that it is not easy to always keep my thoughts or my actions in such a lofty sphere. Although my life has never seemed so infused with purpose as it has since I first held my daughter Michal to my breast, it is easy to lose sight of the bigger picture while changing diapers and trying not to lose patience when my one year-old cries in his stroller because he wants to get home and my three-year-old refuses to walk another inch. That is why this time of reflection, before I am bombarded with everyone else’s needs, is so important to me.
It is commonly believed that the reason the Rabbis exempted women from performing certain time-bound mitzvot, such as putting on tefillin, is that women’s time belongs to others—their children and their husbands. Therefore, they should not feel pressured to take time away from nurturing others in order to fulfill God’s will. It became clear to me that the strong suggestion by medieval and modem rabbis that women not wear tefillin is just one of the ways in which they surrounded these ritual objects with rules and regulations. There is a specific time to wear them, a specific way to put them on and take them off, and there is a specific group of people who should wear them. Guarding their holiness also means restricting their use and relegating it to a select group.
With all the male baggage that goes along with performing this mitzvah, why don’t I choose to create a new ritual, a female reinterpretation of this commandment? Since I began wearing tefillin, I feel my prayers lifted to a higher plane, coming from a deeper place, I feel bound to God as I bind God’s words to my arm and head with these holy straps.
Putting a pair of tefillin on my body as a child would have felt almost as transgressive as my eating pork. I did not know the intricacies of the laws relating to women wearing tefillin; I just knew that women did not wear them. Intuitively, I knew that my skin was not supposed to touch that leather because I was a girl and would someday become a woman. Somehow my skin, my body, was different from that of my brothers. The first time that I pressed the holy leather of Jacob’s great-uncle’s tefillin next to my skin, I knew I had taken back a mitzvah that had been stolen from me, that was rightfully mine.