In middle school and high school, I was a wrapper. I wrapped every morning Monday through Friday of the academic year, as well as the occasional Sunday or summer day when possessed by the wrap spirit. I wrapped quietly and meticulously, with focus, usually one among an extended posse but sometimes solo. I haven’t wrapped since July, but I’m confident that I could pick it up again if I wanted to. I came of age as a wrapper, and I remain surrounded by the wrap’s ebon tendrils.
Tefillin are a pair of ritual leather contraptions typically worn by observant male Orthodox Jews during morning prayer, and perhaps more typically contained in protective boxes stored away in the closets in the homes of formerly observant male Orthodox Jews’ parents. Tefillin always comes in a set of two, shel-yad, Hebrew for “of the hand,” and shel-rosh, “of the head.” A shel-yad comprises a hard, hollow, leather cubic box with a scroll contained inside, connected to a soft leather strap that begins with a knot that must touch the box at all times (it may be secured in place by a rubber band) and extends a couple of feet long. The box is placed on the supplicant’s bicep, and the strap is wrapped seven times around the forearm and then up the hand and around select fingers. Distinct regional and familial traditions specify precisely how the strap must be wrapped around the arm and hand, but one’s method must be inherited for it to be legitimate, and Boy Scout ingenuity is unwelcome. A shel-rosh consists of a similar hard box connected to two leather straps. This box is hollowed into four compartments instead of just one, each of which contains its own scroll. (The words on the hand scroll and head scroll are identical, but are written all in a row on a single parchment in the former and on four separate parchments in the latter.) The straps that come out of the shel-rosh box are knotted into a ring and then trail out, taking a similar form to the ichthys. The ring fits around the wearer’s head with the box centered between and above the eyes, and the trailing straps fall off the back of the head and are usually placed over the shoulders and stretch down the supplicant’s chest rather than back. Tefillin are known as phylacteries in English, and the two words’ etymologies suggest the object’s meaning. Tefillin comes from tefilah, Hebrew for “prayer,” and phylacteries arrives from the Greek phylássein, which means “to guard” or “to protect.” A first-time observer of a tefillin-clad Jew might think that the devices are meant to protect their wearer from physical harm. The shel-rosh cube protruding from its wearer’s forehead resembles a horn, and is certainly hard enough and its corners sharp enough to inflict substantial trauma. The shel-yad suggests a power brace, and a would-be assailant might imagine the equipped endowed with the power of the mystical Jew Punch. But what tefillin actually guard is not the supplicant, but the possibility of prayer itself.
In my Orthodox Jewish middle school I was taught that tefillin are like a telephone that one can use to connect right up to God. When one wears tefillin, his prayers travel to God through a leather wire and reach Him much faster than one’s voice could alone. I like this idea because it is true that engaging in a physical ritual and wearing a costume enables one to concentrate on the specific task suited to that ritual and that costume. Tefillin are not worn by every Jew during prayer. Jews who cannot afford tefillin (they are quite pricy because each scroll must be hand-written by a professional), who don’t like tefillin (perhaps due to an aversion to animal hide; if you are observant and Orthodox the material is non-negotiable), and Jewish women who observe the prohibition on female tefillin usage (among many other prohibitions observant female Orthodox Jews enjoy/suffer) all refrain from wrapping. Those among us who do wrap literally surround ourselves in ritual. Having an arm and a head tied up in leather makes it difficult to do much else besides pray. While I am doubtful that a prayer delivered by a phylactery-bound supplicant moves more rapidly toward God’s eardrum, said supplicant limits the range of potential activities he or she might engage in during the period that he or she is wrapped up, and perhaps has a greater potential in that moment to deliver a purer prayer.
Recently, I have been experiencing some difficulty in my personal life connecting to loved ones over the telephone. I do not enjoy the physical act of using the telephone. Holding my hand to my ear, repeating things spoken too quietly, sitting still or pacing are all activities that I find unpleasant. When I am on the telephone I sometimes become disengaged from the conversation because I feel trapped in my compromised physical state. I would rather be share visual cues and move my limbs than limit my sensory experience to just the auditory. But the discomforts of telephone operation can also be internalized as an exercise in focus. The phone’s limitations can be interpreted not as destructive to interpersonal communication, but constructive toward a communicative mode distinct from face-to-face but bearing its own particular merits. Tefillin are like a telephone, then, not because they connect a wrapped speaker to a rapt listener, but because they narrow the spectrum of physicality that the speaker can engage in, and therefore facilitate concentration by eliminating the possibility of performing other tasks.
I presented this idea in an email to Yavneh, the Orthodox Jewish group on campus and a veritable community of wrappers. A couple of learned young men pointed out that in an earlier era, tefillin were worn continuously throughout the day. The rabbis decreed that because so many wrappers found it difficult to refrain from profane thoughts while wearing the sacred scrolls, they should limit time spent wrapped to prayer hours when they would be concentrated on the holy anyhow. My interpretation of tefillin, then, is a reversal of its history: whereas I use tefillin to devote a period of time to prayer, the rabbis used prayer to devote a period of time to tefillin-wearing. Another disputant pointed out that while the telephone’s limitations make communication worse, tefillin’s make prayer better. I disagree. In my wrapping experience, the shel-rosh’s trailing straps are very alluring distractions, and supplicants of a certain age cannot resist slapping one another during prayer services. Tefillin also complicate praying while mountain-climbing or engaging in other physically demanding (and potentially inspiring) activities. I have not yet found a way in which talking on the phone is better than communicating in person, but I am determined to discover it. Perhaps listening to an isolated voice in darkness might make that voice sound more beautiful in its idiosyncratic tone, its rises and falls, its sharp breaths, stutters, and moments of eloquence.
Wrapping is a rite of passage among observant male Orthodox Jews. In the months before a boy’s bar mitzvah, he is taught to wrap tefillin by his father or a surrogate (my father is left-handed so he got a friend to teach my right-handed older brother, and he, in turn, taught me). When he acquires sufficient skill, he then brings his tefillin to synagogue and wraps along with the men. In my Jewish enclave hometown on Long Island, a boy’s first public wrapping was a ceremony that took place on a pre-appointed date (so that no two boys would have to share the spotlight) and was often followed by a breakfast of bagels, cream cheese, lox, and chocolate milk, or what is referred to in local parlance as “a lavish buffet.” Many mothers crafted needlepoint tefillin bags for their sons, and their difference in skill was made apparent if—God forbid—two bags shared the same design. I recall the speech given by a classmate’s father on the occasion of the former’s Bar Mitzvah: Mr. Benzaquen told how he discovered his son secretly wrapping in his room before he was ever taught how, impatient to accept the mantle of Jewish manhood. The young Benzaquen hid his face, overcome by a mixture of shame and pride. I also recall feeling disgusted watching two friends play “tefillin catch” in our high school hallway during prayer service. Their careless handling of expensive and sacred objects bought for them by their parents and mandated for daily wear by the school was a public declaration of rebellion, effective if brutish. Like any ritual object, tefillin are only valuable to those who imbue them with value, and those values differ from wrapper to wrapper.
Jewish congregations and educational institutions of nearly all denominations share the cultural institution of the D’var Torah, a short speech delivered by anybody about anything relating to the Torah, usually with some kind of moral delivered at the end. D’var literally means “thing,” and a D’var Torah is a bit of Scriptural knowledge; beyond a Biblical connection, there is no common feature that binds one D’var Torah with another. Every Friday night prayer service, Saturday morning prayer service, and Saturday evening dinner with Yavneh includes a D’var Torah delivered by a student or community member, and these differ wildly in form and content. Some research and repeat the ancient rabbis’ interpretation of the weekly Torah portion, some connect a new set of dots within the narrative and share an original story and resulting lesson, and some curate a series of insights and allow listeners to make their own connections. This individualistic approach to theological interpretation (if not practice) is common in Modern Orthodox Judaism, and true of wrapping tefillin as well. I was a wrapper, and will likely wrap again soon. I expect my next wrap to inspire me with new perspectives on the difficulties I face in my life at that time. This, I think, is the value of religious tradition: not to preserve the old for the sake of preservation, not to reliably access the powers of the supernatural, but to continuously employ vague but potent rituals that allow their performers to engage deeply with the problems of their own particular contexts. Though my arms are free of leather straps, I remain forever enwrapped.