A Mishkan on Your Head: Terumah 5774

I had an epiphany the other day at Shaharit as I sat quietly in my tallit and tefillin during the reader’s repetition. Looking at the enormous menorot in our WLSS sanctuary, it occurred to me that the two shins on my head-tefillin, one with three branches and one with four, were somewhat like a 7-branched menorah flanking my head. Thinking further, the two boxes seemed reminiscent of the two chambers of the tabernacle, the Holy, and the Holy of Holies. The head box, tefillah shel rosh, has four cells—I thought of them as the screen (masakh), the table, the incense altar, and the parokhet, which were the four elements of the Kodesh aside from the Menorah. The hand box with its single cell became in my mind like the holy of holies, containing within it just one item, the “testimony of the covenant.” So too does the tefillah shel yad contain just one scroll, though it has four passages, reminiscent of the two sets of tablets, broken and whole, within the ark. What about the cherubim? Their dominant feature is the k’nafayim, four outstretched wings like the four-cornered (arba kanfot) tallit on my shoulders. There in a quiet moment of prayer, I realized that a mini-mishkan was wrapped around my body. 

Parashat Terumah begins with the instruction that the tabernacle should be built by “all of willing heart,” kol asher yidvenu libo. Generations of scholars have focused on these words, saying that the heart is the human mishkan, or dwelling place of God. By wearing tallit and tefillin against our heart, hand and head, we are constructing a sanctuary for God, right on our body. This perception is difficult to sustain, but the addition of sacred prayer garments of tallit and tefillin can augment our sense of divine presence. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes about the practicing Jew, “In carrying out the word of the Torah he is ushered into the presence of spiritual meaning. Through the ecstasy of deeds he learns to be certain of the hereness of God. Right living is a way to right thinking.”  (God in Search of Man, 282). Still, I admit that wearing tefillin, as I have done since my bar mitzvah almost 35 years ago, does not often feel ecstatic to me. They are old, comfortable friends. But sometimes, as happened the other day in Shaharit, I allow myself to think how remarkable it is to have built a home for God and bound it to my very body. These boxes become a mark of divine glory, tiferet, upon the human head, like the diadem worn by the high priest. Our tefillin are not made of gold or acacia wood—just simple leather. But they function as a spiritual antenna, beckoning, Here, God, come here, and be with me. Better: Allow me to know that You are, and have always been, right here with me. This is the meaning of the portion’s most famous verse, and perhaps the most important description that we possess of Jewish worship: They shall build me a sanctuary, and I will dwell in their midst. What I realize now is that this construction refers not only to that of the desert tabernacle or the successive temples, nor even only to our synagogues, but also to the prayer garb that each of us may claim, building a symbolic home for God, and inviting the divine presence into our heart.

Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (b.1560 in Poland, d. 1630 in Tiberias) was the author of Shnei Luhot Ha’berit (the two tablets of the law, often called Sh’lah). He writes that tefillin are a mitzvah designed to cultivate “devekut,” or the clinging to God. The hand tefillin are meant to purify the heart, and the head tefillin to clarify the mind, which he calls the “shrine of intelligence” (ותפילין של ראש על המוח משכן השכל). In the Talmud (b. Shabbat 28a) Rav Yosef connects Tefillin and the Mishkan, since both require the hides of pure animals to do “the work of heaven,” (melekhet shamayim). Wearing tefillin allows a person to become a portable shrine, a divine dwelling. As Leonard Cohen put it, “Lord prepare me/ to be a sanctuary.”

It is an honor and a privilege to wear tefillin, and yet this remarkable mitzvah is much neglected in our time. I am grateful that the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs is presenting its 14th annual World Wide Wrap this Sunday—this event encourages thousands of people to try on tefillin. However, the mitzvah of tefillin should not be limited to men. Women also have a part in this mitzvah, and should be encouraged to wrap themselves in the mitzvot of tallit and tefillin, so that they too can experience the palpable feeling of becoming a sanctuary for God.

This past week a great deal was written on the subject of tefillin, in particular the experience of women and girls who have adopted this mitzvah. Several girls (with whom I happen to daaven at Minyan Ma’at) had pushed for permission to wear tefillin in Orthodox day schools, and I am proud that their love for this mitzvah was expressed with strength, dignity, and eventual success. Still, as Avital Morris lamented, what was a hard-fought victory in Orthodox settings is a subject of ambivalence in non-Orthodox settings, including in Conservative schools, camps and shuls where men are required, but women are permitted to wear tefillin. And, in fact, few women or girls have chosen to practice this mitzvah. As far as I know, the JTS rabbinical and cantorial schools are the only institutions in the world where all students, male and female, are required to wear tefillin. We are justifiably proud of this, and yet it is troubling that so few women are willing to try this mitzvah. Even if there is no halakhic barrier in our classical literature, and no practical barrier in our own religious policies, it is very hard to change culture, especially in matters connected to gender identity.

Rabbi Ethan Tucker published a masterful essay this week on the subject of women wearing tefillin. He reviewed the classical sources and then assessed the strengths and weakness of four possible modern responses. I agree with his conclusion that we should teach tefillin in gender-neutral terms, even while acknowledging that there is a deeply gendered history to this mitzvah which will not change overnight. We can and should become more vigorous advocates of women’s practice of this mitzvah which, Rabbi Tucker notes, represents the Torah itself.

While I agree with Rabbi Tucker fully on the substance of his essay, and am grateful for the scholarly and sensitive way that he presents it, I would raise back up one component of tefillin which he drops at the beginning. He argues that while many people associate tefillin with prayer, since they are normally worn during prayer, their original and more meaningful association is with Torah study. He cites Midrash Mekhilta d’ Rabbi Yishmael, “whoever wears tefillin is as if they are reading Torah.” If women are going to fulfill their potential as students and teachers of Torah, he says, then this mitzvah that symbolizes Torah study should be theirs too. I agree, but feel that the association with tefillah or prayer is equally significant. The tefillin are a mark of glory which adorns our head as we stand before God in prayer, much as the diadem was for the high priest. The tefillin are supposed to be touched and even kissed as we pray in them, showing love for God’s word, and functioning as a visible witness (edut) to our faith, much as the Shema is our verbal testimony. It is not by accident that tefillin are associated with tefillah (prayer)—indeed, these boxes are our prayer garments. They are an embodiment of “na’aseh v’nishma,” that action leads to understanding. To say the Shema while wearing tallit and tefillin is to demonstrate devotion and, as Heschel put it, “to be certain of the hereness of God.”

The Talmud (b. Shabbat 130a) has a famous story of “Elisha, master of the wings,” a sage who defied a Roman ban and wore his tefillin in public. Chased by the soldiers, he hid his tefillin in his hands, and said that he was holding onto the wings of a dove. Ordered to open his hands, sure enough, his tefillin had become wings. Just as a dove is protected by its wings, so too is Israel protected by the mitzvot. Tallit and tefillin are a tabernacle for our time. They are our wings, allowing us to reach to the heavens and welcome the divine presence. May God be with us as we celebrate Shabbat and Rosh Hodesh Adar 1, bringing us safety, joy and peace. Shabbat shalom and hodesh tov.

של”ה פרשת ואתחנן תורה אור 

ג. מצות אחדות השם, ואהבת השם, ותפילין של יד ושל ראש, ומצות מזוזה, אלו המצות ביארתי סודם כל אחד ואחד במקומו המיוחד לו (ח”ב, מסכת חולין). אמנם כולם הם סוד דבקותינו בהשם יתברך, אשר זה הדבקות שביל לדבקות עולם הבא הנצחיי, שנהיה דבקים ממש בשם ה’ אלהינו ומקושרים בו, ותתרבה לנו הידיעה וההשגה בו יתברך. על כן תפלה של יד נגד הלב הרואה הרבה חכמות, ותפילין של ראש על המוח משכן השכל, וצריך להיות המחשבה זכה וברורה, והלב צריך להיות לב טהור. והכסא לזה הוא מצות ‘לא תתאוה’ (שם ה, יח) שהוא בלב, כדי שיהיה הלב מנוקה מכל סיג, ויפנהו לעבודתו כמו שכתבתי לעיל (אות א).

תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף קל עמוד א

 ואמאי קרו ליה אלישע בעל כנפים? – שפעם אחת גזרה מלכות הרשעה גזרה על ישראל, שכל המניח תפילין על ראשו – יקרו את מוחו. והיה אלישע מניח תפילין ויצא לשוק. וראהו קסדור אחד, רץ מלפניו ורץ אחריו. כיון שהגיע אצלו – נטלן מראשו ואחזן בידו. אמר ליה: מה בידך? – אמר לו: כנפי יונה. פשט את ידו ונמצאו בה כנפי יונה. לפיכך היו קוראין אותו בעל כנפים. מאי שנא כנפי יונה דאמר ליה, ולא אמר ליה שאר עופות? – משום דדמיא כנסת ישראל ליונה, שנאמר כנפי יונה נחפה בכסף ואברותיה בירקרק חרוץ, מה יונה זו כנפיה מגינות עליה, אף ישראל – מצות מגינות עליהן.


R. Isaiah b”r Abraham haLevi Horowitz (Ish Horowitz) was born in Prague ca. 1560 to a family of rabbis. His father was among the luminaries of Poland, a disciple of the Rama, and was R. Isaiah’s mentor. Later he studied with Maharam of Lublin, R. Joshua Wolk Katz, author of the Semah, and at a young age was known as an important scholar, and was even invited to join in the meetings of the Council of the Four Lands. He served as the rabbi of different European communities, and in 1615 was appointed rabbi of Prague. In 1622 he immigrated to the Land of Israel, and was appointed as rabbi of Jerusalem and it was here that he penned his book Shnei Luhot haBrit (Shela”h), sending it to his sons in Prague to publish it. As rabbi of Jerusalem he suffered greatly from the abuse of the Moslem governor, and was even imprisoned. Upon his release he was forced to relocate in Safad and then in Tiberius where he died in 1630. Sefer Shela”h was first published by his son, R. Shabtai, author of the Vavei HaAmudim, in Amsterdam, 1648-1649, and since then, many more times. Some abbreviated versions have also been compiled. The book made him famous, and he is referred to as R. Isaiah haShela”h, and the book is referred to as the Holy Shela”h (Shela”h HaKadosh). The book deals with ethics, faith and mysticism, law and custom and the edition by R. Meir Katz (Haifa: Machon Yad Ramah, 1997) has been added to the CD.