The Curious Path of the Rabbenu Tam Tefillin
Illustration: Laying tefillin on S.S. Galila to Haifa in 1949 (Image credit: Government Press Office of Israel)
For generations over the centuries, children have looked forward to the time when they would be granted the superb privilege of joining the ranks of those commanded to elevate and enrich their day by enmeshing themselves in the tefillin’s sacred bind. Sadly, too many — by default or design — have fallen prey to the unravelling of the traditions that have produced heirs who have no idea what they are missing.
Zev Moshe attended a genealogy conference where the researchers were invited to present a family heirloom. Everyone brought in precious family photographs. Zev Moshe brought in his grandfather's tefillin which he used daily. No one uttered a word as he described the bond that ties him to his grandfather, to his grandfather's grandfather, and to all beyond.
Everyone at the conference, where Zev Moshe was the sole religious participant, understood. The ties that bind do so in the most intimate way to the lives and souls of one’s ancestors — and to every Jew who cherishes those precious ties.
My great grandfather Yoel Gross carried his Rabbenu Tam tefillin (a second, additional set of tefillin worn by some as an enhancement of the Mitzvah) with him when he immigrated to America over a century ago. These tefillin remain an eloquent testimony of who he was. Their worn yet irradiant straps are being used today by his descendants, an ethereal bond that connects them to him and to generations past.
Yerachmiel discovered the unused Rabbenu Tam tefillin in his father-in-law's possession. They were a precious family heirloom. However it was neither his father-in-law nor his sons’ custom to use this second pair. Actually it wasn't Yerachmiel’s custom either, but when his brothers-in-law gifted him this pair of tefillin, Yerachmiel adopted the custom because he could not allow them to remain unused. For decades he used this second pair faithfully as an enhancement to his daily observance of the mitzvah of tefillin.
When the brothers-in-law gave Yerachmiel their precious heirloom tefillin, it was with a full heart and certainly there was no expectation of getting it back. But decades after having used this tefillin, Yerachmiel offered to give them to a son of the brother-in-law who had given him the tefillin. Even though he had been using it, he felt that it belonged to a direct descendant more than it belonged to him, even though this descendent was not even born when he was given the tefillin.
So Yerachmiel bought himself a new replacement of Rabbenu Tam tefillin to use and gave this most precious heirloom tefillin to its rightful heir. Curiously, this rightful heir was a namesake of his grandfather who owned the tefillin originally.
One cannot help thinking that if the tefillin had remained unused and stored away, in the natural course of life transitions and moves they likely would have gotten lost. Who would guess that when the brother-in-law gave it away, it chartered the most unlikely but circuitous directive to come back to his son. Who would guess that the most assured route of keeping the tefillin was to give them away?
Darla Chavkin Stone's features have appeared in magazines, news publications, and research journals in the U.S., England, Israel, and Mexico and on the web. She is the editor of "Explorations In Soular Space."