A Jew At Heart (Bo – 01/08/22)
A Jew At Heart
In my years as a rabbi, people often tell me that they’re a Jew at heart- that even if they didn’t practice much ritually, nonetheless, they strongly identify with Judaism and feel greatly for it.
While the Torah certainly has its dos and don’ts, after a closer reading of last week’s Torah reading (Bo), having the love for God and Judaism in one’s heart may be primarily what the Torah is asking from us.
Upon leaving Egypt after the plague of the firstborn, God adjures us not to forget this occasion (Exodus 13: 9 & 16):
וְהָיָה֩ לְךָ֨ לְא֜וֹת עַל יָדְךָ֗ וּלְזִכָּרוֹן֙ בֵּ֣ין עֵינֶ֔יךָ… כִּ֚י בְּיָ֣ד חֲזָקָ֔ה הוֹצִֽאֲךָ֥ יי מִמִּצְרָֽיִם
“And it will be as a sign for you upon your hand and as a memorial (zikaron) between your eyes … that with a strong hand the Lord brought you out of Egypt.”
וְהָיָ֤ה לְאוֹת֙ עַל יָ֣דְכָ֔ה וּלְטוֹטָפֹ֖ת בֵּ֣ין עֵינֶ֑יךָ כִּ֚י בְּחֹ֣זֶק יָ֔ד הוֹצִיאָ֥נוּ יי מִמִּצְרָֽיִם
“And it will be as a sign upon your hand and as totafot between your eyes, that with a strong hand, the Lord brought us out of Egypt.
What does “a sign on your hand and totafot between your eyes” mean? The rabbis have interpreted these words to refer to the mitzvah of Tefillin, the black leather boxes with scrolls in them, that we bind upon our arms and head during weekday morning services.
Yet if that’s what God really intended, couldn’t the Torah have simply said, “Wear Tefillin!”?
The Rashbam, a great sage living around the year 1100, said the verses are to be taken metaphorically:
“As a sign upon your hand”: According to the fundamental meaning – it should be a permanent reminder for you, as though written on your hand. Similarly “place me like a seal on your heart” (Song of Songs 8:6).
“Between your eyes”: Like a piece of jewelry or gold band that they usually place on the forehead as a decoration.
According to the Rashbam, the intention of the verses are for us to take the words to heart; as if they are engraved indelibly upon us. We should notice them regularly as if they are pieces of jewelry upon our heads.
The Book of Proverbs utilizes the same language when it beseeches us to take heed to the ways and teachings of our parents (Proverbs 6:20-22):
“Keep, my son, your father’s precepts, forsake not your mother’s teaching. Bind them always upon your heart, tie them about your throat. When you walk about it will guide you, when you lie down it will watch over you, when you wake up it will converse with you.”
Again, the author of Proverbs is charging us with taking our parents’ words to heart, not to write them down and physically bind them upon our arms and head.
Dr. Yehuda Cohn suggests that the invention of our Tefillin arose during the Greco-Roman era:
“To the inhabitants of the ancient Mediterranean, the cosmos teemed with supernatural forces, which they often sought to influence by the use of amulets—the most pervasive of magical tools in antiquity. From the fourth century BCE these objects are known in Greek as periapta or periammata, which means “things tied around.” Amulets included cords, bands, or sashes, as well as pendants, rings and other objects, which frequently contained text. They were generally tied around a part of the body, such as the neck, head, arm or leg, or attached to clothing.”
In fact, the first known use of the Hebrew word Tefillah (singular of Tefillin) refers to silver amulets. In addition, early Christian sources characterize Tefillin as phylakteria, a Greek word for protective amulets.
This explains the English word for Tefillin, phylacteries.
Cohn’s theory is most likely correct. When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70 CE, Judaism was forced to evolve. It was able to move from being a Priest-led Temple-based practice to a religion of the home, study hall, and synagogue through numerous new interpretations of the rabbis.
The creation of a Jewish Amulet, with sacred Jewish texts bound next to our heart and between our eyes (on our head actually), showed the Jewish masses that Judaism would meet their needs, and hence, succeed in the future.
Perhaps the rabbis felt that wearing such “amulets” would facilitate the mitzvah of “making them a sign on your hand and totafot between your eyes.” Nonetheless, I know a lot of Jews that don’t wear Tefillin but still carry these signs with them always. God desires a relationship with each of us; one that’s rich with feeling. Fortunate is the person that can truly say, “I’m Jewish in my heart.”