November 6, 2011
The terms bound up, bondage, and binding usually have a pretty negative connotation. People normally think of the devil as the one who binds people up—at least those folks who believe there is a devil. But now that I’m focusing on the Shema more intently, I’m obeying one of its instructions, which says to bind Hashem’s words as a sign on your hand (Dt. 6:8). You could translate that as “tie them as a sign,” which sounds a little milder than “bind,” but the meaning is about the same. And “binding” certainly describes the experience. The hand-tefillin is placed on the biceps, and then its leather strap is wrapped seven times around the forearm, from the elbow down to the hand itself. My understanding is that you’re to wrap this tightly enough for it to make an impression in your flesh.
In The Year of Living Biblically, AJ Jacobs describes his experience with wrapping tefillin (both binding and wrapping are used to describe the ritual). It’s part of what the book’s subtitle calls his “humble quest to follow the Bible as literally as possible”:
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October 31, 2011
These days I’m refocusing on the Shema as the first and greatest commandment (Mark 12:28ff) and as foundational to my work in mussar. A few weeks ago one particular of the Shema got in my face: “You shall bind these words as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes” (Deut. 6:8). Jewish tradition provides a literal way to fulfill this commandment through tefillin, small leather boxes containing the words of the Shema, attached to leather straps that can be bound to the arm and forehead.
I’ve prayed with tefillin in the past, but never regularly, so that’s my assignment now. When I told my wife, Jane (who is always supportive of my Jewish practices) about my new assignment, she said, “But aren’t those words meant figuratively?” It’s a good question, based on Scripture itself. Back in Exodus 13, when Moses gives the law of redemption of the first-born, he says, “It shall be as a sign on your hand and as frontlets between your eyes . . .” clearly a figure of speech here, as the same terminology is in Proverbs 3:3, 6:31, and 7:3. I remember reading somewhere that Rabbenu Tam, grandson of Rashi, who wrote the definitive tract on binding tefillin, also believed that the language was metaphorical, but applied it literally anyway. The language might be figurative, but if there’s a way to fulfill it literally, all the better!
That’s the particular genius of Jewish tradition—it doesn’t overdo the contrast between inner and outer, but seeks to express the inner through the outer. It lays out a spiritual pathway with concrete steps.
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October 28, 2011
In my mussar work for the coming year, I’m going to focus on the Shema. (Mussar is a Jewish spiritual path that emphasizes ethical transformation. Check out rivertonmussar.org.)
The first ethical or character trait that we’re working on is humility, so I’m thinking about how humility relates to the Shema, and I decide that Listen – the very first word – is the link. Listening takes humility because it’s not about me and it requires that I set aside my stuff and pay attention to someone else.
This is in the back of my mind as I’m finishing up The Year of Living Biblically, by A.J. Jacobs, a secular, mostly assimilated Jew, who sets out to “follow the Bible as literally as possible” for one year.
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