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”:
The tefillin is tight, creating six little lumps of forearm. The experience isn’t frightening or odd, as I’d imagined. It is more . . . comforting. The wrapped arm reminds me of getting my blood pressure taken. . . . Or maybe it’s that it reminds me of getting swaddled. I used to envy Jasper [his son] whenever I rolled him into a human burrito in his swaddling blanket. Perhaps this was God swaddling me.
Jacobs goes on to note that his grandfather wrapped tefillin and so, most likely, did his grandfather’s father and all the rest of the generations before him. Jacobs finds the experience positive because it reconnects him with his ancient patrimony, and that works for me too. But the swaddling metaphor doesn’t. First, as a borderline claustrophobe, I’m not too eager to be made into a human burrito. But more to the point, the straps of tefillin aren’t soft and comforting, but tight and challenging. I’m bound up, not swaddled.
Why is that a good thing? The final step of binding tefillin makes it all work for me. After you wrap the strap around your forearm seven times, you put on the head tefillin with its blessings. Then you take the end of the arm strap and wrap it around your middle finger three times, reciting Hashem’s three-fold betrothal of Israel (which is anticipated in this tradition and fulfilled through union with Messiah Yeshua):
And I will betroth you to me forever [wrap];
I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy [wrap].
I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the LORD [wrap]. (Hosea 2:19-20)
In a day that worships unbridled freedom, it’s a privilege, and a relief as well, to enter the bond of matrimony with the Lord. Now I’m ready for the prayers and a day of serving Hashem. Binding tefillin is a custom for Jewish males, but it has a message for everyone who is seeking the God of Israel, male and female, Jew and Gentile.