A Black Crown

(Torah Portion Bo) A Black Crown

Even before the Jews were redeemed from Egypt, they were introduced to the Mitzvah of Tefilin.

The Tefilin contain four portions of the Torah, written on parchment. Two of the Torah portions deal with our Exodus from Egypt through G-d’s Outreached Arm. These portions are placed in two black leather boxes that are bound on one’s arm and head with black leather straps. Each box is constructed in a specific Halachic manner. Tefilin are worn during weekday morning services.

Each day we wear one of the Tefilin boxes on our upper muscle of our weaker arm, which is in close proximity to our heart, and the other is placed on our head, where our intellect and soul resides. This instills in us at the start of each day, our fundamental belief in G-d’s role in our Exodus.

The Tefilin on our head is the crown of the Jew, and it also radiates a sense of awe of G-d on anyone seeing a Jew so adorned. The Mitzvah of Tefilin is very dear to G-d; in fact our Sages teach us that G-d has His own pair of Tefilin inscribed with the applause and the virtues of the Jewish Nation.

After G-d’s Revelation at Mount Sinai, our leader Moshe was summoned to Heaven and taught by G-d the Torah in its entirety. G-d instructed Moshe to teach the Nation various laws which are not written in the Torah. Tefilin is a prime example of one of these special laws, for although the basic commandment is explicit in the Torah, the way Tefilin should look and its entire construction only comes to us through the oral tradition handed down to Moshe. Since all Tefilin have the same look and design, it is a testimony to the impeccable and reliable transmission going back 3325 years ago.

On the right and left sides of the head Tefilin, there is the Hebrew letter Shin that protrudes from the leather boxes. One is a regular three-pronged Shin and the other is an unusual four pronged Shin. Of course they have profound and deep significance. I recently came across a comment made by the Vilna Goan regarding these two Shins. Two Shins spell the word Sos, which means joy and happiness. This is a message that the way we can deeply connect and appreciate the Mitzvah of Tefilin is when it is performed in a state of joy and happiness!

Tefilin was one of the first Mitzvos the Jews were introduced to as they were freed from Egypt. Emblazed on the Tefilin is the ingredient which keeps our Mitzvos and Traditions everlasting, and that is by performing them with a sense of joy and happiness!

The topic of Tefilin affords me an opportunity to reflect on some heroic measures that Jews took during the Holocaust in order to keep their practice of Judaism alive, despite the threat of brutal beatings or death, had they been discovered. Moshe Brachfeld, a Holocaust survivor, recalls that during all the harrowing years of wanderings and expulsions, he and his brother somehow succeeded in keeping in their possession a pair of Tefilin, and were able to put them on almost every single day.

When they arrived at the labor camp, their pair of Tefilin was confiscated, but with their bread allotment they were able to bribe the Polish worker to get the pair of Tefilin back. They found a secluded spot where they were able to don their Tefilin, and about fifty Jews came daily to quickly put on the Tefilin, say the prayer of Shema, and remove them.

When they were transferred to a larger camp with two thousand Jews, they had the only pair of Tefilin in the camp. Beginning at 3:00 a.m. five hundred Jews lined up to don the Tefilin, making it impossible for all of them to don the Tefilin before roll call. It was decided that they would each put on only one of the two boxes of Tefilin. Two lines were formed, one group waited for the Tefilin which is wrapped on the hand, and the other for the Tefilin that is worn on the head.

A number of years ago I attended a dinner for a national Jewish organization which honors a Holocaust survivor, or their child. Mr. Gottdiner gave his acceptance speech. One part of the speech has remained with me ever since. Mr. Gottdiner relayed that he felt that the energy for his survival through the most horrendous conditions throughout the war, was that he had his Tefilin with him at all times and that he was able to don them each day!

At the conclusion of his remarks, he lifted an old Tefilin bag and showed it the crowd and emotionally said, “Here are my precious Tefilin. I brought them here tonight for you to see what got me through all the years of the war.”

The response was a thunderous, chilling, and long lasting standing ovation for Mr. Gottdiner’s courage and appreciation for a dear Mitzvah. We live in a society where we are free to express and observe our religion and traditions; we have a lot to be thankful for.

Wishing you a restful, peaceful
and inspirational Shabbos!
Rabbi Dovid Saks