The Tefillin Bomb

January 25, 2010

8 min read


The irony of tefillin threatening the lives of innocent people.

At first I thought the call was a prank.

The caller identified himself as a reporter for the Associated Press. He asked if it would be all right for a TV crew to come meet with me immediately and do an interview that would be sent to all their national affiliates. Timing was crucial, he said. The story was breaking just now and it was headline news. They really needed a rabbi for background information.

“What's it all about?” I innocently asked.

“Didn't you hear?” the reporter breathlessly responded. “A plane has been diverted on its flight from LaGuardia Airport due to a possible terrorist attack from a Jewish passenger.”

Okay, I said to myself, what's the punchline? I know that flying isn't as safe as it used to be. I'm well aware of the shoe bomber and the underwear bomber but without overstepping the boundaries of political correctness I realized I was missing a piece of vital information when the caller suggested that there was threat of a terrorist attack from one of our people. A Jew threatening to bring down a plane? I knew in my gut that couldn't be true.

Sure enough, it was a false alarm. The passenger who gave the crew a fright was indeed Jewish. In fact it was a young man who was religiously observant. But it turned out no one really had any reason to be afraid. The teenager only wanted to recite his morning prayers while wearing the required tefillin, the biblically commanded boxes to be placed on the arm and the head - known in English as phylacteries. The first is bound round the arm seven times to indicate devotion to God for all the days of the week and then around the fingers in a manner that spells out one of the names of the Almighty. The other, on the head, is a symbol of our willingness to subject our minds to the will of the one above us.

For someone who's never seen these religious items they can certainly appear strange. To the stewardess who alerted the captain to these foreign objects, with their unrecognizable black boxes and their unusual attached strings, they represented a potential danger strong enough to warrant the plane making a forced landing in Philadelphia to be welcomed by FBI agents, the police and the fire department.

Remarkably enough on a flight from New York City, one of the major Jewish population centers in the world, not one person on board had ever seen tefillin, or could vouch for their authenticity as a mitzvah rather than a menace!

So the Associated Press came to ask me about this ritual which I explained has been around for more than 3000 years. While the Pilgrim fathers who were all extremely conversant with the Bible would surely have known the meaning and the makeup of these phylacteries, meant to afford a measure of spiritual protection to its wearers, our contemporary guardians of national security unfortunately had no idea of this Torah law. At least, I thought to myself, the one good thing to come out of this unfortunate incident that inconvenienced unwary passengers and temporarily mistook a pious Jew for a terrorist was the God-given opportunity to explain a mitzvah to a national audience on TV.

Yet in retrospect I can't help but reflect on the irony that of all ritual objects it was tefillin that caused the crew to suspect a threat that would endanger the lives of innocent people. After all, it is this very mitzvah that on a more profound level speaks to the issue that represents the greatest challenge today to the civilized world.

The tefillin is a ritual item comprised of two parts. In its own way it symbolically says that our devotion to God consists of a dual commitment. It is an idea that has a remarkable precedent in the 10 Commandments when God gave the fundamental moral laws for all mankind not on one but on two separate tablets.

Why were these laws not written on one and the same tablet? Surely it was not for considerations of space. God could have made one tablet large enough to contain all 172 words of the Decalogue. The reason, as explained by the rabbis, is that this allowed God to introduce what many theologians have called perhaps the most important idea promulgated by Judaism, the most powerful innovation in the realm of religious thought. Religion, this division of the tablets means to teach us, is concerned not only with the way in which mankind is meant to relate to God but also the way in which people are meant to treat each other.

There are two tablets with five Commandments on each. The first five reflect upon our duties to God, the last five concern themselves with proper behavior towards our fellow man. And it is both of these categories that are indivisibly included when we speak of religion!

It was Cotton Mather, the famous Puritan preacher of colonial American times, who put it well when he once pithily said, “Woe unto those who pray unto the Lord on Sundays and prey on their fellow man throughout the rest of the week.” What was the source of his insight? The very point we see so clearly embedded in the structure of the 10 Commandments inscribed by God on the two different tablets of stone.

To accept only one of these categories as the definition of our striving for spiritual perfection is to be guilty of nothing less than religious schizophrenia.

As many contemporary theologians and philosophers have pointed out, the greatest danger to Western civilization today comes from those who in the name of God are willing to murder innocents, and to use suicide bombers as missiles to massacre civilians in a perverted attempt to glorify the Almighty.

The two tablets stand as irrefutable testaments to the sacredness of both God and man, the Creator and his creations, the One in the heavens above and all those representing his divine image below.

And where else other than in the two tablets is this message repeated, indeed on a daily basis? Of course in the very mitzvah of tefillin. The box to be placed on our head symbolizes our aspirations to be connected with the one above. It corresponds to the first tablet and all of its injunctions relating to our responsibilities to God. The box we are taught to place on our arm with the strings wound round our hand remind us to reach out to others, to fulfill all those religious obligations that mark our humanity in our relationships with others. It is the symbolic link to the message of the second tablet which is just as important in the eyes of Law Giver of Sinai.

“When do Jews put on these tefillin?” the interviewer asked me. I explained that whenever Jews recite morning prayers every weekday we need to remind ourselves of the two messages of the tablets. We speak to God and don the little box we put on our heads remind us that He exists, that He runs the world, and that He must be acknowledged and worshiped. But even as we do so we emphasize with a box on our hands that true service of God includes reaching out to all of His children. It reaffirms our commitment never to do anything to harm fellow human beings with the absurd rationalization that our intent is solely to glorify God. It is the combination of these two that define us. Respect for God and concern for His children are the hallmarks of Judaism. Which is why no Jew true to his name and his mission could ever be guilty of endangering the lives of innocents in the name of his religious beliefs.

With perhaps a hidden touch of heavenly humor , the plane with the teenager on board whose tefillin terrified the security personnel was diverted to, of all places, Philadelphia. The nickname of that city, based on the Greek root of the word, is “the city of brotherly love.” How appropriate in a way that the end of this story was at a metropolis whose very identity is synonymous with the goal of the mitzvah that caused all the misunderstanding. After all, brotherly love is the divine purpose behind the law of the phylacteries which the young man attempted so scrupulously to fulfill. And far from being a cause for concern isn't it true that if tefillin and its message were properly understood and practiced, it would make the threat of terrorism and suicide bombers a universally longed-for impossibility?

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