Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Yours Truly, in chubbier days, attired for morning prayers in tallit and tefillin.
Every weekday morning, observant Jews prepare for morning prayer by wrapping themselves in a fringed garment (tallit) and donning phylacteries (tefillin), small leather boxes containing sections of Scripture handwritten on parchment and affixed to the arm and forehead by leather straps.
Traditionally, a young man receives his first tallit and set of tefillin when he becomes a Bar Mitzvah - at the age of thirteen. (In some communities, unmarried men do not wear the tallit, a convenient way of letting people know they’re available.) If the young man is religious, he will use these ritual objects routinely; if not, he will set them aside to be trotted out at rare occasions. And when they are used frequently, they become more familiar and personal than other personal adornments such as watches and rings.
Because they are so personal, these ritual items are rarely, if ever, lent or borrowed. Wearing someone else’s tefillin, while perfectly acceptable, would feel weird... like wearing someone else’s jockey shorts. And deliberately walking off with someone else’s tallit and tefillin would be completely beyond the bounds of civilized behavior: unthinkable. Which makes it all the more strange that, about eight months ago, my minyan buddy Barney’s tallit and tefillin disappeared.
Like many of us minyan regulars, Barney stores his Ritual Devices, neatly packed up in a velveteen sack, in a cubby adjacent to our synagogue’s small chapel where weekday services are conducted. The cubbies are unlocked: who would ever think to borrow or (gasp!) steal someone else’s tallit or tefillin? But one day, his were gone. Just up and disappeared, they did.
Barney was massively irritated, but he refused to buy new tefillin. They’re fairly expensive, but that wasn’t the issue. He was convinced they would eventually resurface, and to replace them too soon would be almost like an act of disloyalty.
Sure enough, they showed up in their old, familiar place... right after Yom Kippur.
It was easy enough to figure out what had happened.
Someone had come to morning minyan one day and had - probably completely inadvertently - grabbed Barney’s bag instead of his own. But unlike Barney, this was a one-time-a-year synagogue attendee, someone who did not realize his mistake until Yom Kippur rolled around and he had occasion to open the bag. Embarrassed, he must have quietly stuck it back where he had found it without saying a word to anyone.
This morning, as I led the morning service, I could see Barney standing in the rear of the chapel, donning his tefillin for the first time in eight months. He was smiling... no doubt happy to be reunited with his Old Friends. I smiled too.