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Tallis, Tefillin, and Tsitzis

by David Bendory, October 1991

I need help to pray. Some people go to synagogue knowing they will be able to pray with kavanah, that they will be able to open their hearts in religious experience. I am not one of them.

In fact, I find praying very difficult. I have trouble finding the right words; when I do find them, they're hard to string together properly. Having set prayers makes in easier, but I often feel naked and inadequate nonetheless. That is why I pray in tallis and tefillin. They make it easier for me to pray.

Like most boys (and some girls), I was given a tallis for my Bar Mitzvah. On the morning of my Bar Mitzvah, I carefully folded it and draped it over my shoulders the way my father showed me. He, too, wore his Bar Mitzvah tallis, a gift from his father. I asked my father if he knew how to tie the tzitzit. He said he used to untie them in shul when he was a child, but no, he had never tied them.

After my Bar Mitzvah, I tucked my tallis away in a desk drawer where it sat unused for years. It was something to have, not to use.

That changed a few years ago when I began attending Shabbat services regularly. Most of the minyan wore the over-sized tallesim that hang majestically behind the wearer, and that somehow emasculated my puny tallis-scarf. I couldn't wrap up in it. I couldn't pull it over my head and surround myself in it. I could drape it over my shoulders but could not mitateif batzitzit.

So I bought a new tallis, a larger, bigger-is-better tallis, and in an ironic twist it completely changed my views on tallesim. What I found in my new tallis was not the masculine majesty I expected but instead a feminine protection, a soft and beautiful cloth with frayed edges and indistinct boundaries. The tallis moved with me while I prayed, conforming to my body where I could feel it surrounding me. Its protection allowed me to be more open to and vulnerable in prayer.

My tefillin help my kavanah for very different reasons. Laying tefillin is very masculine, the leather straps drawn taut on my arm, the rigid square boxes sitting firmly in place. Out of the masculin ritual of binding tefillin comes strength, the strength to stand upright and see clearly, the strength to overcome my fear of being open to soul-searching prayer. I have at times put on my tefillin when I needed support, when I needed to cry.

I only recently began experimenting with a new religious garment: tzitzis Sloppy and childish, tzitzis give a disheveled look and feel to whatever I wear. They are carefree and playful, the strings dangling freely about as I move. Wearing tzitzis puts a boundary between me and my clothing, between me and the world, a distinctly Jewish boundary. They say that underneath any appearance I remain a Jew.

Carefree and playful, protected by a tallis and strengthened by tefillin, I am ready to pray. I am a complete person, aware of the man, woman, and child within me. I can stop each morning before starting my day and take a cheshbon nefesh, a personal inventory, in prayer. I may not be able to find the words to pray with, but I can find the feelings, and I can feel and experience them. All the help I need is within me — if I am only willing to see it.


See also:

This essay was written in Jerusalem at a time in my life when I was not yet fully observant. As expressed in the essay, I was experimenting with all aspects of Jewish ritual looking for what worked for me. It is before I understood the deeper meaning of mitzvah as commandment and instead focused on the concept of mitzvah as "good deed." Nonetheless, the basic themes and ideas expressed herein remain valid even from a Torah view.

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