This month marks my six year anniversary of taking on the mitzvah of wearing tefillin. I had been attending minyan for five months at that point, and was ready for the next step. I will always remember that first moment of standing in the Beth Sholom chapel, slipping the yad tefillin--the one for the arm---up above my elbow, tightening the loop, feeling the box touch my breast. It was like an electric current traveled straight to my heart and soul. I said the first blessing and wound the leather strap seven times around my arm. I donned the head piece and finished the wind for my hand, forming the shin, dalet, yud representing Shaddai--one of the names of God. I had, in the words of the Shema, bound the sign on my hand, and the frontlets between my eyes.
I still get that electric feeling when I put on my tefillin. I've been on a bit of a journey with the sets that I've used, but that's added to my appreciation of the ritual. I bought my own set when I first made the decision. I then switched with my brother, who couldn't use the set he received on the occasion of his bar mitzvah because the straps were not long enough. I never felt comfortable with his set. One reason was that they wound away from me Sephardic-style and I prefer the Ashkenazic-style of wounding towards me. Plus there was this inherent feeling that they just were not my tefillin.
I then got a set from my dad that was part of our family heritage. He didn't know whose tefillin they were, maybe they belonged to his dad, maybe one of my grandmother's brothers. I had them checked and although they were probably about one hundred years old, they were still kosher. I replaced the straps and had them reblacked and they were mine. I loved those tefillin. They were small and fit me well. It gave me a tie to past generations, although I'm not sure how the original owner would have felt if he knew someone of my gender was using them. I like to think that he would be proud that they were being used.
About this time last year a bag with my tallit, yad, kippot, and those tefillin were stolen from the trunk of my car. I was devastated. It was like stealing a piece of my past. I went back to wearing my brother's set, but now they felt even more foreign to me. I spoke with my brother, and he agreed to switch back. So I've now come full circle.
I still mourn the lose of my ancestor's tefillin but I have to admit that the set I use--the set that I bought when I started--feel closer to me than those. They really feel like mine. I own them, just as I own this ritual that so many would like to keep from me.
But we, Jewish women, have always been able to take on this mitzvah and more of us are now doing so, proudly and publicly.
כן יהי רצון Ken y'hi ratzon - May it be so.