A few weeks ago I was stuck in traffic on the way to work and I heard an item on the radio about a Christian Arab living in the Old City who is part of a long standing family tradition. For hundreds of years this particular family has been the ones to tattoo Christian pilgrims who have arrived in Jerusalem and are interested in marking the occasion in a more significant way than simply buying a shirt or olivewood figurine. One of the people interviewed stated that from now on every time he looked at his arm, he would see the tattoo and be reminded of his religious commitment.
As I was listening to this I was struck by two conflicting feelings. On the one hand I felt an immediate revulsion at the concept of the tattoo. The Torah states quite clearly that we are not to involve ourselves in this type of activity which seems to have been historically associated with religious service. The context of the pesukim clearly lead us to the conclusion that God is not interested in this type of service. Throughout Jewish history the taboo on tattoos has been very clear and the events of recent history, during the Holocaust, have only increased the knee jerk reaction against this type of similar activity.
On the other hand I admired the commitment of the man on the radio and very much identified with the overall goal of having a constant reminder of God to be with us at all times. Indeed it would seem that this is the very instruction of the Torah at the end of our parsha when we read about the mitzvah of teffilin.
Teffilin are mentioned four times in the Torah, and hence the composition of the four sections of the teffilin themselves. In each and every instance they are presented as the tool and vehicle through which we can create a constant reminder of the central events of our collective past, the Exodus (the focus of the two sections in our parsha), and of our commitment to the commands of God (the focus of the other two paragraphs from sefer Devarim that we say every day in the Shema).
So I found myself thinking about the difference between a tattoo and teffilin. I never actually entertained the possibility of trading in my teffilin for a production of my fellow Old City mate but rather my question was how does the mitzvah of teffilin play a different role than a tattoo would?
The Verb –
Whenever we have a mitzvah in the Torah we need to examine very closely exactly what it is that we are asked to do. When it comes to teffilin any bar mitzvah boy can explain the exact procedure, but how does the Torah phrase it? In our parsha we don’t get very much information. In both instances we read that the teffilin “should be” on our arms and between our eyes. There is no verb that is used at all; it is a situation that we need to make sure takes place. When we get to the references in Devarim things change – a bit. We read that we are to “tie them on our arms and they are to be between our eyes”. When it comes to the “shel rosh” we are still left without a specific action but as far as the “shel yad” goes, we now see that we are supposed to tie or bind them to our arms.
One of the greatest masters of definitions is the Rambam. He invested much effort in precisely defining each and every mitzvah. In his Sefer Hamitzvoth he uses the term “to place” the teffilin. In his introduction to Mishne Torah he lists all the mitzvoth and uses the term “to tie”, and finally, in his introductory list to hilchot teffilin, he uses the term “to tie” with reference to the “shel yad” but when it comes to the “shel rosh” he uses the passive “to have” as we saw in the pesukim in Devarim.
I think that the difference between the terms is very significant. The classic form that I would have expected is the active verb. Teffilin should be like most other mitzvoth that are specific plans of action that we are to follow. The passive form of focusing on the teffilin being on me, rather than me putting them on, requires explanation.
It seems that teffilin are not simply another mitzvah to perform. Teffilin are meant to be there as a defining element of who I am. The Gemara makes reference to a person with teffilin on as a more refined individual, one less likely to be carried away with the silliness of the present world. It also refers to an individual who has not donned teffilin in very negative terms, more stark than we find about any other given mitzvah. In short, the teffilin is meant to be on the Jew constantly and serve as his defining mark.
It is in this respect that I see a partial parallel to the pilgrim’s tattoo that we opened with. In both cases an individual is looking to make a clear statement on/in their bodies as to their allegiance and commitment to the greater ideal.
However teffilin are much more than just that. I imagine that our enthusiastic Christian pilgrim will be quite vocal and animated when he returns home, telling everyone of his deep spiritual experience. He will also proudly show them his tattoo and feel confident that he now has a constant reminder to guide him through life. One can only assume that normal human nature will take its course and his enthusiasm will wane. The pressures of everyday life and mundane things will take center stage. The image of the tattoo on his flesh will also slowly blend into the regular scenery and the burning motivation will be lost.
Teffilin are not just to be there passively on our bodies. We are instructed to tie them every day. The proactive action requires the Jew to reaffirm his commitment to God on an everyday, ongoing basis. Not only did I stand in front of God at one given moment but rather, I am there every day and amongst the first things I do every day is to pledge my allegiance to Him.
The teffilin show us the need for a dual approach to Torah and Mitzvoth. We must DO them and we must do so constantly. If we pause we can get lost. Our fulfillment from yesterday will not necessarily help us today or tomorrow. In addition, it is not enough to simply do the mitzvoth. They are designed to define us as people and servants of God. We need to let the mitzvoth make an impression on who we are and what we represent.