Israel Diary: Wearing It On My Sleeve

“These tefillin – do you want Ashkenazi or Sephardi style?”

We’re in a great little store at the north end of Ben Yehudah street in Jerusalem. My wife and I have purchased tallitot for my boys (in anticipation of Bar Mitzvahs which are still years away); two “kiddush pishers” (the owner’s words, not mine) and a matching hand-washer. Now we were looking at tefillin.

“Ashkenaz or S’fard?”

There were questions where I already knew the answers – thin or thick. Lefty or Righty. There were questions I didn’t anticipate, but which were easily answered (scrolls written by a scribe with regular kavannah (holy intention) or great kavannah – at $300 extra). And there are questions I knew were coming, and had put off deciding.

“Sir? Do you know if you are Ashkenaz or Sephardi?”

Up until now, I’d been wrapping tefilling with my “practice set” – a couple of well-worn boxes bought on eBay for a price that virtually guaranteed they were found in an attic or scooped up at a garage sale. Likely not kosher, but also safe in the sense that I felt comfortable learning with them and knowing that if I made a mistake or somehow damaged them, nothing would be lost. But now I was more confident as well as committed to the mitzvah of putting them on, and I wanted a “real” set. It seemed foolish NOT to buy them while we were in Israel. So here we were. (Having taken out a second mortgage to pay for them because we needed sets for myself and my two sons and let me tell you, friend, these little boxes ain’t cheap!)


There are a few visible differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardi tefillin (there are a few differences you can’t see, too. But I’m not going into that here.). The first is that the letter “shin” has three branches on an Ashkenaz tefillin, but four on Sephardic. The other difference is in how you actually wrap the straps. Ashkenaz wrap the arm strap inward, toward the body. Sephard wrap away from the body. And the knot on the hands is completely different as well.

“Geveret? Ma’am? He is not answering.”

Neither is wrong. But you are supposed to follow the tradition of your family. On the one hand (pun intended), I’ve heard you should wrap the way your father taught you, or at least the way he did it. On the other, the exact phrase often used is “Al titosh Torat Imecha” – Don’t abandon the Torah of our Mothers. My Dad’s Sephardi but didn’t teach on the subject; my Mom’s Ashkenazi but of “the Torah of our Mothers” doesn’t extend (at least in traditional thinking) to tefillin – not that this would be an issue for me personally. Regardless, neither of my parents  (nor any of my grandparents) had any habit of putting on tefillin that I ever saw or heard about to emulate.

“Just give him a minute.”

Even so, it’s still not exactly a difficult question. Although we’re one of the few Sephardic families in my neck of the woods, we’ve stuck to Sephardic traditions (as we discover them) in almost all cases. We (joyfully) eat kitniyot – corn and rice and beans – during Passover. We wait 6 hours between meat and dairy meals. I sit, rather than stand, when putting on my tefillin. But those observances are all small, and don’t seem as public. This choice struck me as much more of a commitment, as definitive. You could conceivably eat kitniyot one year but not the next. It’s much harder to swap out tefillin. The choice would not only affect me, but my kids too – back to the whole “do what your Dad did”. In our mostly-Ashkenazi community, they would be wearing their heritage on their sleeve.

…It was that final idea, which echoed a teaching from my friend Phil – “yichus (tradition/legacy/heritage) starts with me” – which helped me decide.

“S’fard, please”

“You’re certain?”

If I wasn’t before, I am now.