You never forget how to put on tefillin

By David Robson, February 14, 2014

When it comes to religious practice I can’t make any great claims for myself, but a couple of weeks ago I actually did some religious practice – I practised putting on tefillin. It was around midnight, I was in my pyjamas and about to get into bed when I suddenly felt this was something I absolutely must do. The following morning I was going to shul to say kaddish and, it being Sunday, tefillin were part of the dress code. And, between you and me, I didn’t know if I’d be up to it.

I went to a Jewish boarding school – Carmel College, now defunct – I laid tefillin every weekday morning for five-and-a-half years. That’s roughly 1,000 times. But, I’m pretty sure, I hadn’t done it since.
And who’s to know how much you remember of what you did at school? You do French for ten years and ten years later you can just about manage to order an omelette; you study Latin for yonks then thank your lucky stars you’ll never be called upon to use it. So how would tefillin fare?

With some trepidation I went to the cupboard where the religious paraphernalia is kept – multiple kippot, some bought, some stolen, some souvenirs of weddings and barmitzvahs, plus my Leeds United yarmulke (and at the moment they need all the prayers they can get); my tallit in the velvet bag my grandma embroidered for my father; and there, tucked in at the back, a tired-looking blue bag containing my tefillin.

And, what’s this? Another one bearing the initials of my late Great-Uncle David – who would have thought it? Mine may not have been used for 50 years; I doubt if his had seen service since before the Boer War. Forgotten phylacteries! I suppose I could feel ashamed but in truth I was relieved just to find them. Though there will be some readers to whom a day without tefillin is unthinkable, it is also true that millions of tefillin have lain forever idle. Tefillin are the exercise bikes of Jewish life. You’re supposed to use them every morning but you never do.

I examined the two pairs and chose Uncle David’s. Would I even remember what went where? I certainly didn’t want the humiliation of someone having to take pity on me next morning and helping me out – “seven times round the arm, the letter shin on the hand – let me show you.” Happily, when I rolled up my pyjama sleeve, it all came flooding back as if I’d done it yesterday. What was it? Muscle memory? Divine providence?

True, the straps were only just long enough – had I expanded or had they shrunk? True, they were thin and fragile and browny-yellow with age. For me browny-yellow was the new black. Come the morning I headed to shul, bag in hand. A kind man came up and said I’d made up the minyan. I may even go again. The tefillin went on lovely. If they don’t come out of that cupboard for another 50 years, it won’t be me who’ll be wearing them.

Last updated: 1:45pm, February 14 2014