Tefillah Tuesday: Temporary Tattoo

Judaism excels at weaving poetry from concrete deeds and at concretizing abstract poetry in specific acts. Some other time I will discuss the first clause in that sentence, how we imbue practical behaviors with poetic resonance.

Today, I will focus on the second clause: Our Sages were rarely satisfied to treat a Bible passage as mere metaphor. When the Torah uses a rhetorical flourish, the Sages typically assume that – in addition to its general meaning – the phrase encodes a specific behavior. For instance, when the Torah [Deuteronomy 16.20] says “Justice, Justice shall you pursue,” in addition to exhorting us to do the right thing, the verses also requires a procedural rule: that disputants in a law suit may compel each other to travel to a distant court known to be particularly fair [Sanhedrin 32b].

We see a related inclination in the Shema. Four times the Torah uses the phrase “make this a sign upon your hand and a crown [or in one case, a memorial] between your eyes.” This phrase appears in the two paragraphs of Shema, as well as twice in Exodus 13. These rhetorical flourishes about wearing the divine word like jewelry probably originated as metaphor. I agree with the 12th century French Bible commentator, Rashbam [Rashi’s grandson] who explained at Exodus 13.9: “the deep semantic meaning is that these words should be remembered constantly, as if they were written on your arm.” The Hellenistic Jew Philo, who lived in Alexandria, Egypt at the turn of the common era, similarly explains these passages as purely metaphorical.

But Rabbinic Jews did not stop at metaphor. We developed poetry into an object and a deed: tefillin – black leather boxes containing scrolls of those four passages, which we strap to our arms and heads during weekday morning prayers. Similarly, the two paragraphs of Shema speak of “inscribing the words of Torah on the doorposts of your home and your gates.” Perhaps this too was once a metaphor. But Jews have concretized this poetry into mezuzot, literally marking our homes with scrolls containing Shema.

A classic Christian polemic against Judaism claims that the church prizes the spirit or meaning of the law, while Jews get stuck in the minute letter of the law and rote, legalistic behavior. [Eg. 2 Corinthians 3:4-6.] They have the spirit while we Jews have only the body.

Rabbinic Jews would counter that you can only attain the meaning of the law through the letter. You only reach the spirit through the body. You cannot rest with the power of metaphor. You must turn it into actual behavior.

That’s why wrapping Tefillin is my personal favorite ritual mitzvah. I love its physicality and even its strangeness, as it turns an abstract metaphor for always remember to a concrete deed of marking our bodies. [NB: Classically only males wore Tefillin. As an egalitarian Jew, I urge all people of any gender to do this great mitzvah.]

Jewish law forbids tattooing our skin with permanent ink, but I think of Tefillin as a small compensation for that prohibition: Tefillin give me a temporary tattoo, inscribing Shema Israel on my body. I turn myself into a living Torah scroll, my body bearing the words God is One.