You may have read some headlines today (or you will tomorrow if you’re more that newspaper type) about a plane being diverted due to some kid’s “prayer ritual.” Or, if you’re a reader of the Jerusalem Post or even the NY Post, you’d get a headline like “Tefillin causes bomb scare on US flight.” (I’ll bet the NY Post didn’t have to describe White Plains as “just north of New York City,” though). Because, to us, Tefillin is neither weird nor scary, it’s just something you use every day like your toothbrush. Well, men mostly, because if you’re religiously observant enough to pray daily with Tefillin, then you probably also believe only men need to do so (but there are exceptions, please don’t gripe at me).
But what are Tefillin and what special powers do they have to bring down planes? In English, Tefillin are known as phylacteries, although I have never heard anyone use this word in my life in conversation. It’s more for the English translation of books about Jews. Or blogs about Jews. But we’re going to use Tefillin here. The use of Tefillin stems from the Biblical commandment to “bind [my words] as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as symbol between your eyes.” (Deuteronomy 6:8). Like most commandments, observant Jews take these sorts of things pretty literally and that’s exactly what is done. Essentially, Tefillin are two small leather boxes with attached leather straps and they are worn on and wrapped around the head and arm. Inside each of the boxes are parchment scrolls upon which are written the following Biblical verses: the first two sections of the essential prayer of faith, the Shma (which also includes the verse above), Deut. 6:4-9 and 11:13-21, and as well, Exodus 13:1-10, and 11-16 which also reference the reasons for wearing Tefillin.
These verses are a sort of instruction on to what extent one should adhere to God’s words. Take them to your heart. Tell them to your children. Say them when you’re at home and when you go out, when you lie down and when you get up. Wear them on your head and on your arm. Put them on your doorposts and gates (that’s the mezuzah part, in case you recognized it). By donning the Tefillin during prayer, one has God’s words smack against their skin and has their actions (the arm) and their mind devoted to God’s words.
There are elaborate instructions on how to wear Tefillin. I don’t know them because I’m a chick and I don’t have to (women are not required by Jewish law to do time-bound commandments) but apparently it pretty much becomes second nature. It’s a big deal when a Bar Mitzvah gets to wear them for the first time. Then, four years later he gets arrested on a plane.
Even my friend Pammy from Tulsa which is all the way in that state with the surreys with the fringes on top has seen Tefillin. Maybe you have too! They look like this:
And like this when they’re being worn:
Should you wish to reach your destination without a pit-stop in Philly (and who wants that? I kid!), please print these pictures out and show them to your local flight attendant.