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Unique Jewish Symbols

Friday, 3 August, 2012 - 1:00 pm

This week I led a staff training session at a school. The purpose was to educate them about Jewish beliefs and practice, so they could be sensitive to the needs of the Jewish student population.

It was easy for them to grasp and relate to the fundamental tenets of Judaism and the commandments of Shabbat and kosher. What particularly caught their attention was tefillin.

I guess if I were never exposed to the practice of donning black leather boxes on head and arm, it would seem rather bizarre to me too. But it was not the look of tefillin that intrigued these people who had never seen them before. Nor was it the meaning behind them.

I patiently explained the origin of tefillin, which appear in the famous Shema prayer. The words of Shema, taken from this week’s Torah portion Va’etchanan, declare the Jewish belief in a singular G-d. They also instruct Jewish men to wear tefillin daily (except Shabbat and festivals), as the Torah states, “You shall bind them for a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as tefillin between your eyes.”

“The tefillin,” I revealed, “are testimony to the Exodus from Egypt. On a more spiritual level, they represent the dedication of mind and heart to G-d and His Torah.”

“Are you trying to tell me that Jews have worn those boxes since the times of the Bible?” one man asked.

“Yes,” I responded. I continued to tell how tefillin had stayed with Jewish men through the exiles, the Holocaust, the gulag and more.

“Now, that is amazing!” he asserted.

***

When I left that meeting, I reflected on the strong, positive reaction I received when talking about tefillin. What is it about tefillin that draws so much attention? Is it any different a symbol than a menorah or a yarmulke?

Suddenly, it dawned on me.

Many cultures possess traditions and artifacts that have been embraced by society. Judaism has its fair share (okay, oversized share) of contributions to the world at large. Be it the very idea of ethical monotheism or the global embrace of kosher as a sign of quality – non-Jews can appreciate what Judaism has to offer. A menorah might be a Jewish symbol, but it has achieved global acceptance. The gift of Shabbat is something the world at large has adopted in one form or another.

In fact this week’s parsha also sates, “And you shall keep them [the commandments of the Torah] and do them, for that is your wisdom and your understanding in the eyes of the peoples, who will hear all these statutes and say, ‘Only this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’”

***

But, those are not necessarily the symbols that set us apart. Jews might proudly wear a Star of David, but non-Jews wear other symbols. Jews proclaim allegiance to the Ten commandments, but so do others.

It is specifically the rituals that have not caught on with other faiths and peoples that garner the most respect.

We don’t don tefillin because it is cool. We don’t wear them because it reflects a universal truth that is shared by others.

We wear them because we are Jewish.

And that is the secret of Jewish survival.

Just ask a non-Jewish man in Idaho.

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