Photo Credit: Jewish Press

I have tefillin on my mind – as opposed to its usual location on my head, hopefully lined up properly on my hairline between my eyes – for two reasons. First, because at a recent Shabbat lunch, when the conversation turned to our outstanding memories of the first time we were in Israel, I remembered a Lubavitcher emissary I met at the Kotel in 1971, who was approaching strangers and gently inviting them to put on tefillin. He did not speak English, and most of his “customers” were American, so I decided to spend a memorable day helping him out. Even now, I am still amazed by the number of people who were willing to go along and, in particular, I recall one young man who told me “I remember that my grandfather used to do this, so why not?”

Second, my grandson, Judah, recently asked me to prepare him for his bar mitzvah and to teach him Torah reading. The sheer thrill of even being asked, let alone our weekly sessions learning together, is one of the highlights of my life. Naturally, my thoughts turned to the bar mitzvah itself and, with Hashem’s help, being able to see him put on his tefillin for the first time.

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As such, in this article I exhibit a number of my favorite items relating to tefillin.

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In honor of that Chabad ambassador at the Kotel half a century ago, let’s start with this Israel military mail Chabad card: “It is your duty not to forget to put on tefillin every day.” Accompanying that message are two quotes which are so beautifully appropriate for the men who serve in the defense of Israel – and the defense of all of us in the Diaspora.

The first quote is from the Medrash on Bamidbar, “ ‘A thousand will fall from your side’ refers to the tefillin shel yad, for which 1,000 angels are given to guard and preserve it.” The second is from Gemara Brachot: “`And all the nations of the earth will see that the name of Hashem is upon you, and they will fear you,’ this is the tefillin shel rosh.”

On Shabbat, June 3, 1967, the final Shabbat before the Six-Day War, the Lubavitcher Rebbe directed his followers to commence a worldwide campaign to encourage Jewish men to put on tefillin, with particular emphasis on soldiers in Tzahal (the Israel Defense Forces). Taking advantage of the incredible spirituality that infused Israel in the wake of Israel’s miraculous victory, Chabad representatives stationed themselves at strategic locations at the Kotel on the morning after Shavuot, a few days after the war, offering thousands of Jews the opportunity to put on tefillin.

The Boston Globe reported that by the end of November 1967, “more than 400,000 members of the Jewish faith are estimated to have observed the commandment to wear Phylacteries – tefillin in Hebrew – at the city’s Western Wall, formerly known as the ‘Wailing’ Wall.” Through Chabad’s well-known campaign, which continues in full force today, countless millions of Jews have put on tefillin who otherwise might not have done so.

Postcard and Bhutan stamp of Chagall’s The Praying Jew or The Rabbi of Vitebsk.

In his autobiography, My Life (1931), famed artist Marc Chagall describes how he had an epiphany during a visit to his birthplace of Vitebsk, when he contemplated the imminent disappearance of the Jewish traditions in which he was raised and which had become so familiar and beloved to him. Determined to preserve these cherished traditions through his art, he undertook a series of paintings reflecting his deep nostalgia for the old Vitebsk way of life, including The Praying Jew, exhibited here.

In this Cubist rendering of his father in his tallit and tefillin, Chagall rendered his subject in simple black and white. As was his practice of painting several variations of his favorite works, there were actually three versions of The Praying Jew, the first painted in 1914, after which his visit to Vitebsk was prolonged by the outbreak of WWII. He took this painting with him when he returned to Paris in 1923 and, when he learned that most of the work that he had left there had been lost during the war, he was inspired to paint two additional versions, which differed from the original only slightly.

Intriguingly, he paid an itinerant beggar to pose for the painting. As he described it in his autobiography: “Sometimes I was confronted with a face so old and tragic that it looked almost angelic. But I couldn’t keep it up for more than half an hour because he stank too much.”

The Morning Prayer by Hermann Struck.

Exhibited here is The Morning Prayer, an original engraving by Herman Struck (1876-1944) and originally signed by him.

A fervent Zionist, Jewish activist and founder of the Mizrachi Religious Zionist party, Struck was considered the artistic soul of the early Zionist movement. One of the most important print artists of Germany and Eretz Israel in the first half of the 20th century, his favorite artistic technique was copper etching and its related processes, though he also was a master of the lithograph. Although he will always remain renowned for his etching, he later turned to the use of color to represent the stark beauty of the Levant and to better reflect the ever-changing nuances of light in the landscapes of Eretz Yisrael.

An Askenazim (1875)

Exhibited here is an original engraving rendition of An Askenazim, a watercolor by Carl Haag from the London exhibition of the Society of Painters in Water Colours published June 26, 1875. Note in particular how the artist has accurately captured both the correct position of the tefillin shel rosh and the proper binding of the tefillin shel yad.

The establishment of exhibitions in Great Britain was one of the great innovations in 18th century art, and the Society of Artists opened in 1760 with the Royal Academy holding its first exhibition in 1769. Watercolors, which were not taken seriously, were exhibited as “drawings” at these early exhibitions, and the Society of Painters in Water Colours was founded in 1831 to challenge the refusal by the British Royal Academy to accept watercolors as serious art.

The Bavarian-born Haag (1820-1915) became naturalized as a British citizen, was the beneficiary of patronage from Queen Victoria, and was elected to the Society of Painters in Water Colours. Between 1858 and 1860, he traveled through the Middle East, including Jerusalem, and became an important and prolific painter of Eretz Yisrael scenes, some of which are exhibited in the Israel Museum.

Boris Schatz’s invitation to the bar mitzvah of his son, Bezalel.

Schatz (1866-1932), “the Father of Israeli Art,” is best known as the founder of the Bezalel Academy of Arts, named after Bezalel ben Uri ben Chur, the legendary biblical artist and creator of the Mishkan and for whom he named his son and his Academy. Exhibited here is Schatz’s invitation to Bezalel’s bar mitzvah, which features a drawing by him of a young man putting on tefillin.

Schatz is credited with reviving a Jewish aesthetic consciousness and planting the seeds for artistic culture in Israel, and his vision of arts as a necessary component of Zionism played an important role in Israel’s singular commitment to the arts. Schatz’s own work, which was heavily influenced by his traditional training in Europe, reflects romanticized, sublime and sentimental visions of Jewish personalities, religious practices and sites in Eretz Yisrael.

The price of tefillin rises because of WWI – to $3.00 a pair!

Shown here is a December 13, 1917, correspondence on Block Publishing Company letterhead explaining that “. . . The very best price we can make on T’fillin is 3.00. . . . The increased price of T’fillin is due to their scarcity, as few have reached this country since the beginning of the war.” This dramatic supply shortage came at the very time when demand was greatest due to significant Jewish immigration to the United States, particularly among Jews fleeing the Russian pogroms.

 

Original stamp design for the Israel Vilna Gaon stamp.

Shown here is the original hand-painted designer’s artwork for Israel’s stamp honoring Elijah Ben Shlomo Zalman, also known as the “GRA” and best known as the Vilna Gaon, who is beautifully depicted wearing his tefillin.

The Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), was perhaps the greatest talmudist, halachic authority, and kabbalist of the modern era and was the foremost leader of non-Chassidic Jewry. His name is particularly familiar in the context of a dispute regarding which of two types of tefillin should be worn: the commonly used Rashi form, and a very slightly different form advocated by Rabbenu Tam. The Vilna Gaon, who wore his tefillin all day long, is reputed to have worn both forms simultaneously to assure his fulfillment of the mitzvah, but this is critically disputed by many authorities.

Old postcard depicting Alphonse Levy’s Kavanah.

Around 1876, Alphonse Levy (1843-1918) began creating lithographs devoted to portraying family Jewish life in Alsace. Exhibited here is Kavanah (concentration in prayer), a rendition of a man praying in his tefillin, in which he depicts his subject in caricature form and employing his classic satiric style. It was shown as part of The Jewish Life, an 1886 exhibition, which was well-received by the critics; however, ironically, when he published his collection of Jewish scenes in 1903, it was poorly received by the Jewish community in Paris, which accused him of showing a miserable and foul humankind.

Levy was particularly struck by the beauty and majesty of Jewish worship and tradition, which formed the core of the subject matter of his works and which he infused with a rare combination of whimsy and love. Born into a family of strictly observant Jews, he grew up in a rural village in Alsace and, though he moved to Paris at age 17, his best-known works remain the exaggerated, yet affectionate, depictions of the rural Jewish community of his childhood.

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Saul Jay Singer serves as senior legal ethics counsel with the District of Columbia Bar and is a collector of extraordinary original Judaica documents and letters. He welcomes comments at saul.singer@verizon.net.