Photo Credit: Saul Jay Singer

My grandson, Yehuda Dov ben Shalom Yonah (aka Judah D. Singer), was born on Shavuot, the 6th of Sivan 5770 (May 19, 2010) and will, iy”H, be celebrating his bar mitzvah on Shabbat Parshat Nasso. I am writing this upon returning from shul this morning after seeing him putting on his tefillin for the first time, which was one of the most poignant events that I have ever experienced. I wept as I was blessed to witness with my own eyes the transmission of the mesorah to a third generation in my family; I buried my tear-stained face in my siddur so no one would notice, but I’m not sure that Judah’s pathetically emotional Zaydie fooled anybody.

In honor of my grandson’s bar mitzvah, and in honor of what I hope and pray will be a long lifetime of his putting on tefillin every day, I have selected for this article some of my favorite bar mitzvah and tefillin items from my collection.



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Exhibited here is Jovan Obican’s The Bar Mitzvah Boy, which is typical of much of his work, which depicts Jewish traditions and ceremonies.

Obican’s The Bar Mitzvah Boy.

Born in Cannes, France to Yugoslav parents, Obican (1918-1986) worked as a journalist before turning to organizing artistic cultural-entertainment activities and studying art. His work, steeped in Romanticism, reflected the spirit of his native country, the people, their legends, and their philosophy, and his unique style reflects a conglomerate of history, hero tales, epics, old customs, and folklore. A prolific artist, he worked with oil, tempera, watercolor, graphics, collages, tapestries, enamels, ceramics, murals, stones and bronzes; his art is generally cheerful and whimsical, and his work is exhibited all over the world and is represented in important galleries and collections.


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On Shabbat, June 3, 1967, the final Shabbat before the Six-Day War, the Lubavitcher Rebbe directed his followers to commence a worldwide campaign dubbed “Operation Tefillin” 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 in the Six-Day War, Chabad representatives stationed themselves at strategic locations at the Kotel on the morning after Shavuot (which had followed only 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.

In this incredible and deeply emotional 1969 correspondence on his personal letterhead, the Rebbe writes:

Greetings and blessings!

I received your correspondence . . . and now that I have come and you have sought my opinion with respect to the “Operation Tefillin” endeavor to – in all appropriate ways – strengthen the observance of putting on tefillin and disseminating in every place that the hand of man, which includes you, reaches.

And even now there must be a special endeavor in this and with all strength and in all groups, amongst each and every group in accordance with its ways, but in all ways and approaches have their foundation in the Holy Mountains, as common grounds amongst all groups, as in the language of our Rabbis, may their memories be for a blessing, “I am asleep, but my heart is stirred to do them (the mitzvot), etc., and G-d should redeem us (from the exile)” and especially the mitzvah of tefillin (because) the entire Torah is equivalent to tefillin, and one who makes the effort speaks matters that come from the heart, is promised that “all that comes from the heart will enter the heart,” and because all of the limbs/organs are dependent on the heart, his efforts will ultimately be successful.

And my opinion is crystal clear that stirring and pleading and requests through “Operation Tefillin” which have been discussed for two years or more [i.e., since the 1967 Six Day War] – is still valid. And, as a matter of fact, with even greater vigor and with greater strength, because of the current situation is such that you now need not just that which “all the nations of earth . . . will fear you” – that fear will come through the mitzvah of tefillin – but also – the substance of the well-known religious law – as the Rosh [R. Asher ben Yechiel] (in the Law of Youths – laws of tefillin) and our rabbis of blessed memory:

. . . through the observance of the mitzvah of tefillin and its adjustments will be fulfilled with respect to [Jewish] soldiers and they will devour arm [the might of their enemies] and body.

And in accordance with what has been said, the great importance of the mitzvah and the merit to publicize this religious law amongst all soldiers and their relatives and friends and all of Bnei Yisrael – may they live a good and long life – wherever they may be, is well understood.

And may it be Hashem’s will that literally very soon we will merit – amongst all our Jewish brothers – to say that this situation took place yesterday [i.e., it has already occurred] when peace will rule the world and particularly in the Holy Land about which it is said: And I will give peace in the land, and will increase Torah and mitzvot for every person amongst the Jewish people in peace, serenity, and safety.

As is his usual custom, the Rebbe follows the text of his letter with detailed cites, sources, and comments.

Original newspaper photo of the Rebbe in his tefillin.

Exhibited here is an April 13, 1992, Associated Press photograph of the Rebbe in his tefillin: “Menachem Schneerson, Rebbe of the Jewish Ultra-Orthodox Lubavitch movement, listens to a Torah reading during morning prayers at the Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y. last month. The Rebbe wears a prayer shawl and tefellin (sic), a black box on his head containing tiny sacred Torah writings and a leather strap on his forearm, to show devotion to G-d.”


Cover of booklet distributed by Chabad Youth in the early days of Israel depicting a Chabad Rabbi assisting a Jewish soldier in putting on tefillin. The caption at the bottom reads: “Whoever lays tefillin, his days are lengthened” (i.e., he will live a longer life).

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In the 1925 handwritten correspondence exhibited here, Shmuel Yosef Agnon writes to his brother-in-law, Moshe Marx, that he has sent “a small Tefillin bag” as a bar mitzvah gift for Marx’s son and the book Osse Pele to Marx himself. Agnon goes on to write about “rare books” he has acquired:

Agnon’s letter sending a tefillin bag as a bar mitzvah present.

If I had the desire, I could have bought quite a number of rare books since I am famous now amongst all the elders of Jerusalem and everybody is running after me . . . I am sitting and working every single day and, thanks to the city of Jerusalem . . . I wrote some nice things which, unfortunately, I must publish in the ugly letters of our printers.

The first Hebrew writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, Agnon (1888-1970) was one of the central figures of modern Hebrew fiction. A prolific writer in both Hebrew and Yiddish, his works dealt with the conflict between traditional Jewish life and the modern world, the disintegration of traditional life and the loss of faith and identity, and attempted to recapture the fading tradition of the European shtetl.

Moshe Marx (1885-1973) was a bibliographer and Jewish librarian and a founder of the Soncino Gesellschaft Society. His sister, Esther, was Agnon’s wife.

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Photo of the chief rabbis distributing tefillin to Ethiopian Jews.

“Operation Moses” was the covert airlift evacuation by the Israel Defense Forces, the Central Intelligence Agency, and others of some 8,000 Ethiopian Jews (also known as the Beta Yisrael or “Falashas”) from the Sudan during a civil war that caused a great famine in 1984. In 1986, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate undertook an international campaign to gather tefillin for use by the new immigrants, to which Ellen and I were zocheh (merited) to contribute. Exhibited here are two photographs I received from Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Avraham Shapira and Rishon L’Tzion Mordechai Eliyahu depicting them distributing hundreds of pairs of tefillin to Ethiopian Jews in Israel.

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Original photo of the Jewish youth of Djerba learning to put on tefillin.

Shown in this original photograph are Jewish youth of Djerba, an island off the coast of Tunisia, who are the direct descendants of Jews who fled from Jerusalem when Titus destroyed the Beit Hamikdash. Interestingly, the Keystone Press original photograph is described as showing Djerban Jews “who will celebrate the Jewish New Year with the religion’s ancient ceremony.”

The 2,500-year-old Jewish community, which maintains great devotion to halacha, has been called “The Island of Kohanim” because an estimated 80 percent of the Jewish population community was descended from priests. After the destruction of the First Temple, Zadok, the High Priest, escaped with his fellow Kohanim to Djerba carrying a stone from the altar of the destroyed Beit Hamikdash which, legend has it, was incorporated into the famous El Ghriba synagogue building. One of the unique customs of Tunisian Jews is an annual pilgrimage to Djerba on Lag BaOmer to the El Ghriba synagogue in honor of Rabbi Meir Baal Haness and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, and a festive parade is held in their honor. Today, most of the community has made aliyah or gone elsewhere, and less than 1,000 Jews remain of what was once a robust 100,000 Jewish population.

Sadly, the Jewish community of Djerba was in the news a few weeks ago when a Tunisian national guard soldier attacked hundreds of Israeli and Jewish tourists from around the world who were participating in a Lag B’Omer Hilula celebration at the El Ghriba Synagogue and killed six people and injured at least nine others. Tunisia has no diplomatic ties with Israel, but Israelis are permitted to enter the country as part of organized tours to the island for the pilgrimage.

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“A Jewish Rabbi dressed for Prayers.”

Exhibited here is an engraving from Allen’s Judaism by R. Young, published by Archibald Fullarton & Co, London and Edinburgh. Note that the artist has erred in depicting the tefillin wrapped around three fingers instead of the correct form where the letters shindaledyud are placed.

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Exhibited here is an original photograph by Walter Zadek of a Palestinian policeman laying tefillin.

Original Zadek photo of Palestinian policeman laying tefillin.

Press photographer, writer, journalist, editor, antiquarian bookseller and publisher, Zadek (1900-1992) is best known for his photographs of historical events in Eretz Yisrael, including the Arab riots, British Mandate period, and the creation of kibbutzim with its youth immigration, and for founding the Association of Professional Photographers in Eretz Yisrael together with world-renowned photographer Helmar Lerski (May 1939). He was the editorial director of the first large, illustrated weekly published in Eretz Yisrael, which was issued as a supplement by Davar, the Labor daily.

Born in Berlin to a famous physician and into a socialist Jewish family, Zadek, after earning his baccalaureate (1918), went to Munich and then Berlin, where he abandoned his studies, commenced work in a bookstore, and began writing. He served several years as managing editor of the Berliner Tageblatt, the leading Democratic newspaper, where the “Zadek pages” become a brand name and writers such as Thomas, Mann, and Feuchtwanger worked for him. Well known in German journalistic circles, he became one of the highest-paid writers in Germany, until he was released at the summit of the German economic crisis (1930), when he founded an article service that became the central editorial office for German newspapers.

However, over and above his Jewishness, which of course was a “crime” in itself, much of his writing proved unpopular with the Nazis, who arrested him in his Berlin apartment in 1933). Escaping Germany after being imprisoned in Spandau prison, he escaped through Holland and Belgium and arrived in Eretz Yisrael, where he worked for years as a photographer, opened an old book business on Kikar Magen David, and devoted himself to antiquarian books, with a specialty in Israeli history.

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Boris 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.

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. He is credited with reviving a Jewish aesthetic consciousness and planting the seeds for artistic culture in Israel, and his vision of art as a necessary component of Zionism played an important role in Israel’s singular commitment to the arts. He succeeded in establishing a distinctively Jewish art that employed Jewish themes and designs, and he founded Bezalel with the purpose of developing an indigenous artistic tradition for Eretz Yisrael.

Zionist art from Bezalel celebrated farmers, road builders, factory workers and religious subjects – such as the beautifully illustrated lithographic example displayed here, which depicts a rabbi learning Torah and a man wearing tefillin. Also exhibited here is a remarkable document, Schatz’s invitation to Bezalel’s bar-mitzvah, which features a drawing by him of a young man putting on tefillin.

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1975 cover originally signed by Moshe Dayan depicting an Israeli soldier on duty in the Shomron wearing tefillin.
The inscription beneath the cachet is the beautiful verse from Jeremiah 31:5: “You will yet plant vineyards in the hills of Shomron.”



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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 at