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Rabbi Rafi RankDear CyberRav,

Our synagogue has a rule that every Bar Mitzvah boy must bring in his own set of tefillin at the beginning of the year.  I have no problem with this but when I told my rabbi that I had hoped Justin (name changed) to use his grandfather’s tefillin, the rabbi took issue saying that the use of his grandfather’s tefillin was inappropriate.  I challenged him on that saying that it was a family heirloom, but he held fast to his position claiming that the tefillin were not kosher.  I AM INFURIATED!  If my kid wants to use his grandfather’s tefillin, who is my rabbi to deny him that right!

Fit to be Tied

Dear Fit to be Tied,

I can’t believe you signed your name “Fit to be Tied.”  I am such a sucker for a good pun.  I’m actually a sucker for a bad pun, too.  Okay “Fit,” let’s see if we can make sense of this before you become unraveled.

First of all, its true that your rabbi can’t possibly know if Grandpa’s tefillin are not kosher having not seen them, but I have to tell you that whenever people bring in “Grandpa’s tefillin” to me, 99% of the time they aren’t kosher.  Tefillin don’t last forever.  They may be family heirlooms, they may be highly valued, but since they are leather they will deteriorate over time.  Imagine wearing a pair of shoes that are 80 years old.  Doesn’t sound too appealing—does it?

Secondly, in spite of the sentimental value attached to those tefillin, a feeling that no one should dismiss as unimportant or trivial, rabbis sometimes are concerned that kids not get the impression that when it comes to tradition, all you get are hand-me-downs.  Did Grandpa get a new set of tefillin when he was a Bar Mitzvah?  Probably.  And if so, don’t our children deserve that as well?

Sometimes we think, whether consciously or not, that children are basically not going to use these tefillin after Bar Mitzvah so why go to the expense of purchasing new ones?  We go to that expense because it’s one of the ways we teach our kids just how important a mitzvah it is.  Tefillin are a powerful symbol of our relationship with Torah, God, and the Jewish people.  And although it is a mitzvah that is widely ignored within liberal circles, it is a mitzvah that can transform the way we begin our day, permitting and encouraging us to focus on everything that is truly important in our daily lives.

I’m sorry that you got so upset with your rabbi.  He’s probably acting more for the sake of your son than anything else.  Keep Grandpa’s tefillin visible in your home as the keepsake and heirloom that it is.  But get a brand new shiny pair of tefillin for you son—he deserves his own tefillin as he begins this year of his Bar Mitzvah.

Rabbi Rafi Rank


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