What the SAGES Say
This is a true story. I am the narrator. It was the custom
of our Gemara shiur at Ohr Somayach in
take the train up north to the sleepy seaside town of
Zichron Yaakov every couple of months for a long weekend
This was the old Jerusalem-Tel Aviv line, now abandoned.
Twice a day, the train chugged indolently through the Judean
mountains, winding its way along wadis filled with wildflowers
overseen by hawks circling far above. The
train station was an ornate arcade designed by the Turks in
their waning years of empire.
The ride to Tel Aviv took about and hour and a half. By
bus the ride was 45 minutes, by car, half an hour. An old joke
said you could step off the first carriage, pick a bouquet of
flowers, and step back on the train with time to spare.
Although preposterously cheap, the timeworn train always
made its leisurely run near-empty.
Almost always, that is.
The Thursday we had scheduled for our Zikaron
Yaakov excursion turned out to be “Jerusalem Day,” when
the country celebrates the capture and reunification of
The normally tranquil and placid train was filled to overflowing
with raucous Israeli teenagers enjoying the day off
from high school. Each three-seater couch was occupied
by one prone teenager. Cigarette haze filled the cars.
Transistor radios cackled and screeched. The chatter was
like an awesome aviary. Bubble gum popped and snapped.
After some informal negotiation, the guys in our shiur
managed to carve out a niche in the corner of the last car.
We said the brief travel-prayer, cracked open our Gemaras,
and settled down to learn.
Suddenly we looked up to see a disheveled teenage kid
standing over us. “Do you guys learn in Yeshivah?” he
inquired. “Yes,” we nodded. “Do you put on Tefillin?” he
continued. “Yes, we put on Tefillin,” we replied. Do you
have Tefillin here with you?” he pressed on. Wondering
where this was leading, we said yes, we did — we put them
on once a day and needed them for tomorrow. “I’d like to
put on Tefillin. Would you lend me a pair?” he concluded.
This unusual request provoked a heated argument among
us. Their high degree of sanctity requires Tefillin to be treated
with extreme respect. They cannot be worn when one’s
body is soiled or even while thinking unclean thoughts. Most
of the shiur thought that lending Tefillin to this secular high
school kid risked debasing them and making a laughing-stock
of this precious Mitzvah.
Rachamim, an Iranian immigrant who lived in
and joined the Yeshiva for the summers, thought differently.
“I’ll lend you my Tefillin,” he told the kid, “on condition that
you respect their sanctity and follow all the Halachic guidelines.”
The kid agreed. The Halachic guidelines meant he had
to wash his hands in running water, wear a kippa, say the
beracha, lay both the head and hand Tefillin properly, and
recite divrei keddusha while wearing them. The kid disappeared,
and returned in a flash holding his hands aloft, dripping
with water. (The facilities in the train did not include
hand towels!) Rachamim lent him a kippa, showed him how
to put on the Tefillin, and taught him the beracha.
From the moment the kid returned with his dripping
hands in the air, the party-atmosphere in the train transmuted
into total silence. Dozens of pairs of teenage eyes followed
his every move. The word went out and the entire
trainload of kids migrated to our car. All you could hear over
the clickety-click of the rails was our kid’s soft sobs as he
recited the Shema.
Then an even more remarkable thing happened. All of
the boys in the train formed a line behind our kid. Each
asked to put on Tefillin! Rachamim had his hands full. For the
next two hours the cacophony of music, chatter and bubblegum
ceased. One after another the boys washed their
hands, put on the kippa, said the beracha, put on the Tefillin,
and recited the Shema.
Afterwards the kids asked us to explain the meaning of
the Mitzvah of Tefillin. I volunteered and gave them a brief
lesson. I explained that Tefillin contain the four sacred
parchments from the Torah in which the Mitzvah of Tefillin is
mentioned. We wear them on our weaker arm to show that
His is the power. They are jewelry given to us by HaKadosh
Baruch Hu to show His love for us.
Rav Nachman bar Yitshak said to Rav Hiya bar Avin, “What
is written in the Tefillin of the Master of the World?” He replied
(Shmuel 1, 7:23) “And who is like unto your People Israel, one
nation on earth.” (Berachot 6a).
David Siegel is an alumnus of Ohr Somayach Yeshiva in
He is currently attached to a Kollel in
and published from manuscripts original works by Rabbi Elazar ben Yehuda
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