What I Learned in 20 Years of Donning Tefillin
by Marc Mangel
When our congregation had a physical newsletter, the editor sometimes added thoughts from the chazal. Thus, in May 2001 I read words from the Vilna Gaon about the power of putting on tefillin and davening Shachrit at sunrise.
I had turned 50 the previous March and am an early riser, so decided to give it a try. Like many people who grew up in the Reform movement, I had an old pair of tefillin and refreshed on how to put them on. It did not take long before I bought an new pair.
Here’s what I learned putting on tefillin for 20 years and davening Shachrit daily.
In short: it is awesome.
I have learned that it is hard to daven regularly and not have a sense of gratitude. Furthermore, gratitude leads to happiness (not the other way around).
In the New York Times on 1 Jan 2021, Tara Parker-Pope’s article For a Healthier 2021, Keep the Best Habits of a Very Bad Year had a focus on gratitude:
“Numerous studies show that people who have a daily gratitude practice, in which they consciously count their blessings, tend to be happier, have lower stress levels, sleep better and are less likely to experience depression. In one study, researchers recruited 300 adults, most of them college students seeking mental health counseling. All the volunteers received counseling, but one group added a writing exercise focused on bad experiences, while another group wrote a letter of gratitude to another person each week for three weeks. A month later, those who wrote gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health…Three months later the researchers scanned the brains of students while they completed a different gratitude exercise. The students who had written gratitude letters earlier in the study showed greater activation in a part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex, believed to be related to both reward and higher-level cognition.”
I have learned that putting on tefillin, davening, and having gratitude can make one smarter.
In The Heart of Torah (vol 2, pg 16-17), R. Shai Held writes that gratitude “is inherently outward looking…When one has been the beneficiary of God’s kindness, one is expected to bestow kindness oneself .” He goes on that if our gratitude is not outward looking “it is merely pleasure or gladness, but not gratitude”.
I have learned that one can become more generous by davening daily.
I have learned that putting on tefillin regularly leads to an enhanced sense of spirituality. Part of the reason is that when davening by oneself there is quiet. In the cold weather, I am alone; in the warm weather the birds are with me. The more inward and quieter one is, the more one achieves mental clarity.
There may be an identified physiological mechanism for the enhanced sense of spirituality. Steven Schram, in Tefillin: An Ancient Acupuncture Point Prescription for Mental Clarity (Journal of Chinese Medicine 2002), wrote that “…the tefillin and [their] wraps form a potent acupuncture point formula focused on the Governing Vessel (Du Mai) and aimed at elevating the spirit and clearing the mind.” Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) thus provides a mechanism for the spiritual and elevating effect of tefillin.
The Rebbe (pg 250 in Bringing Heaven Down to Earth edited by R. Tzvi Freeman) wrote: “Over 1700 years in advance, the author of the Zohar predicted a revolution of science and technology beginning in the middle of the last [19th] century…From this we know that the true purpose of all technology and modern science is neither convenience nor power but a means to discover Godliness within the physical world”. Similarly, the Torah knew of the TCM points long before TCM came on the scene.
I have learned the value of a good translation. I not fluent in Hebrew and having a good translation allows me to glance from the right hand page to the left hand to better understand a word or phrase. When doing so one wants to have a translation that speaks to you as an individual – finding translations that do the job requires work.
I have learned the power of setting the pace of prayer. When davening alone, it is possible to linger on prayers when one wishes. For example, I have meditations for the three verses following the Sh’ma that I do not have to rush through to stay with the congregation.
I have learned that prayer is habit forming. When I began putting on tefillin, it was an effort to carve time in my morning (when I do my best work) to pray. Over the years, I no longer had to make time to daven but needed to daven. Also over the years I added mincha and maariv. It is pretty awesome to check in with God three times a day.
I have learned how to easily take Jewish practice with me. I travel with a tallit and tefillin. Doing so allows one to turn any hotel room (or roof – it is really something to daven at sunrise on the roof of a hotel) into a special place. That too is awesome.