Wednesday, September 01, 2010

The tefillin-wearing White Russian prophetess of the 1850s.

This is a really interesting footnote found on pg. 48 of Rodkinson's book about tefillin, Tefillah le-Moshe (1883):

"I, the author, recall that in White Russia, near the city I grew up in, there was a young woman, a miracle worker who was thought to be a Prophetess. She would don tefillin every day - but not just one pair, two pairs - and the Zadikim did not protest. However, I have forgotten her name and which city since I was a small child."

Not surprisingly, historians assume he (who was born in 1845) meant the Holy Virgin of Ludmir, Chana Rachel Werbermacher (1805-1888) since this description seems to fit her quite well. Except for his use of the word נערה, I suppose. But of course if she was actually known as a מיידעלע then this could have been his Hebrew translation, and still fitting for a 45 year old woman. Alternatively, since he was a young child he may have gotten some of the facts wrong. Since you can do this easily now, I calculated the distance between Ludmir and Rodkinson's birthplace - it is a 136 mile drive today.


  1. Intressante.
    Derech agav - do you happen to know what the earliest source of tefillin is? In other words, what is the first place we see mention of Jews wearing boxes, thus indicating that they took the various verses (put them between your eyes, on your doorposts, etc.) literally. I know in the second temple period they were used, but how early in that period? And is there anything earlier?


  2. Well, there are tefillin (boxes and parshiot) among the Dead Sea Scrolls, so that takes it back to 100 BCE or so probably, which predates pretty much anything we have in writing outside of the Tanach and some Apocrypha, neither of which I think mentions them.

  3. Obviously the earliest physical evidence is the aforementioned tefillin excavated at Qumran and Murabbat. But in literature, they are mentioned in Matthew, the Letter of Aristeas and Josephus, so depending on how you date these, if they all refer to tefillin, etc.

    If it makes you uncomfortable that tefillin first show up evidence-wise in late 2nd Temple times, I've often wondered why in the time of Rabbi Akiva was there a hava amina to bind tefillin with colored wool (Menachos ).

    Also, I think the earliest source for the 4 branched shin is the Geonic Shimusha Rabba (which doesn't date the practice, but still).

  4. Hmmm. Something like tefillin should probably have been mentioned in Tanach or other literature, espeically if they were wearing them all day. But at the same time, there's no older evidence that the verses were interpreted allegorically, either. They simply are not mentioned, period, but once they are mentioned, they are described pretty much, more or less, the same way we have them today. 'Zat right?


  5. I don't think you can point to one specific thing and go "THIS is the problem" in the whole "Why don't you get a clear impression of Rabbinic Judaism in Tanach?" problem. In a way, the fact that you start to see hints of it in the later books almost makes the problem worse. But it's not one specific thing. Either this bothers you or it doesn't.

    In terms of them being described, the early sources I mentioned don't really describe them at all, although in Matthew Jesus is criticizing the yuhura of making them "broad." And the archaeological relics do show some which might be described as "broad." But in most ways they don't even come close to matching "more or less" what we have today - for example, they seem to be written on "scrap" leather, and in some cases are written on the short side - although four chambered and single chambered capsules do, I suppose, match, and that is obviously important.

  6. In Shadal's comment on Ex. 13:9 (which he understands as, "And you will have it for an insignia on your arm, and for a memorial between your eyes"), he refutes the idea that these phrases should be taken metaphorically. Part of his argument is based on the premise that such religious gear was nothing new in ancient times. Though he cites no specific sources or data (and does not address the question of what the oldest tefillin might have looked like), I think the argument is interesting and deserves further study:
    "If the matter needed reinforcement, I would add that we know that this was in fact the custom of ancient peoples – and that even today in Eastern countries, people wear cultic symbols on their bodies – for it is written, 'Nor shall you make in yourselves incised writing' (Lev. 19:28). So, too, modern-day Arabs write verses from their scripture on their doorposts and their city gates. Some say that it was the custom of ancient peoples to write on their skin, and on pieces of paper or tablets that they would wear on their foreheads, magical inscriptions and amulets. God wanted to distance Israel from such customs, and so He commanded us to wear on our skin some of the words of His Torah, so that the law of the Lord might always be in our mouths."

  7. Thanks for sharing this interesting tidbit.

  8. "What the oldest tefillin might have looked like" is not a problem since the straps and boxes and other details are laws Israel received orally from Moses and were preserved by practice, from generation to generation.
    The word Tephillin is not mentioned in the Tanakh. In the Torah they are called Totaphot and they are described as פאר in Yechezkiel 24:17 but we know they are the same thing.
    To say that the Jewish tradition is much older than archeological finds and it keeps alive things which history might have forgotten.



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