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The Amidah Project: Laying Tefillin–Wearing Your Prayer on Your Sleeve (Video)

This post is part of my Amidah Project series–an attempt to examine my personal experience of the core prayers of the normative Reform Jewish liturgy. For more, please browse my Amidah Project archive.

So after a couple of twists and turns, let’s get this project in full swing. (Read about the genesis of this project here.) In this series of posts, my intention is to share my experience of the Jewish prayer service.

The liturgy I use is Reform, drawn from the most recent Reform siddur (payerbook) update, Mishkan T’Filah. Those unfamiliar can explore some of the siddur in various places in the worship section of the Union for Reform Judaism website. But surprisingly, given the movement’s challenge of re-engaging younger and unaffiliated Jews–the URJ website does not offer a stand-alone section on prayer.

Many liberal Jews who choose to engage in davenning  (prayer) do so only on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath. It’s my personal practice to daven on weekdays, following a more traditional Jewish model which demands praying three times a day: morning; afternoon; and evening. That’s the goal, anyway. Usually it ends up being morning and evening prayer. Sometimes it’s just once a day. That’s okay–God didn’t intend for us to be perfect.

Before davenning Shacharit, the morning prayer service, I usually “lay” (that is, put on), tefillin. For a full explanation of what tefillin are and why I wear them (given that the practice is controversial in some Reform circles), see my earlier post, When a Reform Jew Lays Tefillin. But as I said in that post, I realized very quickly after the first time I wore tefillin that the practice had an amazing power to center my day and strengthen within me a feeling of connectedness to God, Judaism, and the ethical and moral goals I hope to abide by in a very literal way I could never have anticipated.

In the video below, I demonstrate how I don my tefillin and talk more about the practice. You can read a full transcript of the video, including the Hebrew and English transliteration of the initial blessing for tefillin, at the bottom of this post. I’d love to know if you lay tefillin or don’t–and why. What’s your reaction to or experience of what the rest of the (non-Jewish) world calls “phylacteries”? Leave a comment and let me know! And thanks for reading.

(Can’t see this video in your news feed? Watch it here.)


“Tefillin. I don’t don them every morning when I pray. But most mornings I do. I don’t say every blessing when I don them. But as with all things Reform, it’s your choice to be inspired by the elements of our tradition that speak to you. That honestly speak to you in your heart and in your soul–not that you don’t feel like doing something so you decide not to do it, because that’s not the basis of Reform.

It felt odd maybe the first time; it feels incredibly natural now:

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu, Melech haolam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu l’haniach tefillin.

(Blessed are you Lord, Our God, Ruler of the universe, who sanctifies us with commandments, and commands us to wrap tefillin.)

I crossed my fingers on that, because I’m actually not donning these to pray. God will forgive me. Hang on there, because there’s more. I don’t do the blessing for the rosh–the head–tefillin. And if you came to my house maybe most mornings, this is how you would find me. In my tefillin and davenning. On the balcony if it’s warm enough or quiet enough.

Sometimes I don’t daven with my tefillin. Sometimes I don’t daven at all. Sometimes I do an abbreviated service for myself in the morning. Sometimes I don’t do the T’filah [Judaism’s central prayer], I just do the morning blessings. And sometimes it’s the entire service with no choreography or standing at all at the back of a bus.

It’s okay. I would think at least for me, and I bet for God, it’s okay that you do something rather than nothing at all. Most of all, it’s okay that you struggle with your practice. Because at least that means you’re being thoughtful with your practice.

I think it’s a good look.”

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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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8 replies

  1. Thank you for your insight into the Jewish religion. As a recent convert is quite helpful. I like your attitude because it is so non-judgmental and practical.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Ben (of Israel’s Ben’s Tallit Shop fame.) I’m happy to see you’re still keeping up with my posts. What I find very interesting about your comment is when you say, “I’m Orthodox, so — predictably — I have a lot of bones to pick with your post.” I fail to see why you would think you’re being Orthodox would be a barometer of such predictability.

    First of all, you aren’t an Orthodox Jew. You’re simply a Jew, just like me. Your style of worship is Orthodox while mine is largely but not entirely Reform. As Jews, we choose different approaches to ritual practice and affiliate with religious communities that generally abide by these differing approaches. But there were no denominations at Sinai and that fact will never change.

    That said, there is no single answer about any Jewish legal matter–hence the very nature of the Talmud and the seminal Jewish value of debate. That’s especially so in Orthodox Judaism, which is the least homogenous of all approaches to Judaism. Unlike other streams (Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist–the latter two in non-U.S. terms, Progressive), which for the benefit of unfamiliar readers leaves halachic questions to individual rabbinic poskim, or legal “deciders”.

    While specific sub-movements within Orthodox Judaism (including both various Modern and Haredi or ultra-Orthodox approaches) look to a central posek and custom suggests that individual poskim not make legal rulings contradicting the central poskim or widening the understanding of previous rulings, this is in no way whatsoever law. Any individual rabbi, whether leading an entire community or an individual shul, is free to decide on legal questions as they see fit. Controversial or diverse holdings may have controversial or diverse repercussions within the wider Orthodox community–thus the fractured nature of the many movements and approaches beneath the Orthodox umbrella in the first place.

    This is perhaps the most surprising lesson for those unfamiliar to Judaism, and even for some liberal Jews: Orthodox Judaism is not monolithic. Quite the opposite, actually. Frankly, there’s more halachic unity within the liberal approaches to Judaism, even without the literal interpretation of the Hebrew Bible accepted within normative Orthodoxy. (On these grounds, a case could be made that the liberal streams are a more “authentic” version of Judaism as Orthodox leaders often claim about Orthodoxy–after all, they’re surprisingly more internally consistent.)

    So I never assume a Jew within the Orthodox community would agree with me or disagree with me. I’ve received diverse responses from all types of Jews about things I write on my blog, and such diverse opinion within and between Jewish movements is very easy to find simply by spending some time Googling around (again, for the benefit of those unfamiliar.)

    In terms of what you shared in your comment, Sephardic Jewry and the practices therein are no more internally consistent than they are within Orthodoxy in general. Why would they be? And for every opinion shared in the Talmud–which, of course, can’t be cited as a legally binding law book, anyway–there’s often an equal and opposite opinion. That’s how Judaism works.

    If you assume that by dint of davenning in an Orthodox community as a rule your interpretation of Judaism will at all times diverge from liberal Jewish perspectives, there’s a deeper assumption you’re making here. You’re assuming Orthodoxy has a internal consistency on halachic positions which just isn’t there. There’s no hard and fast denominational justification for your opinions about non-Orthodox movements of which to avail there. Your perspectives, like it or not, are your own.

    That’s how Jews work.

  3. I’m Orthodox, so — predictably — I have a lot of bones to pick with your post. But you did write one thing I had no problem with: not saying the bracha on the Shel Rosh. There is an intense debate among the Rishonim over whether you should say a bracha on the Shel Rosh every day, or just if you spoke after putting on the Shel Yad. The Rif holds that under normal circumstances you don’t say a bracha on the Shel Rosh, the Gra rules likewise, and to this day the Sephardic practice is in accordance with the Rif’s opinion.

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