Plant-Based Torah – Parashat Bo: Upon the Arms, Between the Eyes, A Reminder of Hope

January 6th, 2022

By Alex Weisz

Parashat Bo is a dense portion to say the least – from the gruesome tenth and final plague to the introduction of Passover & the pesach offering as the first mitzvah in the Torah, there is much to say about this portion. Nevertheless, another couple of passages at the very end of the parsha caught my eye, and I would like to unpack them a little further.

Towards the end of Bo, God gives instructions to Moses to pass along to the Israelites, most notably the introduction of the annual feast of Unleavened Bread and the redemption of every first born son. Between these commands, God includes a rare explanation to a command – that is, that they serve as a reminder of the Israelites redemption from slavery in Egypt. In both instances1  a peculiar detail is given: “and it shall serve as a sign upon your hand, and a symbol on your forehead” – tefillin! Tefillin are among the most iconic ritual symbols in Judaism, black leather boxes with straps that are wrapped around the wearer’s arm and draped down their shoulders. Within each box are pieces of parchment with verses written on them – two of which are these very verses from Parashat Bo! Traditionally, these are worn during morning prayers on every non-holiday morning to fulfill these exact commandments, in order to be reminded of the Israelite’s liberation from slavery. To some, this is a bizarre practice; to most observers of this mitzvah, it is of incredible significance.

These verses particularly caught my eye, as we are only within a few weeks of the beginning of the seven and a half year long Daf Yomi cycle, in which a page of Talmud is studied daily from start to finish. The very first volume, Masechet Berachot, addresses blessings and prayers, as well as the subject of tefillin. The Sages of the Talmud have some incredibly interesting things to say about Tefillin, from discussing God’s tefillin and the verses contained within the Divine boxes2 , to declaring that one who recites the morning shema without wearing tefillin has borne false testimony against themself.3  Due to these talmudic discussions that have been read by the Jewish world over the last few weeks, I have seen a number of people on social media asking other vegans and vegetarians whether or not they should or should not choose to partake in the mitzvah of tefillin, which are mandated by Jewish law to be made out of leather and animal skin parchment.

Without getting caught up in the greater argument about the role of animals in Jewish ritual life, my humble answer is that it depends on one’s priorities. Ultimately, the laws surrounding the tefillin are codified in Jewish law. As an observant Jew, I do partake in this mitzvah – just as I attend synagogues who utilize kosher Torah scrolls, written on animal parchment, and I have been blowing the shofar for my community since I was a little boy. Unlike consuming animal products for food, these ritual items are some of my most precious possessions. These are beloved objects that I use to observe the laws of my Creator, Hashem Yitbarach that I will use for my entire life, and, if I am so fortunate, my children and grandchildren will be able to use them as well. 

It is not my place to determine whether or not another person should wear tefillin – however, for those who are interested, there are a number of considerations to be made that can minimize the consumption involved in the mitzvah. One option to consider is to acquire a used set of tefillin. Though I would absolutely recommend having it inspected by a knowledgeable Rabbi, this is a great option, so long as the Tefillin are in good enough shape to be used. This leads perfectly into my next suggestion: if you are going to purchase a new set of tefillin, you should absolutely be sure to invest in a high-quality pair of tefillin, gassot specifically. Though these are far from the cheapest option, tefillin gassot are made out of a single piece of leather shaped by applying thousands of pounds of pressure, which are much easier to repair than cheap tefillin are. Cheap tefillin, often labeled as “bar mitzvah tefillin” are made out of several pieces of leather glued and sewn together. These are not particularly durable and much more difficult to repair without needing to be replaced, so they are certainly not the ideal tefillin for purchase. Regardless of the method in which a set of tefillin is used, they should be treated with the utmost respect and care, while their long-term durability can and should be aided with a protective case.

Notably, the Shulchan Aruch, one of the most central codes of Jewish law, permits making tefillin out of the skin of an animal that died naturally or even without the normal method of kosher slaughter. Unfortunately, this is not a widespread practice today, but looking to the future, this could be a great option for the future of compassionate tefillin. A talented scribe could source the leather needed to craft tefillin gassot from animals from an animal sanctuary in order to craft ethically sourced, durable tefillin that did not require the slaughter of one or multiple animals in order to make a single set of tefillin.

Certainly it is understandable that many folks who partake in plant-based diets are uncomfortable with using or wearing leather. Nevertheless, for those who want to undertake this sacred mitzvah, like the most important things in the world, quality is better than quantity, to be used and reused for as long as possible. Either reuse, or acquire a set that will be able to be used and reused for decades, if not longer. The Exodus is to remind the Jewish people and the world that justice can be done, that the voices of the oppressed can and will be heard. Tefillin is a part of the daily reminder to remember what happened in Egypt, to remember to have hope for a better world, hope that will inspire us to take action to translate that vision into reality.

Shabbat Shalom.

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