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Taking Off My Tefillin

I used to love putting on tefillin every day, but as I got older, I lost my faith. Now they sit on my shelf.

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(Collage Tablet Magazine; original images Pixar and Shutterstock)
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When I was 8 years old, I went with my father to a crafts fair at a local synagogue in Dallas. Uninterested in purchasing Hebrew Monopoly or any of the Jewish star-emblazoned necklaces, earrings, bracelets, baseball hats, and underwear the fair had to offer, we found the exit earlier than anticipated. But on our way out, as fate would have it, something caught my dad’s bargain-hunting eye: a booth selling tefillin.

These were not just any ordinary tefillin. For starters, there was the case—the same protective carrying case that Israeli soldiers used in the field. It was waterproof, boiling-hot-latke-oil-proof, nuclear bomb-proof, and could survive a fall off the Western Wall. Inside the top of the case was a mirror that could, I don’t know, deflect enemy lasers. Of course, my dad had to buy them for me.

I was offered a choice of three different types of tefillin to put in this amazing case: the cheap kind; the affordable but still socially acceptable kind; or the ultra-expensive, endorsed-by-the-chief-rabbi-of-Israel kind. I didn’t want my dad to shell out too much money on these super tefillin, of which I did not yet quite understand the significance. Also not wanting to insult God by electing the crappy cheap version, I decided to go for the second option, the semi-super tefillin.

Since I was only 8, they languished on my parents’ shelf until the big day came. It was one month before my 13th birthday, the customary moment for me to put on tefillin for the first time. I woke up at 6 a.m. to accompany my dad to morning minyan.

A rabbi who sat next to my dad carefully explained how to put them on. “Put the shel yad on first, but don’t finish wrapping it, and then put on the shel rosh,” he said, leaning a little too close to my face as he steadied the headgear. It was a perfect moment; problem was, he put it on the wrong arm. I was none the wiser until 10 minutes later when my dad asked, “Aren’t you a righty?”

“Yeah, so?” I answered.

“It’s on the wrong arm!” he said louder than necessary, eliciting scowls from those around us. He motioned, and the rabbi came to help me put it on the correct arm, while disappointingly grumbling, “I thought you were a lefty.”

Despite this phylactating error, the whole ordeal ended up a great success. As I looked around the room, I saw the men around me rolling up their sleeves and flexing their bulging muscles, like a group of Jewish Rosie the Riveters, and slowly wrapping their tefillin around their arms and heads. My mom sat in the women’s section, watching with glee as her little boy davened with tefillin. A family friend snapped pictures with a disposable Kodak. As I snacked on sticky doughnuts and orange juice after prayers ended, I felt like I was part of an exclusive club.

It’s now five years later. And at age 18, I must now confess that my tefillin have become for me what Woody was to the boy in Toy Story: They were once my favorite toy, but they have been dumped by the wayside, left to waste away with the rest of my former favorites: Pokémon cards, superhero action figures, my lucky rock. If my tefillin could talk to me, I bet they would say, “C’mon, Ari, put me on one more time. Just like the old days.”


As soon as I became a bar mitzvah, I began praying at the local yeshiva. This, too, made me feel like a part of the special Tefillin Club. I would put on my tefillin in the back row, surrounded by cool high-school kids, and I’d walk out with the extra cool ones for a hot-chocolate break after we finished the shemonah esrei.

Quite simply, I loved my tefillin. Though it was a nuisance to get out of bed in time every morning, putting on tefillin was a staple of my day. Even on days when it was forbidden to put tefillin on, I longed for them and wished that I could. Whenever I would see children my age immaturely hitting each other with the loose straps, I would silently seethe. How could they be so irreverent, so sacrilegious? I would never treat my tefillin that way, I’d think.

Then things changed. I began to lose faith.

I would hear stories of people who had their lives saved by their tefillin. One guy was praying while driving and got into a car accident; the only thing that stopped his head from smashing through the windshield was his headpiece. Another devout man, about to board a plane, realized he left his tefillin at home and missed the flight while retrieving them, and—you guessed it—the plane crashed. It all sounded like a bit much.

One morning, I woke up and a thought fell on me like a ton of bricks. I realized I was only an Orthodox Jew because it was what I had been taught since birth. I knew no other way. If I had been born into a Christian family, I would have been on the Jesus train. If I’d been born into a Muslim family, I would’ve jumped on the Allah bandwagon. If I had been raised in the splendor of the flying spaghetti monster, then I’d have spent my mornings praising his noodle appendages. I was an Orthodox Jew by chance, I realized, and the realization shook me to my core.

I started looking at Judaism as objectively as possible and asking myself, “Does any of this stuff actually make sense?” The answer for me was a resounding no.

Still, it was a gradual progression. I still put my tefillin on at first, but maybe just said a few prayers, or rushed through davening, or waited until the last possible moment before sundown. It was once so clear to me why I put them on; symbolism this, God that, heaven this, divine retribution that. But at some point, it became a chore. The warm pulse-pounding feeling in my arm no longer felt comforting; it felt distressing. When I reached to scratch my head and the armpiece hit me in the eye, I no longer shrugged it off as an inconvenience, but instead allowed myself to mutter, “Shit, that hurt!” because, come on, it did.

Eventually, toward the end of my junior year of high school, it reached a point where I almost completely stopped wearing them. They would sit at in my school’s beit midrash where they would go untouched for months at a time. When I did show up for davening—which was hardly regularly—I was usually 20 minutes late and would throw them on, without any of the accompanying prayers.

That’s where things stand now.

My parents know what is going on with me. They wish they could change it, but they realize it is out of their control. A few months ago, I made a deal with my dad: He let me to go a public-school prom that fell on Shabbat, and in exchange I promised that I would put on tefillin every day for the rest of the summer. I have been trying to follow my word, but I usually forget.

My dad wants me to take them to Israel with me, where I will be spending a gap year to take a Young Judea course starting in a few days, now that I’ve graduated high school. He wants me to “redevelop some sort of a connection.” But what sort of connection is there to form with cowhide and parchment? I used to know, but I just don’t feel that connection anymore. My old friend Woody has been replaced by my new shiny Buzz Lightyear; books like Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great, and Richard Elliott Friedman’s Who Wrote the Bible? These are the treasured things I take off my shelf these days.

But this might not be the end of the story. I come from a family of searchers. My parents went through various levels of religious commitment and thought before they settled on Orthodoxy. My three older brothers all went through similar ordeals, and they all eventually returned to the path. The only thing I can do is keep on open mind.

So, even though I’m not using my tefillin much these days, I’m keeping them on the shelf in their army-approved carrying case, because I might not be done with them quite yet. If you saw Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, you know that eventually Buzz gets outgrown, too.


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FirstStateJew says:

What a fine piece of writing . I followed this tale of joy and tribulation, wondering how it would end. Now I am curious what will happen with Ari in Israel. Thousands of American Jewish guys have gone through the post-Bar Mitzvah synagogue organized teffilin clubs or Sunday morning davening scene. At least for the dozens and dozens of former young men (now older for sure) with whom I spent many Sunday mornings dutifully putting on teffilin, we now do not number in the dozens who make up any kind of daily minyan and no one I know of my peers (baby boomer here) has any tefillin as part of their daily routine. I am not sure what to tell Ari except keep on writing as you certainly touched on several emotions, actions and attitudes which show such wise insights way beyond your years. I am glad you shared the story and you expressed the confusions so well.
Perhaps if I was some rabbi ( especially one who would not assume anyone’s left or right handedness) I might write some words of encouragement or start some online , perhaps unwanted, ‘preaching’ to you. I’m just another former tefillin wearer, but one who still regularly attends services….for whatever reasons.
Good luck in your post high school year(s) and perhaps we’ll get to read more of your thoughts in the future.

Buzz Lightyear is shallow.

Lauren Deutsch says:

it is not so unexpected that what moves a young woman’s or man’s heart / mind may not as he (or she) matures. Since it was the IDF-quality case that was first attractive, perhaps it has lost its charm. He needs a new case, one that beckons his invocation prayers to issue forth from the heart. Love evolves with each step of our maturity … going from our parents and eventually to others. It’s what’s inside the person’s heart as much as what’s inside the tefillin boxes that is key.

Judaism is deep enough to accommodate your personal growth and exploration. There is much to love in Judaism as much as you loved your tefillin. Keep exploring and digging, and you will find other things. I recently turned 40, and I have spent years-long phases intrigued with being strictly shomer mitzvot, learning Hebrew, leyning Torah regularly, studying midrash, etc. Your level of faith will rise and fall with various events in your life, but your connection to Judaism is not dependent on faith; it’s dependent on the “accident” of your birth (or, in my case, falling in love with Torah as a Mormon teenager more than 20 years ago).

The problem is that you learned too much and that knowledge killed the mystery. In fact, nobody knows why do tefillin, and pretending we know why just adds to the suspicion that its all bogus. That’s because the rabbis and sages who decided we should do tefillin and told us why pretty much made that stuff up. Maybe knowing this will bring back the mystery of tefillin, and that will make it a little more exciting. Go back to your child’s mind…

    surfer_dad says:

    We ALL know too much — too much about how the universe works, too much about the chemistry & psychology of love, etc.

    So what’s left? Putting on his tefillin made him feel like part of a club, a club of like minded individuals. And he was. And it was great – for a while.

    What’s next? Why are we a tribe? What do we actually DO with that?
    The most powerful moments of being a Jew to me were and are at the main rituals and being in odd places. Wrapping tefillin on Mt Fuji, in J’lem, on a beach in Fiji – these were the most gratifying, moving moments to me with other Jewish men (in addition to doing it with every man’s hand on me after my sister died, during my son’s Bar Mitzvah and many other more obvious moments).

    There is a gap in Judaism – a gap that is most prevalent to those after childhood and before kids and ESPECIALLY affects our young men. WHY? HOW? What purpose does it all serve? How does it HELP me? Fulfill me?
    It’s not about Orthodoxy, but a real & relevant Judaism that goes with me and flavors EVERYTHING I love to do and care about in life. Not fight those things.

    That’s because the rabbis and sages who decided we should do tefillin and told us why pretty much made that stuff up.” – I don’t want to sound like I’m scolding, but this statement actually does more harm than good. Maybe it is due to lack of understanding where teffilin was commanded to be worn. I do not want the risk of being pedantic but let me just show you -why- we wrap teffilin:

    Devarim (Deuteronomy) 6: 3-9

    3 You shall hearken, O Israel, and you shall beware to perform, so that it will be good for you, and so that you will increase very much, as HaShem, the God of your forefathers, spoke to you – a land flowing with milk and honey.

    4 Hear, O Israel: HaShem is our God, HaShem is One.

    5 You shall love HaShem your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your possessions.
    6 And these words that I command you today, shall be upon your heart.

    7 You shall teach them to your sons and you shall speak of them while you sit in your home, and while you walk on the way, when you lie down and when you rise

    8 Bind them as a sign on your arm and let them be frontlets between your eyes [teffilin]

    9 And write them on the doorposts of your house, and upon your gates. [mezuzah]
    So I’m not exactly sure why you think it is supposed to be a mystery. It is a commandment, and a very important one for that matter. Just do a little reading into the passages contained within the teffilin, and the picture is pretty clear. This is not something magically invented by our Sages of Blessed memory, nor our Rabbi’s. It was a commandment given to us directly from G-d.

    To Ari Margolies:

    I understand the struggle you’re having. The difference is is that I chose to be Orthodox whereas my parents, and brothers are Traditional at best. I chose to go to Yeshiva of my own volition in South Bend, IN. Unfortunately events in my life transpired which are still very difficult for me to articulate- but as an end result while not having my faith in HaShem lost, I felt my Jewish identity had been robbed of me. I too stopped wearing my teffilin for a very long time now. Just recently I have been working on getting back into gear. My brain is still frum, my neshama (soul) still cries out for prayer, study, and wrapping, but my body has become lazy. The old muscle memory of emes (truth, sincerity)has fallen into the entropy of sheker (falsehood, insincerity). You Ari, as a learned individual know what I’m referencing here. While you were born right into a certain level of observance, I chose to enter into that beautiful world. I’m trying to re-connect myself to it right now. Trying to remind myself to daven when I know I should. I at least say the Shema as often as I can, for even as a child the Shema has been something special to me. While I’m re-connecting to the holy relationship of our people (judaism), I am blogging [] about the different things I study, or think about, and then research a bit. I invite you to read, pipe in, or add to. I feel like I’m starting from complete scratch right now, but that is alright. R. Akiva started at even less and became one of our greatest Torah minds at a very late age. No matter where life leads you, should you find yourself with no connection to Judaism remember that is it never too late to renew that connection. Just take the baby steps you need, and think about the why’s behind what it is we do. Christians, and Muslims practice a falsehood with the fullness of their hearts. We as Jews generally practice truth with the emptiness of our own hearts. This is not just a call to you, but to other fellow Jews reading this: Become a practicing Jew, and practice TRUTH with the fullness of your hearts. Doing what you can, what is within your abilities will be counted to you in the World to Come. But by not trying, you have nothing to show that you tried.

      Yes, I understand about the commandment. But why would G_d command us to do such a thing, and what does the totefet between the eyes really mean? These are great unknowns of Judaism, even the sages of old don’t know what it means. We should stop assuming we know things we don’t, because the result is alienation from Judaism, which is such a load of opinions about what this and that part of Judaism means. None of those opinions really matter, because the promise was that if we are obedient we will someday receive an explanation from the Moshiach.

gwhepner says:


Some people say that hokey-pokey

refers to Catholics’ loss of

when priests do things that seem
most hokey

in the mass’s hocus-pocus,

as when they put their right hand

and after this their right hand

and claim to cleanse you of all sin,

raising hokey-pokey doubt

not just for Puritans, but me,

for though I really love to joke

I find it very hard to see

the point that priests who hokey-poke

are making when they claim that

is Jesus’ body, and that wine

becomes his blood and then is fed

into their mouths, their final

In a different ritual, I

put on my arm and head tefillin,

and if perchance you ask me why

I do this I’ll explain. I’m

to do the hokey-pokey, but

quite differently from priests.
My mind

is open and is never shut,

because the leather straps I wind

around my left arm, that is weak,

binds me to words the Torah

reminding me that God’s unique,

declaring this each day near neyts,

without tefillin on

a day that supersedes this

and takes all Jews out of their

that binds them to this weekday

This is a beautiful piece. I hope that you fwill find your own way to some form of Jewish committment. For me, books like Richar Elliot Friedmann’s Who Wrote the Bible actually served to reinforce my faith, helping me to hear the different voices in our holy writings. There is plenty of room for religious committement in Judaism even if one doesn’t believe in Torah min Ha-shamayim

May you, one day, find your own path.

A talented young writer, Candide is a quality. This is the age when we believe we are immortals.

My experience is a reverse of Ari’s story. I am in my sixties. Never saw a tefilin in Romania until I use it once in 1958 in a basement barmitzvah. Then I bought a teffilin 22 years ago Here is the story My life in six words

My son is autistic and he had his barmitzvah in Roseville Sacramento, where we hardly have a mynian during the week. Here is his Miracle Bar Mitzvah – YouTube he has more affinity with ritual and puts on the tefillin with a Chabbad like precision that amazes everyone. He can say Shma; Yet, he said Gd doesn’t exist. For him, the abstraction of HaShem is impossible to imagine. Yet, he is Jewish.

I have been named the Sponsor of Teffilin Club here at Chabbad Roseville. Sometimes we are four, sometimes two, plus the Rabbi. Unlike Ari, I am at the age when we realize we are mortals. So I decided to order a new pair of Tefillin Gassos 40 mm (that Ari names the super teffilin ) from Hamafitz in Brooklyn. One of the expensive tefillin they sell are signed and numbered by a famous Rabbi. They are Kosher, I was told, because the sofrim working at the “parsha” inside the teffilin, are required to go to Mikve daily, are not allowed to listen to music while working and have a daily one hour study on the laws of writing parsha.

As live in California, I was shocked as I would never encourage such a way of treating young people. I bought the lowest price kosher parsha. Dealing with HaMaftiz is a quite an experience. They are never sure of when their teffilin are ready. The prices changes a bit, quite often. I am still waiting for them. The great Rabbis told us to buy the most expensive tefillin we can afford, and here they are. I am returning to faith, as Ari decided for a little vacation of a few years.

I like the idea of the Zahal-like terfillin bags. Only in Israel one sees Rabbis with machine guns and soldiers with teffilin. Our synagogue -including the young Rebbi – goes occasionally to a shooting range in Lincoln California. I bought a magnum 45 revolver, as in the movies with Clint Eastwood. And a shot gun, because if we live in America, why not? In reality, I am scared of this gun and it nearly breaks my hand each time I try it. It accumulates dust. Years after I bought the gun, I will have new tefillin gassos, 40 mmm. This is closer to my personality, as it performs an “Yichud” (unification) with Ha-Shem. And I read Rabbi Nachman daily, as you see here

Liffe is very, very tough and I need to talk to Gd. Why do You do this to me? I asked Gd.
What I have done wrong? etc. I was looking for a sign. Just before
arriving home, I see police and an accident, on the side of the highway.
A woman in her 50 sat dazzled on the side of the road. A young man a
was laying on his back next to nearly destroyed car.

Then I realized my lack of gratitude. Gd protects me, in the background,
I thought. I could have been in that or other accident. No, it wasn’t
me. We don’t notice the wonders that happen every second of our lives.

Seth Weinberg says:

I appreciated you amazing ability to convey your thoughts on
paper. You truly write beautifully. I just wished it worked out better. I
myself grew-up non-religious and at 13 started to seek the truth. I remember finding
true Judaism and how exciting and turned on I became. It was an amazing thing that
I felt I could talk to G-d, not a Rabbi or Cantor singing on the high holidays without
any meaning to the words. I felt that I needed to be there or G-d would be
upset with me and that is a totally childish understanding of how a person
relates to G-d.

I first borrowed a pair of teffilin from the local
synagogue. I doubt it was kosher, but I would try to put my teffilin on every
day, waking up early and sneaking it before my parents would wake up and see
me. I felt this was my secret between me and G-d. Then finally in my senior
year in high school, the local Orthodox youth group bought me my very own. Then
I could come home to my parents and tell them about my new trophy prize. This journey has led me all over the world
searching for the truth and an understanding of how to come closer to G-d.

I realized that G-d is not a far off scary figure that
punishes, but a loving father that is so close and all we need to do is call
upon him. It is about developing a
relationship. If you have a friend you never speak to, then how are they your
friend? G-d is waiting for us to reach out and talk to him, just like a friend.

I wish you luck in your gap year and I hope you find
yourself and the truth!

    Samuel Goldring says:

    My 15 year old asks why doesn’t G-d talk back to him in plain straight talk the way a father or close friend would talk to him?

Hershl says:

Hashem is a lot more real than any religion.

I, too, have left Judaism in order to truly be an eved hashem.

If you care enough to write your story and share it publicly, I’ll bet you still care to find out the answers to your unanswered questions. I know this might sound irrelevant, but did you ever check if those tefillin were ‘posul’?

Read Aryeh Kaplan. He will give you insights you don’t yet have.
Just a thought…
You assumed you were doing someone a favor by wearing tefillin.
in actuality, the tefillin was protecting and doing you a favor.
Find a Rav you can connect with and find out who you are and from whence you come.

Ari Margolies says:

Thank you all very much for reading my article. I really appreciate the feedback. If you have any questions, complaints, or opinions please email me at , or send me a message on facebook. I hope to write for tablet magazine again soon so stay tuned!

hash brown says:, top post

herbcaen says:

yawn. this story is boring. Every day, we can read 3 stories at The Forward about trapped women in the Hassidic community leaving their husband and children so they can write poetry. These stories have exhausted the market share

Quote: “One morning, I woke up and a thought fell on me like a ton of bricks. I realized I was only an Orthodox Jew because it was what I had been taught since birth. I knew no other way. If I had been born into a Christian family, I would have been on the Jesus train. If I’d been born into a Muslim family, I would’ve jumped on the Allah bandwagon. If I had been raised in the splendor of the flying spaghetti monster, then I’d have spent my mornings praising his noodle appendages. I was an Orthodox Jew by chance, I realized, and the realization shook me to my core.”

As a Catholic, I don’t use phylacteries, but the chance question has crossed my mind. I found out it’s only one side of the question, the other being, “but what if it isn’t a chance, but Providence? What if there’s a purpose for me being what I am and been placed where I find my place?” Don’t you think those questions too deserve an answer?

Michael Sedley says:


I’m not sure that you need to believe in anything to find Tfilin meaningful.

My father told me that as a child in the Budapest Ghetto during the war he remembers his grandfather telling him that there was no G-d. But this lack of belief never stopped my Grandafther laying Tfilin every morning in the tiny room that he shared with my father and uncle.

I wrote about it here:


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Taking Off My Tefillin

I used to love putting on tefillin every day, but as I got older, I lost my faith. Now they sit on my shelf.