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The Rabbi of a Sephardic Congregation Should Wear Rabbeinu Tam’s Tefillin

Part II

We at Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck, were privileged to receive a gift of both Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam’s tefillin by Dr. Shlomo Amar. The dilemma that I faced was whether I should don this pair of Rabbeinu Tam’s tefillin every day after Shacharit, at least when I pray at Shaarei Orah. We continue the discussion we began last week.

Traditions Not to Wear Rabbeinu Tam’s Tefillin

The non-Chasidic Ashkenazic training I had received did not at all stress the importance of wearing Rabbeinu Tam’s tefillin. As we noted last week, this community follows the Vilna Gaon’s adamant insistence that Rashi’s tefillin are undoubtedly the correct approach to tefillin.

In fact, in the years that I served as one of the assistants to Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, I had the privilege to help him don tefillin. Not surprisingly, he wore only Rashi’s version of tefillin and not that of Rabbeinu Tam. This is hardly surprising, as Rav Soloveitchik was the scion of the line of Rav Chaim of Volozhin, the leading student of the Vilna Gaon, who shared his mentor’s burning insistence on the correctness of Rashi’s tefillin. The Mishnah Berurah (34:4), in fact, cites the Vilna Gaon’s ruling in accordance with Rashi without recording a dissenting opinion.

Similarly, Rav Moshe Feinstein did not wear Rabbeinu Tam’s tefillin until very late in life (1980) when the Lubavitcher Rebbe famously gifted him a specially made Rabbeinu Tam’s tefillin (Teshuvot Igrot Moshe Orach Chaim 4:9). Along the same lines, Rav Aryeh Lebowitz (in a “Ten Minute Halacha” discussion of Rabbeinu Tam’s tefillin) relates that Rav Chaim Kanievsky does not wear Rabbeinu Tam’s tefillin (save for one time) even though his practice is to meticulously seek to satisfy every opinion in Halacha.

Other communities also have a tradition not to wear Rabbeinu Tam’s tefillin. Moroccan Jews, as reported by Ribi Shalom Messas (Teshuvot Shemesh U’Magein 3:5:4) did not have the custom in Morocco to wear Rabbeinu Tam’s tefillin. “Darke Abotenou,” though, notes that today many Moroccan Jews have adopted the more popular Sephardic practice to wear both sets of tefillin. The Baladi group of Yemenite Jews, who strictly abide by the rulings of the Rambam, do not wear tefillin of Rabbeinu Tam. The Rambam (Hilchot Tefillin 3:5) shares Rashi’s view of the order of placement of the parshiot in the tefillin.

Finally, the fact that the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 34:4) notes that only a person with a reputation of being exceptionally pious should wear Rabbeinu Tam’s tefillin in addition to that of Rashi, convinces many to refrain from wearing Rabbeinu Tam’s tefillin.

Ben Ish Chai and Rav Ovadia Yosef: Pro-Rabbeinu Tam’s Tefillin

On the other hand, both the Ben Ish Chai and Chacham Ovadia Yosef strongly advocate that all men also don Rabbeinu Tam’s tefillin. The Ben Ish Chai advocates this practice largely due to Kabbalistic reasons. The Kabbalah associates extraordinary value and kedushah with the tefillin of Rabbeinu Tam. Chacham Ovadia, on the other hand, notes the many Rishonim who support the view of Rabbeinu Tam. Rav Yosef similarly encourages observing Shabbat until it has ended in accordance with Rabbeinu Tam’s stricter view (72 minutes after sunset), since a very large group of Rishonim support this group as well. At a lecture to a popular audience, I heard Rav Ovadia Yosef assure those present that the fact that they were regular attendees of the shiur demonstrates that they are on a sufficiently high level to wear Rabbeinu Tam’s tefillin.

We should note that the Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 17b) states that one who has not worn tefillin (“karkafta d’lo manach tefillin”) does not merit a share in Olam Haba. This motivates Rav Yosef and many others to encourage wearing Rabbeinu Tam’s tefillin due to the severe consequences for men who do not fulfill this very important mitzvah.

However, there is a major difference between the Ben Ish Chai and Chacham Ovadia. The Ben Ish Chai vigorously advocates simultaneously wearing both Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam’s tefillin due to Kabbalistic reasons. He bases himself on the well-known Gemara (Eruvin 95b) that states that there is room for two tefillin on a man’s body. This became very common practice among a large group of Sephardic Jews. Indeed, Rav Ely Allen, the rabbi emeritus of Shaarei Orah, wears both sets of tefillin at the same time.

Chacham Ovadia, on the other hand, argues vociferously (Teshuvot Yabia Omer 1:3) that even Sephardic Jews should wear the two pairs consecutively (with Rashi’s being worn first, since fundamentally Rashi is the authoritative opinion). Rav Yosef argues that each pair of tefillin must be no wider than two centimeters in order for both to be placed correctly on the arm and head. This, Rav Ovadia contends, is a nearly impossible requirement for contemporary sofrim (scribes) to satisfy. Rav Yosef argues that it is better to forego the Kabbalistic advantages of simultaneously wearing both sets of tefillin and adopt the Hasidic practice of wearing the two pairs consecutively, in order to ensure that the tefillin are placed correctly on the arm and head.

Conclusion

I was struck when Jerusalem Chief Rabbi Rav Shlomo Amar visited Shaarei Orah this summer and donned Rabbeinu Tam’s tefillin after removing his Rashi’s tefillin, even on a day that he was rushing to catch a flight. I was even surprised that when traveling, Rav Amar made the extra effort to bring his Rabbeinu Tam set along with his Rashi set. Richard Schulz reports that he saw Chacham Ovadia Yosef do the same a few decades ago when he visited Manhattan’s Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue. I therefore concluded that it is proper for a rabbi of a Sephardic synagogue to set an example of the level of observance advocated by Rav Yosef and the Ben Ish Chai and have begun to wear the pair of Rabbeinu Tam’s tefillin, that were donated by Dr. Shlomo Amar, after the conclusion of Shacharit at Shaarei Orah.

 

By Rabbi Haim Jachter

Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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