When mitzvos make the news, the context is often an embattled one: So when an article appeared this week about tefillin, we were on guard. What would the non-Orthodox world have to say about this mitzvah?
What it had to say, essentially, is that wearing tefillin could be good for you.
Good for your physical health, that is. Research conducted recently in Cincinnati suggested that those who wear tefillin daily are less at risk for heart attack than those who don’t.
In the study, researchers took 20 Jewish men in that city, including nine who wear tefillin daily and 11 who don’t. The subjects were measured before and after wearing them for 30 minutes each day.
“We found people who wear tefillin in either the short or long term recorded a measurable positive effect on their blood flow. That has been associated with better outcomes in heart disease,” Dr. Jack Rubinstein, a cardiologist and associate professor at the University of Cincinnati, who co-authored the study, was quoted as saying by The Times of Israel.
The finding is consistent with a 1986 study of religious men and women in Yerushalayim that indicated that observant men — but not women — suffer fewer heart attacks than the general population. Why would religious life be healthier for men than for women? Well, many things could account for it, but now it seems that the mitzvah of tefillin worn by men could explain the gender difference.
Both studies were small in scale. The latter studied 1,225 subjects, a larger sample, but as the authors of the study acknowledged, still far from conclusive.
As they put it, “This finding should be substantiated. It would appear important to identify the components of religiosity associated with reduced risk.”
Whether any further studies will take place is uncertain, and shouldn’t really matter.
For as Torah Jews, the reality is clear to us: The reason we don tefillin has nothing to do with any health benefits.
Like all other mitzvos, we put on tefillin only because we are commanded in the Torah to do so, and the real benefit of tefillin is solely a spiritual one.
As with all mitzvos, the lofty mitzvah of tefillin affects the mind and heart in ways that medical science cannot possibly measure, nor can it possibly be comprehended by those who look at it through a temporal lens.
Each day, we recite in the second parashah of Krias Shema: “And you shall set these words of Mine upon your heart and upon your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for totafos between your eyes.”
Rashi connects this passuk with the previous one, which says that if they fail to heed the mitzvos, Am Yisrael will be banished from Eretz Yisrael.
“Even after you have been exiled, make yourselves distinctive with My commandments; put on tefillin and make mezuzos, so that these will not be new to you when you return.”
Many have wondered about these words of Rashi. Unlike Shemittah and terumos, the mitzvos of tefillin and mezuzah are equally obligatory inside and outside of Eretz Yisrael.
In Gur Aryeh, the Maharal explains:
Mezuzah becomes an obligation when one has a house or a room of his own. During our torment-filled wandering in galus, [sometimes] living with gentiles in houses that belong to them, we would be exempt from the mitzvah of mezuzah. Similarly, we are forbidden to be distracted while wearing tefillin. In exile, our hearts are filled with worries and troubles, so technically we would be exempt from donning tefillin as well.
However, in order that it should not be “new” for us when we return from galus, we are instructed to obtain housing of our own so we can place mezuzos on our doorposts.
Similarly, we are instructed to expel the worries from our minds and hearts so that we can put on tefillin without distraction.
From these words of the Maharal, it is evident that even in the most difficult circumstances, even when it may seem that one would be exempt from certain spiritual undertakings, we find that it is necessary to rise above our challenges and reach levels that we thought impossible.
This is another, concrete benefit of donning tefillin.