As some of you may know, I’ve slowed down the frequency of blog posts here pretty dramatically compared to past years. Although I haven’t particularly avoided Jewish-based themes, I’ve tried to target my content more for non-Jews and avoid some of the controversy that continues to surround a non-Jew intersecting the domain of Messianic Judaism or any other kind of Judaism.
But I just read Rabbi Kalman Packouz’s latest Shabbat Shalom Weekly column and he wrote about a personal experience of his that I have never considered before:
For several years I have been studying Inside Stam, (Stam — acronym: Sifrei Torah, Tefillin and Mezuzuos) a fascinating book on the laws pertaining to Tefillin, Mezuzos, Sifrei Torah by Reuvain Mendlowitz. I was very excited to have my tefillin checked by him on a recent trip to Israel. Much to my surprise, Rabbi Mendlowitz told me that I needed to replace the “fake straps.” Fake straps?
Straps on tefillin must be made from kosher animals and painted black. It seems that an unscrupulous individual had sold counterfeit straps made in the Far East from horse hide bonded with black plastic and passed them off as kosher! What this meant to me is that I, and hundreds if not thousands of others, unknowingly were not fulfilling the mitzvah of wearing tefillin!
Now obviously, Rabbi Packouz never thought for one second that his tefillin straps were counterfeit, and with proper intent, believed he was fulfilling the mitzvah involved. It would be like eating a bowl of chicken soup that someone had sprinkled undetectable amounts of some non-kosher food into. It’s not the eater’s fault and they wouldn’t even know they were consuming treif.
So can we say that R. Packouz really failed to fulfill the mitzvah of donning tefillin? He obviously thinks so:
There are those who might say, “It’s OK. God understands. It’s what’s you wanted to accomplish and whether the tefillin were kosher or not doesn’t really matter.” It is presumptuous to assume that we know what God “understands.” If the Almighty “went to all of the trouble” to convey so many specific details on how tefillin are made and how they should be worn, then perhaps there is much more to the mitzvah than one’s intentions.
When the Hubble telescope was launched into space in 1990, the photographs were not as clear as expected. Upon investigation it was found that the mirror was ground with an error from the prescribed curve of only 10 nanometers — but resulted in creating a “catastrophic spherical aberration” in the images.
Some things have to be perfect to work.
But R. Packouz is making an assumption that, in not knowing exactly what and how God “understands,” He literally requires all mitzvot to be observed strictly, even, in this case, if it is impossible for the Jewish person involved to know the tefillin straps were fake.
R. Packouz suggests having your (if you are a Jew) tefillin straps checked by a competent, God-fearing sofer (scribe). That makes sense, but the Rabbi trusted the sofer he originally bought his tefillin from, and apparently, the sofer trusted whoever he purchased them from.
Part of me wants to say that God will pardon such transgressions because they were made without intent, but then I remember that in the days of the Tabernacle and later, the Temple, there were sacrifices made for unintentional sin (once the person realized he or she had committed unintentional sin).
Christianity seems a lot more flexible when it comes to transgressions, unintentional and otherwise. I can see why some Christians consider Jewish mitzvot to be a straitjacket. On the other hand, maybe Christianity in general treats the requirements of God like the Emperor’s New Clothes.