Reader points to research flaws in tefillin story


Re: “Tefillin were not dyed black 2,000 years ago” (The Jewish Star, June 21).

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Based on an analysis of tefillin boxes dating to the end of the Second Temple era (approximately 2,000 years ago), researchers at Ariel University have concluded that “the law requiring tefillin to be made black may not have been in place in the Second Temple period.”

Rather, says Professor Yonatan Adler, the study leader, “Only at a later period did the rabbis rule that tefillin should be colored black.” He adds: “It is commonly thought that Jewish law is static and does not develop. Our ongoing research on ancient tefillin shows that the exact opposite is true; Jewish law has always been dynamic.”

There exists in some circles the desire to demonstrate that “the rabbis” played with halacha, adding or subtracting as they saw fit. In order to explain how wrong Prof. Adler is, a brief picture of how halacha operates is necessary. (The emphasis is on “brief” — this subject is very complex.)

To simplify: the Rambam outlines two very different categories of Biblical halacha. The first category consists of laws given directly by G-d to Moses, either at Mount Sinai or in the desert. The second category is comprised of laws that are derived through sh’losh esreh middos (the 13 hermeneutic principles) by which halacha is determined; it also includes laws derived through s’vara (logic). These latter laws were not detailed to Moses, at least not in conclusive form; only the methodology for determining them was given to him.

There is a critical difference between these categories.

Laws in the first category can never change; whereas these laws were declared in definitive form by G-d — they are set in stone. By contrast, laws derived by use of the hermeneutic principles can technically change over time.

The Rambam writes (Hilchot Mamrim, 2:1) that if a Sanhedrin decides a Biblical law using these principles, that law can be overturned by a later Sanhedrin that uses the same principles to derive the opposite law. For example, if a Sanhedrin rules that a particular act is forbidden on Shabbat and a later Sanhedrin holds that the act is permitted, the halachah changes! Philosophically, both positions are “true.” However, each generation is bound by the rules set by the judges of its time, and one’s actions must comport with the law as determined in his/her generation. (It is critical to note that today we do not have a Sanhedrin and we therefore cannot change Biblical halacha.)

• • •

Now to the issue of tefillin and their color. If Prof. Adler is correct, then we would presumably face a grave theological issue, since the black color of tefillin is a halacha l’Moshe miSinai (Menachot 35a). Such a law is in the first category and can never change. How, then, can Orthodox Jews deal with the discovery made by Prof. Adler’s team?

The answer is that Adler’s assumption is deeply flawed.

First, the halacha l’Moshe miSinai concerning the color of tefillin refers, according to most opinions, specifically to tefillin straps; it does not refer to the tefillin boxes! By law, the boxes can be any color. Yes, we do color the boxes black, but this is not halachically mandated, at least not on the Biblical level.

The research done by Adler’s team was on the boxes, not the straps. And so his analysis does not reflect at all on the dynamism of Jewish law; his conclusion simply bears out the truth that tefillin boxes need not be black!

Second, even were Adler correct, the analyzed tefillin would not pose any concern for us. As evidenced by pictures of these tefillin, the boxes are rectangular, not square. Part of the halacha l’Moshe miSinai is that the boxes must be square (Menachot 35a). Putting aside the issue of color, why doesn’t the rectangular shape itself pose an issue?

The answer is that these boxes were found in the Qumran caves. The Jews who lived near Qumran had separated themselves from normative Judaism. There is a debate whether these Jews were Sadducees or whether they were Essenes.

Sadducees accepted only the Written Law as authoritative; they did not (for the most part) recognize the Oral Law as Divinely given. The Essenes also rejected normative Judaism. Thus, their tefillin, whatever the shape and color, would not reflect the practice of the Pharisees (the “Orthodox” Jews of the time).

• • •

Let us transplant Adler’s “discovery” to our day and age. To illustrate, let us take the mezuzah. By Jewish law, certain doorposts require a mezuzah, within which is a parchment containing the first two chapters of Sh’ma.

Karaites (who, like the Sadducees, reject the Oral Law) do not require a mezuzah. However, some Karaites post a ceremonial mezuzah, empty within but with the Ten Commandments written on the outside. If 500 years from now an archaeologist were to unearth a Karaite mezuzah, he might conclude that mezuzot did not always contain the Sh’ma; rather they depicted the Ten Commandments. He would declare that the law of mezuzah had changed over the centuries. Of course, this notion is patently absurd! A random finding does not of itself testify to historical accuracy.

Finally, even were we to concede Adler’s assumptions, there is a strong possibility that tefillin do not have to be absolutely black. The Be’ur Halachah (Hilchot Tefillin 33:3) discusses this issue and leans toward the view that dark blue is halachically “black.” The same may be said of dark brown, which is the color of the discovered tefillin.

As believing Jews, we should not be afraid to deal with theological challenges. Such challenges do exist. However, Adler’s discovery and analysis are not among them.

Avi Goldstein worked in Jewish publishing for over 25 years and currently works in the automotive industry. He writes frequently about religion and politics, loves learning Torah, plays guitar in a garage band and lives in Far Rockaway with his wife, Dawn.