Last week, an apocryphal story was being circulated on the JewsNews sites. The story goes something like this: A man bought a pair of tefilin 18 years ago. He used them for 12 years and then gave them to his son-in-law who used them for six years. During the 12 years the man used the tefillin he lost two of his sons before they reached bar mitzvah. One was 12 and the other was 6. During the time that the son-in-law used the tefillin his son a was very badly burned among other difficulties.
The tefillin were checked for mistakes and a missing word was the discovered. It seems that the word “Bni” – “my son” was missing from one of the chapters.
The story is being circulated by the scribe who checked the tefillin to urge people to check their tefillin.
In case you need someone to connect the dots for you, the story is making the claim that the missing word is related to the death and burning of the three sons in the story. That relationship is undefined in the story but it goes something like this: The tefillin had a mistake in the word Bni and that either caused or should have alarmed the owners that something was going to happen with their sons.
First of all, whenever you hear a story like this, consider the source. The source is a tefillin checking company. Is that a proof that the story is untrue? No. But it seriously affects the credibility of the story.
Second of all, all tefillin are checked before they are sold. I find it unlikely that a mistake as glaring as a missing word slipped by the checkers. It’s not as if a word can simply disappear and the other words slip into place leaving no empty space for the missing word.
But let’s assume the facts of the story are true. What do we make of this?
The idea that a mistake, an honest mistake, in one’s tefillin is troubling theologically. Normative Jewish thought emphasizes intent for good deeds and deemphasizes strict liability for mistakes. To illustrate: If one intends to give charity but then the money gets stolen, God will credit the person for giving the charity because the person had intent and the action that was attached to the intent was not completed due to something out of his control. Conversely, if one intends to sin but because of circumstances our of one’s control, the sin is never committed, one is not liable for the sin. Further, if one sinned by mistake or through negligence the sin is not considered a full sin, rather it is a separate category of mistake and none of the usual punishments apply, rather one would bring a sacrifice to atone for the mistake.
So it seems incongruous that a missing word in the tefillin would have such a drastic effect if it was an error when if one violated the Shabbos by mistake one would only need to bring a sacrifice!
The idea that people would die because of scribal errors is troubling for other reasons as well. This is a case of the sharpshooter fallacy. Tefillin have mistakes all the time. Yet, almost none of the people wearing those tefillin suffer the degree of harm suffered in this story. This story is highlighted because the facts work out neatly, but ask any scribe about the myriad of other mistakes that are found due to wear and tear or poor writing in the first place (assuming this does happen) and you won’t hear of correlating tragedies. How do I know? Because if it happened all the time, we would hear about it all the time. Classic sharpshooter fallacy.
Additionally, what kind of God kills children because of scribal errors?
The usual response to this is that God is not as nice as we would like to think. God is very harsh. There are tragedies and sadness in the world and God allows them to happen. Why should this be any different? The response to that logic is that there is nothing to be gained by making God even meaner than God already appears to be. In other words, there are some things that we must accept theologically and there are others that we do not. Why would we want to turn our God into a God who avenges scribal errors with death of children if we are not forced to do so by any preexisting rule of theology?!
Finally we get to the core of the issue. People who find this story meaningful are borrowing a widespread idea about mezuzah and applying it to tefillin. A fairly recent principle states that a mezuzah is a form of magical protection over one’s home. If the mezuzah is incomplete or missing, one loses the protection. It has therefore become en vogue to “check the mezuzah” if tragedy befalls a home. The sharpshooter fallacy applies here as well. Yet, this idea has a lot of traction. What is happening in this story is the mezuzah concept is being extended to tefillin.
There are two very significant problems with this.
1) There are many sources that attribute protection to mezuzah. The interpretation of those sources is the subject of #2. But the sources are there. So while subject to the analysis of #2, mezuzah may have theological basis to be a protection and mezuzah errors may foretell or even cause harm, no such sources exist for tefilin as far as I know. Thus, extending the mezuzah concept to tefilin may be a complete fabrication. That is a problem,
2) Do we have to believe that a mistake in a mezuzah can cause harm? The answer is no. An excellent article by Professor Martin Gordon debunks the magical protections of mezuzah as a recent and unnecessary innovation. You can read the article here: Mezuzah: Protective Amulet or Religious Symbol. In essence, Dr. Gordon shows that there is no basis to compel one to accept the idea that checking one’s mezuzah is a form of insuring against tragedy. There is no necessary theological reason to believe in the magical powers of mezuzah in the first place. If we take the rug from under the mezuzah belief then there is no analogy to tefilin that could make this story meaningful.
I’d like to end with the words of Rambam at the end of the Laws of Mezuzah:
Whoever wears tefillin on his head and arm, wears tzitzit on his garment, and has a mezuzah on his entrance, can be assured that he will not sin, because he has many who will remind him. These are the angels, who will prevent him from sinning, as [Psalms 34:8] states: “The angel of God camps around those who fear Him and protects them.”
Blessed be God who offers assistance.
This might sound like some sort of support for the idea that mezuzah and tefilin are related to one’s safety. However, a careful reading debunks this as well. Rambam is saying that wearing a mitzvah on one’s arm and head, one’s body, and placing a mitzvah on one’s door will protect a person from sin because they will serve as reminders of what one is supposed to do. Rambam continues, these are the angels. Meaning, the reminders provided by doing mitzvahs are the angels. Not that doing these mitzvahs creates magical creatures who protect us. Rather the constant reminders help us avoid sin and those reminders serves a metaphorical guardian angel that aids us in avoiding sin. This fits in well with Rambam’s rejection of the usual understanding of angels as magical creatures that exists in reality.
It is not a surprise that Rambam does not believe in the magical powers of tefilin and mezuzah. Nor is it a surprise that orthodox Jews believe in it today. But we do not do mitzvahs because we are looking for magical protections. We do them because God commanded us to do so. We believe that they are good acts that help us perfect ourselves. But we do not need to hang on to bubbe mysahs like this recent tale to serve Hashem properly.