Strap In

When I teach b’nai mitzvah students about tefillin, the black leather boxes and straps that we wear during weekday morning services, I use the analogy of a sports uniform. Just as your favorite teams wear their colors to distinguish themselves and show pride, the tefillin serve a similar purpose to unite the Jewish people in common purpose to worship God.

I also mention that wearing tefillin can be kind of uncomfortable, especially when you first try it. After all, you are literally binding leather straps around your skin, and it is a challenge to find the right degree of pressure: just enough so that the straps don’t loosen and slip off but not enough so that your arm turns blue.

It turns out that finding the sweet spot of comfort in your tefillin might have health benefits as well. A study done by researchers at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine suggests that people who wrap tefillin on a regular basis may get the benefit of a kind of preconditioning that protects the heart.

I was directed to this study by Adath member Abe Abramovich, who is working on a medical device called the LifeCuff, which works like a blood pressure cuff and restricts blood flow for a limited amount of time, causing the body to respond with natural protections. It seems from the study that wrapping tefillin could provide a similar effect.

The challenge of this kind of preconditioning is that it requires regular and sustained use. Someone who is at risk of a heart attack or suffering from diabetic wounds needs to restrict blood flow on a constant basis and not everyone is willing to do that.

The benefit of tefillin doing this kind of preconditioning is that they are worn daily, with the exception of Shabbat and holidays. So it turns out that laying tefillin might help not only my spirit but my actual heart as well.

Maybe this was the intent all along. In English tefillin are called phylacteries, which comes from the Greek word for defenses, protection. Later the word came to mean an amulet or charm, in the sense of warding off evil spirits. In the ancient world tefillin were seen as a spiritual defensive mechanism to protect the wearer from the dangers of the world.

While today we might dismiss superstition, we often listen to scientific studies, even if they are sometimes misunderstood. So next time my tefillin bother me I will remember the potential protection they offer and wrap the straps a little tighter.

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