In the wake of last month's column in this space, dozens ' dozens!! ' of readers have packed my 'inbox' with grateful notes, thanking me for adding the term koisheklach to their Yinglish vocabulary. And grateful they should be!
After all, the Voice of Jewish Washington has scooped even the Forward's esteemed Philologos in drawing upon current events to illumine a dark corner of Jewish linguistic history. I can hear him (whatever his real name is) gnashing his teeth even now!
In the wake of such public approbation, I am emboldened, naturally, to work the formula to death. Am I a better man than a Hollywood producer? So here goes: what's the name for that little hollow plastic cube, with a circular hole in the top, that slips over the box of the tefillin shel yad? You know ' the doohickey that keeps falling off whenever you adjust your tallis during the Shmoneh Esrei, bounces beneath the seats in front or behind you, and compels you to interrupt your prayer, uproot your feet, bend down and retrieve the thing before someone steps on it?
Not only is the name shrouded in mystery, so is its function. A fellow davener explained to me the other morning that it's designed to protect the arm phylactery. Fine. Then why not have one over the tefillin shel rosh? Perched precariously on the top of (what in my case, at least, was once) the hairline. The phylactery of the head seems much more exposed to danger than its partner, who nestles snugly against the rib cage, spared by a woolen prayer shawl from the harsh climes of the synagogue.
But forget for a moment the riddle of its name and the problem of its purpose. Contemplate the manifold ways in which the tefillin doohickey (for that is what I shall call it until my research staff at the U tracks down its traditional name) foils its own teleology!
If designed by its creator to protect the holy object it covers, it fails, for it always slips off. Moreover, in the moment of its inevitable failure it frustrates the very purpose for which its owner dons the tefillin in the first place ' to enhance the consciousness of having bound the name of God to heart and mind.
Not only does the doohickey fail to protect what it seems designed to shelter, it also destroys the consciousness of holiness it is supposed to enhance!
What to make of this? I have a theory. The tefillin doohickey belongs to a larger class of phenomena ' including, but not confined to, flatulence, pimples on the ends of noses or in the space between eyebrows, colonoscopies, and boiled okra ' whose sole reason for being seems to be to test our faith in the ultimate cogency of the Creator's plan for Creation and the reality of Divine Justice.
Unlike the mouth of Balaam's talking ass, the pit that swallowed Korah and his band, the stone-eating worm used to carve the boulders for Solomon's temple, and the other items programmed by the Creator during the twilight between the sixth day of Creation and the first Sabbath for later historical deployment, these are not elements of redemption woven into the fabric of time from the very beginning. Rather, they disclose the reality of chaos and nothingness, the fundamental absurdity that is as much a part of God's world as the miraculous and the redemptive.
Moreover, these intimations of incoherence share a crucial task with the Ten Redemptive Signs Created on the Twilight of the First Sabbath Eve. They testify to the absolute freedom of the Creator from any human claim to know with certitude His ways. Like dinosaur bones, proto-anthropoid skeletons, and a geological record that extends the date of Creation quite well beyond the year 5766, thank you very much, the tefillin doohickey represents a Divine challenge to human certitude and a foil to any self-confident human claim to have fully and exhaustively discerned the purposes of God in His world.
Do you want to enlist in the ecumenical army of rationalists, boasting generals such as Plato, Aristotle, Philo, Ibn Rushd, Maimonides, and Aquinas, whose versions of the argument from (I'm tempted to add: 'intelligent') design sought to convince us that the apparent rationality of Creation implied the necessary existence of a Rational Creator?
Well, the tefillin doohickey is here to ask the troubling little question: What design? What rationality? Couldn't Satan himself have made a perfectly organized world in which the trains ran on time and no Jewish bone was left unburned?
The early sage, Shimon ben Azzai, a mystic who came to a sorry end, had his finger on this subtle balance in God's world between order and randomness. He put it this way:
'Do not despise anyone, and do not dismiss any creature, for there is no one without his moment and no thing without its place!' (Avos 4:3).
Which means, of course, that most of the time things do indeed seem bereft of meaning and out of place. Precisely in the indeterminate and chaotic; precisely there we are commissioned to seek the face of the Holy One, with our tefillin doohickey rattling around our ankles.
Now ' as for that circular hole in the top ' what's that about?
Martin Jaffee teaches in both the Comparative Religion and Jewish Studies programs at the University of Washington. When not masquerading as a journalist, he writes on the history of Talmudic literature as well as theoretical problems in the study of religion.