Sunday, January 24, 2010

Tefillin Bombs and Rabbi Charlop

Everyone's talking about the tefillin bomb scare from Thursday (hat tip to Chana for sharing it with me - see also the New York Times article and Chana's post about history repeating itself).

In short, a flight that left La Guardia heading to Louisville, Kentucky was forced to prematurely land in Philadelphia because a 17-year-old high school student (who apparently goes to MTA, as it turns out) put his tefillin on mid-flight to daven Shacharis since the plane left too early, and would arrive too late, to otherwise daven b'zman. The stewardess, who had no clue what in the world the kid was doing, freaked out and told the pilot that there was a suspicious, possibly terrorist related activity happening amidst the passengers. So, the pilot did the right thing and notified the authorities, who met the plane in a secured, isolated area of the runway to investigate. The FBI agents et al figured out there was no real cause for concern, and the passengers were all rescheduled on later flights.

I'm not going to blame the pilot and crew for not knowing what the young man was doing, since I don't see how they could really have known about tefillin anyway. I've gotten stopped on numerous occasions and asked about my yarmulka and un-tucked tzitzis while out shopping (or one time, while filling up my car at the gas station). I was once approached by a man in Wal-Mart who asked me, based on these exterior religious trappings, if I was a rabbi. I replied no, but I had studied at a seminary in Israel for two years (which is true). Just for the record, using "seminary" for "yeshiva" is the easiest way to get a non-Jew to understand what a yeshiva really is - a seminary is a "theological" or "divinity" school of higher learning, and the Christian equivalent readily springs to their minds. There was also the incident at airport security where they noticed my tzitzis wrapped around my belt (I usually partially tuck them in when using public transportation so they don't drag and get dirty) and asked me why I had funny looking wires sticking out of my belt. I quickly un-tucked them and they realized what they were (or at least that the tzitzis posed no threat).

I usually try to avoid early flights that can cause issues with zmanim for shacharis, since the extra concern of wearing tefillin in public has to be dealt with (mincha and ma'ariv are much easier to handle in a crowded airport). However, I had to take such an early flight at one point this summer for a wedding in New York. After finding my proper gate, I discreetly looked around in the nearby vicinity until I located a quiet, deserted waiting area in the corner of the terminal (which is my general procedure for davening in an airport) and proceeded to put my tefillin on and davened. Afterward, I wrapped up my tefillin, and walked over to my gate. As I sat down, a man walked over to me with his two young children and politely requested if he could ask me a question. I replied in the affirmative - I'm very used to taking questions about Judaism from gentiles, and by this point, have gotten very good at answering them. Basically, his kids wanted to know what I had been doing just now, and in particular, what the boxes and straps were (I knew they were going to ask that).

I replied that I was praying the morning service, and that Jews actually pray three times a day, in the morning, afternoon and night. The boxes and straps were phylacteries or tefilin, special ritual objects that actually contained parchment with portions from the Torah written on them. I further explained that they are worn while praying in the morning and serve as a conduit to create a greater focus and concentration toward G-d; helping me to remember the importance of what I was doing and of Who I was praying to. They seemed to like my answer, thanked me and went back to their seats...

Anyway, today was the first Shabbos of the spring semItalicester at YU - and our special rabbinical guest was none other than Rabbi Zevulun Charlop, shlita, Dean Emeritus of RIETS. Rabbi Charlop is an absolutely incredible orator, extremely knowledgable in all areas of Torah study, and has a very sharp wit. He was also a professor of American History here at YU for a number of years prior to being appointed the head of RIETS, which he helmed for over 35 years.

I could listen to Rabbi Charlop speak for hours. The man is absolutely engrossing, and can engage everyone in the room with his humor, vast wellspring of knowledge (Torah and secular), and an unending supply of stories. He is a living legend who has met and known figures of great rabbonim and figures of historical significance (such as President Truman at a Jewish fundraising banquet). We only heard a small portion of his greatness in the two speeches he gave (Friday night at the oneg and Shabbos afternoon at shalosh seudos), and I really miss seeing him around on a more frequent basis (since he stepped down as Dean of Riets and was replaced by Rabbi Yona Reiss, he has been given an office buried somewhere in Belfer Hall). You can check out some of his shiurim and articles on

Rabbi Charlop had quite a few great one-liners, such as declaring that his bar mitzvah took place during World War II - just to dispel the notion that it occurred during the Civil War. The best, by far, was his brief remarks regarding the young man I mentioned above from the "tefillin bomb" scare. He began by refering remarks that Rav Schachter, Shlita had made earlier in the day during his pre-lunch parsha shiur - how the shin on the bayis of the tefillin shel rosh and the knots of the tefillin shel rosh (which is shaped like a daled) and shel yad (which is shaped like a yud) spell out the shem HaShem (Sha - dai). After talking about the incident for a few minutes in good humor, he paused, turned to face the assembly of students and called out with gusto:

י וְרָאוּ כָּל-עַמֵּי הָאָרֶץ, כִּי שֵׁם ה' נִקְרָא עָלֶיךָ; וְיָרְאוּ מִמֶּךָּ

It's from Devarim 22:10. For those who don't understand the Hebrew, here's the translation:

10 And all the peoples of the earth shall see that the name of the LORD is called upon you; and they shall be afraid of you.
Of course he was referencing the Gemara in Brachos 6a (scroll down a bit) which cites the posuk and then says: "ותניא ר' אליעזר הגדול אומר אלו תפילין שבראש" - "And it was taught, Rabbi Eliezer HaGadol said these are the tefillin shel rosh." We were falling off our chairs laughing...


  1. Tucked-out is not a phrase!!! Untucked is the correct way to say it.


  2. Duly noted and corrected. In my effort to have variation in diction, I fell prey to utilizing a colloquial manner of speech. Thank you for pointed that out. I try to catch these things when I proof-read a post before uploading it, but I guess I missed this one. In my defense, I did use "un-tuck" as well (albeit without the connecting "-" which I also just added).

  3. I took a flight not too long ago with two friends to Columbus, Ohio for a wedding. The flight left at 8:25 AM out of an airport that was an hour away from us. We davened in the terminal and got numerous questions from other passengers (mostly kids). This doesn't add or subtract from anything you say, it's just an anecdote.


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