The Element of the Sacred

Walkeshwar Temple, Malabar Hill, Mumbai, 1860. Photographer unknown. Public domain.

A few days ago, I was putting away my second set of tefillin, when I dropped the one worn on my arm. It was in its protective case and landed upright undamaged on the floor. A friend picked it up and handed it to me. Never in all the time I have prayed using tefillin had I dropped one. I was upset; tefillin are sacred objects. I knew some form of rectification was required, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it should be. Common remedies involve one or more of the following: fasting, the giving of charity, or studying, especially the laws of tefillin. My Rabbi told me what I needed to do.


Tefillin are two small black leather boxes worn during weekday morning prayer. One box is attached to an arm, the other to the head, by leather straps. The boxes contain scriptural passages. There are different customs concerning how to put on the tefillin. There is also a dispute concerning the order in which some writings should appear on the enclosed parchment. Because of this disagreement concerning the sequence of the texts, some people wear two sets of tefillin, one for each of the differing opinions. Usually, the second set is put on after the morning service and some additional prayers recited while wearing them. This is my practice.

Tefillin are sacred objects. Not everyone agrees with this statement. To some, it appears merely to voice a superstition, a psychological state of a “believer,” not an attribute of the things themselves; that is, it describes something subjective, not objective. In the photograph below, from Yad Vashem’s photo archives, it’s safe to say that only one man knows tefillin are sacred, the one wearing them. “Rabbi Moshe Yitzhak Hagerman was forced to don his tallith (prayer shawl) and tefillin (phylacteries) that had been defiled, and to stand barefoot and pray next to the prostrate men of the Jewish community.”

German policemen humiliating Rabbi Moshe Yitzhak Hagermann, on “Bloody Wednesday” in Olkusz, Poland, 31/07/1940

In the Foreword to his book Patterns of Comparative Religion [1963], Mircea Eliade wrote:

A religious phenomenon will only be recognized as such if it is grasped at its own level, that is to say, if it is studied as something religious. To try to grasp the essence of such phenomenon by means of physiology, psychology, sociology, economics, linguistics, art or any other study is false; it misses the one unique and irreducible element in it—the element of the sacred.

It is precisely this “element of the sacred” in tefillin, I believe, that helps to understand why, when I dropped them, I was so upset, felt a rectification was required, and more than gratefully performed it.

Recognition of an “element of the sacred” is not by any means unique to Judaism. In Christianity, for example, there is a process to be followed if one accidentally drops the host during communion. In Buddhism, a monk’s begging bowl is an object of respect. In Hinduism, temples are sacred places. In India, there are Hindu temples that do not allow entry to non-Hindus, Jagannath Temple, Puri, for example. And removing footwear is mandatory before entering any Hindu temple.

In Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in 80 Days, Passepartout, Phileas Fogg’s servant learns a painful, as well as expensive, lesson about respecting the sanctity of a Hindu Temple. In Chapter 10, the two men are in what was then called Bombay, now Mumbai. Passepartout is running errands for his master when he decides to visit a Hindu temple, a famous one, on Malabar Hill in Mumbai.

[H]e was turning his steps towards the station, when he happened to espy the splendid pagoda on Malabar Hill, and was seized with an irresistible desire to see its interior. He was quite ignorant that it is forbidden to Christians to enter certain Indian temples, and that even the faithful must not go in without first leaving their shoes outside the door. It may be said here that the wise policy of the British Government severely punishes a disregard of the practices of the native religions. Passepartout, however, thinking no harm, went in like a simple tourist, and was soon lost in admiration of the splendid Brahmin ornamentation which everywhere met his eyes, when of a sudden he found himself sprawling on the sacred flagging. He looked up to behold three enraged priests, who forthwith fell upon him; tore off his shoes, and began to beat him with loud, savage exclamations. The agile Frenchman was soon upon his feet again, and lost no time in knocking down two of his long-gowned adversaries with his fists and a vigorous application of his toes; then, rushing out of the pagoda as fast as his legs could carry him, he soon escaped the third priest by mingling with the crowd in the streets.

Jules Verne. Around the World in 80 Days.

Below is a copy of an illustration of Passepartout’s struggle with the three priests. It was printed in the 1873 French edition.

Fortunately, I didn’t endure such a rough thrashing for dropping my tefillin. Although Verne’s book is a work of fiction, it provides, I believe, an excellent illustration of the need to familiarize oneself with and to respectfully observe the religious customs, objects, and spaces of others.

As I see it, the element of the sacred is not or need not be thought of as just a religious concept. When I hear Greta Thunberg speaking so passionately about the earth and the environment, I feel that she senses in them something precious, something fundamental, something irreplaceable—something I would call “sacred.”

All the best,
Gershon

Author: Gershon Ben-Avraham

Gershon Ben-Avraham holds an MA in Philosophy (Aesthetics). His writing has appeared in Big Muddy, Gravel, Image, Jewish Literary Journal, Poetica, The Rappahannock Review, Tipton Poetry Journal, and others. His short story “Yoineh Bodek,” (Image) earned “Special Mention” in the Pushcart Prize XLlV: Best of the Small Presses 2020 Edition.

One thought

  1. Thank you for this thought-provoking essay. I believe that at least some of us, some of the time, consider sacred not only objects or locations but also times. Sunrise, sunset, solstice come to mind, as well as less dramatic times such as Tuesdays with –.

    Liked by 1 person

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