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Tefillin - Tales from the Gemarah


Elisha Ba'al K'nafayyim -"Elisha of the Wings"; Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Shabbat page 49.

At one point during the Romans occupation of Israel, they forbade the wearing of Tefillin. Any Jew daring to observe this Mitzvah was liable to a death sentence by having his forehead punctured with an anvil. One day, while walking in the market bedecked in Tefillin, a Roman soldier saw Rabbi Elisha the soldier started to peruse him, and Rabbi Elisha attempted to run away. As the Roman soldier was about to catch him Elisha removed his Tefillin and held them in his hand. The soldier saw that Elisha was hiding something in his hands and demanded to know what he was holding. The sage said:  "I have the wings of a dove in my hands." 
As Elisha opened his hands a pure pair of white dove wings appeared in his hand. A miracle occurred and the Tefillin were transformed into dove's wings. From this incident onwards, Elisha was known as "Elisha Ba'al K'nafayyim – Elisha of the Wings. 
The Talmud goes on to tell us that the Tefillin were transformed into the wings of a dove, and not any other bird, since the nation of Israel is similar to a dove. Just as the dove protects its young, so the Mitzvot protect Israel. 


Gentle as the reed – Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta'anit page 20a, b

Our Rabbis have taught: A man should always be gentle as the reed and never unyielding as the cedar. Once Rabbi Eleazar son of Rabbi Simeon was coming from Migdal Gedor from the house of his teacher, and he was riding leisurely on his donkey by the riverside and was feeling happy and elated because he had studied much Torah. There chanced to meet him an exceedingly ugly man who greeted him, ‘Peace be upon you, Sir. He, however, did not return his salutation but instead said to him, "Reika" how ugly you are. Are all your fellow citizens as ugly as you are?’ The man replied: ‘I do not know, but go and tell the craftsman who made me, "How Ugly is the vessel which you have made"’. When Rabbi Eleazar realized that he had done wrong he dismounted from the ass and prostrated himself before the man and said to him, ‘I submit myself to you, forgive me’. The man replied: ‘I will not forgive you until you go to the craftsman who made me and say to him, "How ugly is the vessel which you have made"’. He [Rabbi Eleazar] walked behind him until he reached his native city. When his fellow citizens came out to meet him greeting him with the words, ‘Peace be upon you O Teacher, O Master,’ the man asked them, ‘Whom are you addressing thus’? They replied, ‘The man who is walking behind you.’ Thereupon he exclaimed: ‘If this man is a teacher, may there not be any more like him in Israel’! The people then asked him: ‘Why’? He replied: ‘Such and such a thing has he done to me. They said to him: ‘Nevertheless, forgive him, for he is a man greatly learned in the Torah.’ The man replied: ‘For your sakes I will forgive him, but only on the condition that he does not act in the same manner in the future.’ Soon after this Rabbi Eleazar son of Rabbi Simeon entered [the Beth Hamidrash] and expounded thus, A man should always be gentle as the reed and let him never be unyielding as the cedar. And for this reason the reed merited that of it should be made a pen for the writing of the Law, Phylacteries and Mezuzahs.

Caution in fulfilling the Mitzvah of Tefillin – Jerusalem Talmud, Chagiga Chapter 2, law 2

Two righteous Jews lived in Ashkelon who ate and drank together and were study partners in studying the Torah. It came to pass that one of them passed away. For some reason he was not properly eulogized at his funeral. Someone by the name of Maon who was a customs inspector passed away and the whole town shut down in order to eulogize him and attend his funeral. The righteous man was greatly perturbed by this and cried out against the people living in the town; wondering why his partner had to suffer so in not being eulogized at his funeral.

The deceased appeared in a dream to his friend and told him – Do not embarrass the towns' people. I had one transgression and because I was not eulogized I was forgiven. The customs inspector had one virtue and because he was eulogized, he received his reward. The Gemarah then queries – What possible sin did this righteous person commit? The Gemarah answered – none. However, once by mistake he put on the Tefillin of the head before those of the hand. This was his only "transgression in life". 

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