Way before we had anxiety bracelets or smartwatches, the Tefillin served a much higher purpose than a wearable religious feature | Parashat Bo
This shall be your frontlet, Shai Azoulay, Parashat Bo
In recent years, we are witnessing an accelerated growth of the wearable technology market, which includes wearable tech items such as smartwatches, headphones, and the likes. In 2021, the global wearable technology market was valued at USD 116 billion, and is expected to grow to USD 460 billion by 2029. One hell of a party for wearable tech entrepreneurs.
The next stage in the evolution is the transition from Wearable to Awareable: a fusion of Aware and Wearable. Essentially, it is a wearable item that can positively impact our bodies and minds. Meaning, devices that go beyond counting steps to focus on our wellbeing, inspiring us to live in the here and now. The smartwatch by NOWATCH, for example, claims to be the world’s most sophisticated biotechnology that captures mental and physical health and helps restore balance.
While the term Awareable first entered the Cambridge Dictionary in 2017, the truth is that the first Awareable item in human history was conjured way before our time: The Tefillin. Tefillin is a set of small black leather boxes with leather straps containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah. This familiar emblem of Judaism is first mentioned in Parashat Bo, on two occasions, where they are set as a reminder of God’s intervention at the time of the Exodus from Egypt:
 “And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder between your eyes —in order that the Teaching of יהוה may be in your mouth—that with a mighty hand יהוה freed you from Egypt.
 “And so it shall be as a sign upon your hand and as a frontlet between your eyes that with a mighty hand יהוה freed us from Egypt.”
The leather boxes are placed on our arms, close to our hearts, and on our heads, as we recite the morning prayer and disengage ourselves momentarily from our surroundings. The ritual is much like meditating, and the basic principle behind it is practically identical to that of Awareable technologies. Studies have shown that, much like contemporary Awareable products, the ritual of putting on Tefillin has a healing quality to it. In one study conducted by the University of Cincinnati, researchers have shown that putting on Tefillin is linked to preemptive treatment of acute ischemia (a condition in which blood flow is restricted or reduced in a part of the body), thanks to tightly wrapping the straps around the arm.
The difference between Tefillin and other Awareable products is its religious connotation. I, for example, try to keep up certain Jewish rituals like Kiddush on Friday Eve, Shabbat candle lighting and so on. But the practice of putting on Tefillin is not part of my everyday routine. One of the reasons for that has to do with my association of the Tefillin with Teshuvah (repentance) and religious coercion. In other words, my choice whether to put on Tefillin or not is not made based on the mental benefits I could derive from it, but rather on the fact that it is perceived as a religious practice. If I put on Tefillin every day, it might be seen as though I have succumbed to the pressure of religious groups. It is not about essence, but rather about self-branding and gossip.
And still, myself and many like me find it uncomfortable to put on Tefillin because we have been convinced that Judaism, in all its practices and rituals, belongs to the religious and ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) groups. And so we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater. The haredi and the secular Jews both feed this anxiety and drive secular people further and further away from the religion, which for them symbolizes the aggression that is being used to force them into a specific box of what it means to be Jewish.
Recoiling from Jewish customs that belong to all of us, that could have made our lives better, is a powerful testimony to the depth of the crisis we find ourselves in, which in turn inflicts harm on each of us individually, reduces our quality of life and the quality of our startups. The unfortunate fact is that while both sectors reside under the same roof that is the State of Israel and fall under the umbrella term “Jewish”, the two couldn’t be further apart in terms of a shared identity or vision. It’s absurd; we are the Startup Nation, and yet I dare you to find one purpose that we all share. The result is a great chasm that keeps growing wider, about to reach the breaking point any minute now, meanwhile creating glass ceilings for workplace diversity, for the ability of Israeli talent to reach its full potential, and for the ability of each of us to fulfill our own potential.
In this reality, the motherboard of our identity is broken. Any attempt to overhaul the judicial system, as is being carried out these days, is ridiculous, and no more than an excuse to get out of doing the actual work. What is truly required to bring ourselves to fulfillment – as individuals, as business owners, and as a nation – is to build a shared vision. It begins with a deep, clear and razor-sharp understanding that Jewish culture belongs to all of us. Working towards that understanding is the responsibility of all the sectors of Israeli society, and perhaps of the secular sector especially, which needs to start embracing the various practices of Jewish culture; not as a sign of repentance, but out of pride in being secular, and knowing that these customs form at least part of their own identity and culture.
As for creating the deeper, truer identity of “The New Jew”, we have the work cut out for us. There is a long road ahead before the day comes when we are able to recognize the One that is us. How will we know that we’ve actually reached the Promised Land and fulfilled the Zionist dream in all its depth? Not when all of Israel puts on Tefillin, but rather when each of us can stand free from prejudice and background noises and choose which Jewish practice to embrace as an expression of their identity. And as for me, I’ll know that we’ve made the dream come true when secular, religious, haredi and Arab entrepreneurs all stand before me, united in all but their clothes.