Stressing about Stressing

Problem 1:

Yaakov is a well paid stock broker, buying and selling stocks each day. He feels constantly stressed as his work focuses on the price of the shares that he buys for his own portfolio and his customers. His stress levels increase dramatically when the market takes a dive and he receives calls from his irate customers asking about their portfolios. The feelings of stress cause Yaakov to feel even more stressed and depressed as he feels that he should be in more control of his emotions.

Problem 2:

Chana is an anxious housewife, being a mother to five children all under the age of seven and having to deal with various tasks during her day. Chana has to deal with arranging meals for the whole family, making sure that the house is clean, taking and picking up the children from playgroup and school, during all this she is taking care of the baby etc etc She feels constantly under pressure and as time moves on, she is becoming more and more stressed. The feelings of stress cause Chana (similar to Yaakov) to feel more stressed and depressed as she thinks that she also should be in more control of her emotions.


Susan David is a faculty member at Harvard university in the psychology department. In an article printed in the Harvard Business Review (2016)[i], she claims that based on recent research stress is not something which has to be fought and is not necessarily an experience which we can control.

David claims that trying to get rid of stress can actually cause more stress and so instead of trying to drown out the negative thoughts, she advocates accepting the stress and framing it as a helpful mechanism that prepares people for challenging situations.

This suggestion concerning emotions has already been proposed hundreds of years ago and is reflected in part of this week’s Torah portion which talks about the Mitzvah (commandment) of Tefillin. The Tefillin are made of specifically hardened leather, shaped as boxes with straps connected to them. The straps help the individual attach, one to the head and the other on to the hand/arm. An expert scribe needs to write specific parts of the Torah on parchment and then place the parchment in the handmade boxes. The parchment for the box which is designed for the hand is written on one piece of parchment for the one compartment of the hand Tefillin[1]. The head Tefillin has the same sections of the Torah as the hand Tefillin but they are split up and written on four different pieces of parchment. They are then placed in four different compartments in the head Tefillin. (An explanation of the relationship between the commandments of the head and hand Tefillin according to Jewish law is given below, after the sources for this article).

The code of Jewish law instructs[vii] a Jew what to contemplate when they are putting on Tefillin. The hand Tefillin a Jew places on the arm corresponds to the heart and this indicates the work a Jew needs to do with their emotions. The code of Jewish law spells this out by concluding that the Tefillin should remind one to be obedient to G-D with their heart, which would mainly include their desires and how they are expressed”. The code of Jewish law then goes on to say that the Tefillin on the head correspond to the brain (i.e. the process of understanding and knowing), which also needs to be obedient to G-D.

This is also the deeper reason why the hand Tefillin have only one compartment but the head Tefillin have four compartments. One of the goals of the brain is to break down an idea into its details. The head Tefillin which are connected to the brain, therefore have the same Torah passages as the hand Tefillin but broken down into four separate pieces of parchment. These are then placed in four separate compartments of the head Tefillin box. On the other hand when considering an emotion, the emotion in its pristine state is something which is above limitation and details. (The emotion would remain powerful and limitless but when the intellect has an influence on the emotion then the emotion gains boundaries and becomes limited). The quality of the power of emotion are reflected in the hand Tefillin, which has the same Torah passages as the head Tefillin but are written on one piece of parchment and put in one compartment.

As explained below (after the sources for this article) when an individual wears the head Tefillin, they are constantly doing a commandment but the commandment of hand Tefillin is only to tie the actual box to the arm and put it on. After a Jew has put the hand Tefillin on then he has done its commandment, as the head and hand Tefillin are separate commandments (according to many commentators). Nevertheless to fulfil the commandment of the head Tefillin properly then one needs to keep the hand Tefillin on as well. The hand Tefillin then becomes a detail of fulfilling the commandment of the head Tefillin properly. The details of this commandment are all mirrored in the demands of what we can achieve mentally and emotionally.

We can now understand according to Jewish mysticism the difference between the Head and Hand Tefillin.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi over 200 years ago explains[viii] that the average man cannot truthfully change his emotional state from being involved with himself to having an emotional desire to spirituality. A possible example of this might be when someone is eating their second portion of ice cream on a hot sunny day and then they are asked to think about some abstract spiritual concept. It would be very hard to turn from their self centered situation of cooling off and enjoying themselves to thinking abstractly. This is a pretty extreme example but generally people are attracted to the superficial material world around us and it is hard to demand that they have a constant emotional feeling of love or awe for the spiritual and G-DLY.

The above idea is reflected in the commandment of Tefillin. When a Jew is wearing the hand Tefillin they are not fulfilling a commandment the whole time they have the Tefillin on but it is only the act of putting them on. The hand Tefillin represent the emotions which a person feels and it is these feelings which they do not always control. The command then is to tie the hand Tefillin and put them on, which expresses the idea that even though we cannot control our emotions constantly, we can connect (tie) our emotions to spirituality. We can then experience a dual emotional state of a passionate desire to be involved in our own material world but this is overruled by a powerful desire to do the right thing.

An example of a dual emotional state could be the following: a person has the ability to say something nasty during a heated argument but refrains because they know and feel it is the wrong thing to do such a thing. Another example could be when helping a friend, you feel very tired and really want to stop but you realise there is no one else to help and so you think and feel you have to continue. We have the ability even when we feel like doing the opposite of what we should be doing to nevertheless do the right thing.

The hand Tefillin represent this state of not demanding a constant passionate feeling but nevertheless to have a conviction to do the right thing. An individual might not always be able to control their feelings but they can control what they do and their feeling towards that end.

The head Tefillin represent something else. When one wears the head Tefillin then every moment that the Tefillin are being worn the individual is doing a mitvah (commandment). The head Tefillin mirror[ix] the ability of a person that they always have the choice to think about what they desire to contemplate. The individual thus has the choice to constantly direct their thoughts to the goal of what G-D wants of us, including the mitvah of ahavat yisroel (helping others), learning Torah, educating our children etc etc.

That does not mean that they will not have any thoughts which they do not want, for example thoughts of things which are not appropriate. Unlike the feelings which an average person feels these types of thoughts will be against their will and eventually they should be able to divert their attention to some other matter. When the individual diverts their attention then any negative emotions as well should fade.

To fulfil the mitzvah of the head Tefillin properly we also need the hand Tefillin as is explained below. This reflects the relationship between our ability to choose what to think and our emotional state. In order that our thoughts should be directed in the right direction, we need to at least feel a strong enough conviction to do the right thing (even if we also feel like doing something else) during the whole day. If a conviction is not there, then our emotional state will disturb our ability to direct our thoughts to the correct goals.[xi]

Back to Yaakov and Chana:

Yaakov and Chana both are feeling that they should be more in control of how they feel. This is not unusual but very often leads to feelings of stress and depression as the individuals cannot govern where their emotions will take them.

Psychology as Susan David writes has finally come to a truth which was expressed 200 years ago that we do not always have the ability to desire and feel what we want. There are specific times (such as during prayer) when we should have more control over our emotions with the appropriate preparation and contemplation but most other times what we feel might not always be to our liking.

The Torah is giving us advice how to engage such feelings, since they should not be looked upon as a lack of effort to be calm or feelings of uselessness that we are not in control. The Torah is telling us that these feelings need to be seen as challenges that need to be confronted and these are the challenges which our soul came into this world to confront. The goal is that whatever our emotional feelings will be, we nevertheless need to have the conviction to act in the right way. This conviction comes from the remnants of the effort we put into our prayers which gives the individual a certain emotional feeling towards doing the right thing. If Yaakov and Chana would have such a global view of their emotional potential it would decrees their stress levels and help them live emotionally healthier lives.

Some people will still feel too out of control and will need help to get back on track. Such people need to seek help from a professional orthodox Jewish therapist who will help them with techniques to help them reach a good balance in their life.

It should be that we reach such a time soon that the world we just be concerned with gaining more knowledge of G-D, without worries or stresses from war, famine, jealousy etc.[x]

[i] David, S. (2016). How to Use Stress to Your Advantage. Harvard Business Review.

[1] each box is actually called in the singular tefillah but since that might be confusing to some, I have kept calling them tefillin

[ii] Tzephanas Paneach to the Rambam, the laws of Tefillin ch.4, Halacha 4

[iii] Devarim 6,8

[iv] Ch.4 Halacha 26

[v] Menachos 36,a

[vi] Rambam discusses this in the beginning to the Mishna Torah, where he list the commandments

[vii] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim, siman 25, sif 5, Shulchan Aruch Harav sif 11

[viii] Tanya ch. 17

[ix] See at length Tanya ch.12 and onwards

[x] Rambam Hilchos Melachim Ch.12Rambam Hilchos Melachim Ch.12

[xi] Likutei Sichos V.39

When listing the commandment of Tefillin the great codifier of Jewish law, Maimonides (also known as Rambam), categorizes the two boxes which a Jewish male puts on his head and hand as separate commandments. Rambam also surprisingly each time he lists or describes each of these commandments he discusses the head Tefillin before the hand Tefillin. This is surprising because when speaking about the Tefillin in the Torah the verses talk about the hand before the head and we would expect Rambam to follow the order which is in the Torah. In addition to that the hand Tefillin are actually put on first and then followed by the head Tefillin, which again shows precedence should be given to the hand Tefillin.

The Rambam was a genius and in addition to his encyclopedic knowledge of Talmud, his works are very precise, with immense thought going into the use of each word he wrote. There are numerous commentaries who try and understand why Rambam will always list the head Tefillin before the hand Tefillin. A number of solutions are provided but each one is left with an exception and an inconsistency to their resolution.

Rabbi Yosef Rosen, also known as the Rogatchover Gaon, was a brilliant scholar who lived in the early 20th century. Through understanding one of the explanations of Rabbi Rosen then we could understand why when the Rambam mentions the commandment of Tefillin, he prefaces the head Tefillin to the hand Tefillin. Rabbi Rosen suggests[ii] that according to the Rambam the commandment of the hand Tefillin is the act of putting the actual hand Tefillin on. The commandment of the head Tefillin by contrast is not a onetime act of tying them on but as long as they are on the head then the commandment is being accomplished. This is hinted in the verse[iii] of the Torah which states that “you should bind them as a sign on your hand [a onetime act for the hand Tefillin] and they shall be a reminder between your eyes [i.e. the words imply that each moment of the Tefillin being on the head the Jew is doing a commandment]”. Maimonides also uses similar terminology when list the commandments at the beginning of the laws of Tefillin, he states that the commandment is that the “Tefillin should be on the head and to bind them on the hand”.

The above resolution is not a contradiction to the statement which the Rambam makes that [iv] “the commandment is to wear both (hand and head Tefillin) the whole day”(when one is in a fit state to do so). This is not a contradiction as the Talmud states[v] (which Rambam bases himself on) that “while the head Tefillin are situated on the head, then the hand Tefillin need to be worn”. [That is why we take off the head Tefillin first and then the hand]. After the individual has fulfilled the commandment of putting on the hand Tefillin, the hand Tefillin still need to be worn, since to fulfil the commandment of wearing the head Tefillin properly then the hand Tefillin also need to worn. The hand Tefillin become a detail of the commandment to wear the head Tefillin.

Now we can understand why the Rambam always mentions the head Tefillin first and then the hand Tefillin. The book which the Rambam lists these commandments in, is called the book of “Ahava” and he prefaces concerning this book[vi] that this book “will include the commandments which are constant, which we are commanded so that we should remember constantly to love G-D”. When looking at both commandments of the Tefillin, the commandment of the head Tefillin falls into this category of being constant more than the hand Tefillin whose commandment is only when the Tefillin are being tied. The reason why we wear the hand Tefillin after we tie it as mentioned above is because it is a detail of the commandment of the head Tefillin.

#Devarim #Veschanan #stress #Jewishtherapy #jewishpsychology

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