Vegetarians and Tefillin
"You're acting out a farce. You know damn well that the phylacteries are hunks of leather torn from the skin of a cow."I often get questions about what vegetarians should use for tefillin. The quandary is that tefillin is required to be made from leather, and as I discussed last week, leather is a big no-no, in part because animals killed for leather are treated cruelly. Click here to read a comprehensive overview of the subject from Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning.
—The Evil Spirit challenging Joseph Shapiro (the vegetarian protagonist) in Isaac Bashevis Singer's The Penitent
I have yet to come up with a solution that I feel comfortable with. I don't endorse any of the views below, but they are worth sharing. As far as I can tell, there are four options:
- You can refrain from donning tefillin altogether. I expect that no rabbi would recommend this.
- You can use nonleather tefillin, which is not considered kosher. For example, artist Ayana Friedman made "Women's Tefillin." Friedman explains, "I wanted to create a ritual object that would be different from men's, made of synthetic fabric, not dead animal's skin, and would elevate women's craft and abilities which have been pushed aside throughout history." In a 2006 e-mail to the Veggie Jews Yahoo group, Dan Kliman wrote, "Someone very honestly said on this list some time ago that he indeed understood that non-leather tefillin were not the mitzva in its purest form, but he felt something is better than nothing. . . . The Hebrew word 'Chet,' which we often define as 'sin,' is actually a 'missing of the mark.' Due to some people's convictions, they are willing to 'miss the mark' on tefillin being made completely from leather in order that they should at least pick up the mitzva of binding of the arms with the proper words. The only caveat is that you should not fool yourself into thinking you are getting the full mitzva."
- You can use so-called "vegetarian tefillin" from Rabbi Shmuel Rosenberg of Tzefat, Israel. Says Rabbi Rosenberg, "I make the Batim out of the sh'lil (baby calves that weren't born yet). Either they die by a miscarriage (stillbirth), or the mother gets injuried or otherwise dies of natural causes, and they find the calves inside. However, they DON'T kill the mother for the babies." Adds The Vision of Eden author Rabbi Dovid Sears, "Anyone who hesitates to fulfill this fundamental mitzvah of the Torah to don Tefillin every weekday due to apprehension that the animals used may have been subject to cruel handling may rest assured that Rabbi Rosenberg's 'vegetarian Tefillin' reflect the utmost effort to eliminate this problem as far as humanly possible."
- You can use conventional leather tefillin under the assumption that it's impossible to be 100 percent vegan in every facet of life. If the tefillin is already purchased (e.g., you've had it since your bar or bat mitzvah, it was passed down through your family) or you buy used tefillin, one could argue that the use of this tefillin would not contribute to the overall demand for leather. In February, Half-Jew in Granite featured a great post about one vegan's struggle with the tefillin issue; the following month, blogger Andrea Eshelman concluded, "I'm going to get myself some animal skin tefillin. . . . I'm so drawn toward the practice that I feel as though I can't ignore it. I feel like my Jewish prayer is incomplete without it."