"I've noticed that quite a lot of people who are prominent in the animal liberation movement are Jews. Maybe we are simply not prepared to see the powerful hurting the weak." --Peter Singer (Author, Animal Liberation)


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."
—The Evil Spirit challenging Joseph Shapiro (the vegetarian protagonist) in Isaac Bashevis Singer's The Penitent
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.

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."
I've been preparing this post since March, but I decided to publish it now in response to a post titled "Vegetarian Tefillin?" that appeared on Jewschool on Sunday.


  • At 10/16/2008 2:51 AM, Blogger Eric Salitsky said…

    Great post and great to hear about this blog thanks to Jewschool forcing you to publish early.
    I had heard about R. Rosenberg's vegetarian tefillin at a Brit Tzedek conference and it was great to hear that I'm not the only one thinking about these issues. Right now I'm wrapping with a pair that I got before I was vegetarian but if I ever need a new pair (and if I've got some money to dish out) I'm definitely going for these.

    Also, unless there was more than one UPZ Birthright trip two summers ago, we must have met. I only came for a day because Tammy Shapiro invited me. It was the day we went with Arik Asherman to East Jerusalem to see the house that had been demolished earlier that day. Am I making this up or is it possible we crossed paths?

  • At 10/16/2008 8:16 AM, Blogger heebnvegan said…

    Hey, good to hear from you!

    I'm pretty sure there was only one UPZ trip in summer '07, and Tammy led it. I hate to say it, but there was so much packed into those 10 days that I don't recall the name Arik Asherman or seeing a house that'd been demolished earlier that day. The only thing I remember about East Jerusalem is that our hotel was located there and we walked around the surrounding area on Shabbat (I don't think we went to anywhere in East Jerusalem outside walking distance from the hotel). Might it be possible that you joined up with the Meretz trip (which wasn't a Birthright trip) that immediately followed the UPZ Birthright trip? I know that Tammy and a lot of folks from my Birthright trip went on that, and they got to explore East Jerusalem/the West Bank more thatn we could on a Birthright trip.

  • At 10/16/2008 10:15 PM, Blogger Eric Salitsky said…

    Yeah, now that you mention it, it was the Meretz addition to the Birthleft trip. Darn.
    Good to know we're on the same track though.

  • At 10/26/2008 11:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Honestly, I didn’t know that Teflon is made out of leather. That makes me feel bad because of using it. I mean just knowing that they kill animals to make Teflon for people to just cook in is really truly sad. I’m not vegan by any means but that doesn’t mean that I can’t be against animal cruelty. I don’t believe in killing animals for human use. I don’t believe in abusing animals for any reason whatsoever. I have been reading recently, two pieces in my Ethics Philosophy class on animal rights. One by Singer and one by Regan. They really opened my eyes and I am now trying to figure out what to do with my newfound info. The finding out about Teflon thing really influences me as well. Thank you for that insight.

  • At 10/27/2008 10:01 AM, Blogger heebnvegan said…

    Tefillin (phylacteries) are a Jewish ritual object. Teflon is indeed vegan. :)

  • At 5/05/2011 12:41 PM, Anonymous Inversiones en oro said…

    hello, i think that is important to read post like this, because help us to find good information.


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