The Story of Rav Chaim's Tefillin:
Unfortunately, it was only a few months later and Rav Chaim was on his deathbed. The best doctors had been called in to treat him, but to no avail. In a short while he would leave this world. His wife approached the bed. With tear-swollen eyes, she cried, "When you leave me, I will be all alone in the world. Who will support me? What will become of me?"The letters flying away finds nice parallel in the midrashic story of the letters on the first set of Luchot flying away, quite possibly deliberately so.
Gathering his last bit of strength, he whispered to her: "Do not fear, I will not allow you to starve. After my passing, a rich man will come to you from Constantinople to buy my tefillin. You may sell them to him, but you must warn him that he should guard their sanctity very carefully. When he puts them on, he should not take his mind off of them, and not speak even the slightest mundane conversation.”
After the Shloshim [30-day mourning period], a wealthy merchant from Constantinople appeared in Jerusalem, seeking directions to the home of Rav Chaim.
"Please sell me the tefillin the tzaddik prayed with," he begged Rav Chaim’s widow upon his arrival. "I’ll give you 300 ducats [golden pounds] for them (an enormous sum in those days, enough to support his wife for life)."
"I’ll sell them to you," she replied, "only if you will treat them with the utmost sanctity." She then delivered the details of Rav Chaim’s warning. The man agreed, accepting the tefillin with extreme reverence.
Arriving home, the man indeed treated the tefillin with extreme care and sanctity, never taking his mind off them - even for a moment. From the time he began to wear these tefillin, he experienced an arousal of holiness he never had before. The prayers left his mouth with fervor and great feeling.
ONE DAY the wealthy man was in the beis midrash, praying with these special tefillin on. Suddenly, one of his young attendants entered and started pestering him with questions related to his business. At first, the man did not react, but continued to pray. But the lad would not relent, and, unable to restrain himself, the man finally answered the question, sharply.
He immediately returned to his prayers, but the words came out clipped and garbled. The special feelings of holiness that he had previously felt had also disappeared. As soon as he realized this, hew felt greatly disturbed, but could not pinpoint the cause of the loss. He certainly did not attribute the change to that one sharp word he had spoken. He innocently thought that perhaps some letter in the tefillin had been erased, and decided to take them to a sofer for an examination.
When the sofer opened the tefillin boxes, he and the wealthy man were astounded at what they saw. The klaf (parchment) of the tefillin was completely blank - the letters had flown away.
This is once again a story which appears to be wholly positive and inspirational, but if one strips away the miraculous element, the story is quite different.
Let us assume that the last statement in the story, "the letters had flown away," is untrue. Now, it is possible for a letter or two to get cracked, but all of them to disappear? Unlikely, unless we agree to the mystical causes. If so -- if they did not disappear suddenly as a result of the merchant having snapped at the attendant -- then they had not been present even before that.
How could this be? After all, we just read that:
From the time he began to wear these tefillin, he experienced an arousal of holiness he never had before. The prayers left his mouth with fervor and great feeling.Enter the idea of placebo. If you think something will work, it has a psychological effect on you such that you even feel somewhat better.
To cite another famous story, which I have never authenticated, but which tries to make the same point. There was a certain woman who approached the Rav (Rav Soleveitchik) and told him that she wished to accept upon herself to wear a tallis, because of how performing this mitzvah would draw her closer to God. The Rav told her that she should start gradually. Begin with a tallis without any tzitzis, and report back in a month her experiences. A month later she came back to the Rav and related how she felt so spiritual wearing the tallis, etc., etc,. and that this was a sign that she should wear the tallis. The Rav then informed her that a tallis without tzitzis is nothing, in fact, for a man, worse than nothing, because he would have an obligation to wear tzitzis that he wasn't fulfilling. Thus, it was clear that these feelings she felt were not the signs of true spirituality, but rather of some notion she had in her own head.
Take that story or leave it, but the parallels to this merchant of Constantinople are obvious.
Every time that merchant put on those tefillin (even before he snapped at the attendant), he was making a bracha levatala. He also passed through each day without putting on kosher tefillin, with possible related problems of poshei Yisrael begufo. He was like this woman who was putting on the tallis without tzitzis. Yet, as stated above, how did he feel?
From the time he began to wear these tefillin, he experienced an arousal of holiness he never had before. The prayers left his mouth with fervor and great feeling.This was because of the placebo effect. He thought the Rav Chaim's tefillin were super-duper holy, more than any other pair of tefillin, and this in turn affected his state of mind. It uplifted him.
Then, what happened? While in such a state, he was annoyed by an attendant about a business matter. Full of himself and the holiness of the tefillin, he snapped at his fellow Jew.
Any time you get into an argument with someone, your state of mind changes. You are at least the slightest bit upset. And you cannot focus as well on matters such as davening. And so,
He immediately returned to his prayers, but the words came out clipped and garbled. The special feelings of holiness that he had previously felt had also disappeared. As soon as he realized this, hew felt greatly disturbed, but could not pinpoint the cause of the loss. He certainly did not attribute the change to that one sharp word he had spoken. He innocently thought that perhaps some letter in the tefillin had been erased, and decided to take them to a sofer for an examination.This story is saying that the change was due to the sharp word he spoke, but goes on to suggest that that sharp word had caused the letters to disappear. In truth, the sharp word he spoke distracted him and upset him, such that the placebo effect did not hold as well. But, being mystically minded, he thought that it must be due to some problem with the tefillin, his talisman.
Baruch Hashem that attendant spoke to him, and that he replied sharply, and that he brought it to a sofer! This all worked to save him from putting on pasul tefillin!
In fact, the attitude is troubling. The tefillin became a sort of relic, guaranteed to take its wearer to heights of spirituality, because of having been worn by the tzaddik, so long as the new wearer kept to certain guidelines. Put tefillin are not an amulet -- not some magic charm. They are physical signs of bondage to Hashem, to take the particular person's heart and mind and bind them in subservience to Hashem.
Such an attitude takes effect on any pair of tefillin, as the person fulfills the mitzvah. It is not reserved only to such a person as can afford to pay 300 ducats for a relic from a saint. As this story amply illustrates, such an attitude is flawed, for the merchant felt this way even though the tefillin were not kosher.
Yet, rather than assuming that the tefillin were always pasul, he assumes that they letters must have flown away.
When, then, did the tefillin really lose all its letters?
I cannot pretend to know. Four possibilities jump out, though:
- In the previous story, Rav Chaim was in a shipwreck, and he tied his tefillin to a board. Maybe they got waterlogged and the ink all washed away.
- Maybe he did not really preserve the tefillin and when he acquired new ones, someone cheated Rav Chaim and gave him empty klaf. Or by accident put in empty klaf.
- Maybe some talmid (in the previous story, one talmid was the leader of some thieves, but then repented), or his wife, couldn't bear to see the tefillin go to the highest bidder, switched the klaf.
- Maybe the sofer really checked the klaf in private and saw an opportunity to take the klaf for himself and claim that the klaf was blank. As a sofer, he would have plenty of blank klaf available. This would be stolen tefillin, and wearing it would entail a mitzvah haba beAvaira, but I am not sure we can discount the possibility of chassidic fervor in this. This of course would mean that the merchant was indeed putting on kosher tefillin, which is a relief.