Letters Were Flying

Into the Air

By Rabbi Aaron Raskin

Rav Moshe Weiss, the Rav of Shikon N’vei Achiezer in B’nai Brak, is an illustrious scholar who merited studying under the Minchas Elazar (the Rebbe of the Munkatch Hasidim). In 1988, he was diagnosed with lymphoma of the spleen. The doctors explained there was a procedural dilemma in his case; they wanted to use chemotherapy to shrink the tumor, but his spleen was so enlarged the chemotherapy would not be elective.

The best thing to do, they explained, was to operate, but that, too, was overly dangerous, as water had recently been detected on his lungs. They would have to wait until he grew stronger before attempting an operation. Meanwhile, chemotherapy was chosen as a stop-gap measure which might at least buy some time.

Because of this prognosis, a relative of the Rav in Kfar Chabad suggested a letter be sent to the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Rav Weiss agreed, and so a letter was soon faxed on his behalf to 770 Eastern Parkway, Chabad Lubavitch headquarters. His relative explained in the letter that Rav Weiss had been a student of the Minchas Elazar, and he mentioned the important rabbinic position he held in B’nai B’rak.

Though it normally took a number of days for a reply to arrive from the Rebbe’s once, he responded within a few hours. His message read, Azkir al ha-tzion, “I will mention him in the grave of my father-in-law.” The Rebbe added that Rev Weiss should check his tefillin and mezuzahs.

This was done immediately. The mezuzahs were found to be posul, as well as his Rashi tefillin. As for his Rabbeinu Tam tefillin, the second set he would don every day, the scribe had a fascinating report.

The words on the scrolls inside the Rabbeinu Tam tefillin were old, but fine. Beautiful, in fact. They had been written by Rabbi Chaim Sofer of Munkatch, a great scribe to whom many Hasidic rabbis would go for their tefillin. However, the inspecting sofer determined the boxes were no longer kosher. Like many other boxes crafted before World War II, they were very large and made from dakos (goat leather). Because goat leather is thinner than cow leather it is more likely to puncture and lose its shape. Over time, the boxes had developed a flaw: they were no longer square, a requirement for kosher tefillin, termed r’vuah.

While the mezuzahs and Rashi tefillin were being rewritten, a project of several days, one of the Rav’s son’s loaned his father his tefillin to wear. From the moment he began to use them, the doctors found that contrary to all their expectations, his spleen was getting smaller. They soon sent him home.

At that point, Rav Weiss received his tefillin, with the old scrolls in new boxes. He put them on, and suddenly things turned for the worse. He was diagnosed with pneumonia and rushed to Hadassah Hospital, too weak to have chemo.

The Rav’s relative decided to send the Rebbe a second letter, an update on his situation. And within only a few hours, the Rebbe an - swered. He repeated,Azkir al hatzion, “I will pray for him at the graveof my father-in-law.” And he added, “He should check his tefillin.”

Incredulous, one of his sons asked, “Why? We just checked.” He was skeptical, and not being familiar with the Rebbe at that time, he thought the Rebbe was giving a formulaic answer. ‘Then again,” he mused, ‘it was faxed back so quickly, the Rebbe must feel personally involved.” So a second sofer was consulted, and when the tefillin had been checked again, we were struck by his report. The sofer said that when he opened the boxes of the Rabbeinu Tam tefillin, the letters were literally “flying into the air.” Was this some how connected to the sudden illness in Rav Weiss’ lungs?

The first sofer had taken the precious old scrolls of the Rabbeinu Tam tefillin and placed them in new boxes. The largest contemporary boxes available were smaller than those commonly used in Pre-World War II tefillin. The parchments had to be squeezed a little to fit them into the new boxes, and without the first sofer realizing it, the letters had begun to crumble o= the parchment surface.

Right away, a new set of Rabbeinu Tam tefillin were acquired for the ailing Rav. As of the very next day, he started feeling better! Ultimately, he never needed the operation, and within the next few months he was completely healed.

The next year (1989), as a token of his gratitude, Rav Weiss went to stay in Crown Heights for the Shavuot holiday. He enjoyed observing the Rebbe’s prayers, studying his teachings, and attending his farbrengens. At the date of this publication, Rav Weiss is alive and well, and residing in Israel.


Inside the leather boxes of the tefillin are four hand-written paragraphs on parchment. According to the opinion of Rashi, the order of the paragraphs within the boxes should be: 1) Kadesh (Exodus 13:1–10), 2) V’hayah (Exodus, 13:11–16), 3) Shema (Deuteronomy, 6:4–9), and finally, 4) V’hayah im shemo’a (Deuteronomy, 13–21). According to Rabbeinu Tam, the order of these paragraphs within the boxes should be 1), 2), 4), and then 3). Kabbalah teaches that Rabbeinu Tam tefillin represent yichud of Abba (unification of the Father, or chochmah), and Rashi tefillin represents the yichud of Imma (unification of the Mother, or binah). The Zohar (Vayikra, 4b) says that chochmah and binah are “two inseparable friends.” Thus, both sets of tefillin should be worn daily.