Could we create vegan tefillin? By vegan tefillin, I do not, of course, mean tefillin made from corn. That would not fulfill the holy mitzvah. But could we ensure that our Jewish ritual objects, which must come from animals, are obtained in a cruelty-free manner?
Tefillin is a very important mitzvah that originates in the Torah and is mentioned daily in the Shema recited twice a day (Deuteronomy 6: 4-9). Similar to tefillin, many mitzvot require objects that come from animals, such as the parchment inside mezuzot, Torah scrolls made from parchment, and the ram’s horn (shofar). Embracing these rituals should be the exception to a Jewish vegan’s rule of trying not to buy leather and other animal products.
There are, of course, some possible alternatives to buying what is currently on the market to explore. One can try locating a used (but still kosher) pair of tefillin, or use a pair received in one’s childhood or one passed down through the family so a new pair would not have to be purchased. The number of animals killed for the leather tefillin straps are very minimal, so the emphasis of animal welfare activists would be better placed addressing the factory farming industries that are killing billions of animals each year.
There are some attempts to make non-leather tefillin, but wearing those do not fulfill the traditional mitzvah. We are in need of the first kosher and truly cruelty-free tefillin produced in the most humane way possible. The Shulchan Aruch, one of the most authoritative Jewish legal codes, writes in the laws of tefillin that parchment may even be made from a neveilah, any animal that either died naturally or was not slaughtered in accordance with Jewish laws. Therefore, it is possible to wear tefillin from a cow that lived a long, happy life. We are in search of a farm that will donate hides from cows that lived full lives and died natural deaths. There was one sofer (scribe) working to make vegan tefillin in Sefat, Israel, but he found it unsustainable. Perhaps animal shelters for farm animals might be able to supply this need.
Originating in the Torah, humane treatment of animals has been an eternally cherished Jewish value. In the industrial age, where we no longer have cows in our own backyards, a lot of those cherished values have been forgotten as we’ve assimilated to the mass commercial production of all of our products. We must return to the values of the Torah. When done with compassion, we truly can elevate an animal that has lived a full life. Rabbi Moshe Cordovoro, 16th century Kabbalist, explains well:
He should not uproot anything which grows, unless it is necessary, nor kill any living thing unless it is necessary…to have compassion as much as possible. This is the principle: to have pity on all created things not to hurt them depends on wisdom. Only if it is to elevate them higher and higher, from plant to animal and from animal to human.., (Tomer Devora, chapter 3).
Rabbi Cordovero explains well we can elevate an animal up to the service of G-d through our service but that it must be done with absolute compassion. We cannot be assured today that the leather used for tefillin did not come from abused and cows slaughtered inhumanely for their meat.
It is worth considering why the Torah intentionally mandated that tefillin come from leather. Perhaps we are binding ourselves with animal to fully commit ourselves to serving G-d and living a moral life. One of the great moral imperatives we have is to reduce suffering for all sentient beings. When we put tefillin on each morning, we are reminding ourselves of our life commitment to be merciful to all creatures. As with all moral convictions, ritual helps us to recharge our commitments on a daily basis. Tefillin is an animal welfare mitzvah at its core!
Many have suggested that it is impossible not to benefit from animals in some way today. There are animal products and/or the results of animal tests wrapped up in everything from our paints, wallboard, and car tires to the asphalt we drive on. This needs to change but in the meantime we must live with the current option we’re presented in the world while we continue to strive for our ideals. One can still be vegan by refraining from eating animal products while continuing to engage in required ritual use. There is a growing community looking to return to our traditional roots by wearing vegan tefillin or perhaps “tofu-llin.” Now is the time for a paradigm shift to return to the intention of this holy prayer ritual.
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute, the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Director of Jewish Life & the Senior Jewish Educator at the UCLA Hillel and a 6th year doctoral candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. Rav Shmuly’s book “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century” is now available on Amazon. In April 2012, Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the most influential rabbis in America.