Family Heirloom - Tefilin

My Tefilin

Chaim Freedman, Petah Tikvah, September 2008.

They aren’t particularly beautiful, now that they have had to be retired. Simple black cases, like tired old wood. Actually they’re parchment, petrified like wood after 165 years of constant, loving dedication. What simple beauty is encased in these old relics.


I would call them heirlooms, though they lack the monetary value usually thought to go with that term. But their value to me is greater than diamonds. Their value lies in not what they are, but whose they were.

I received the Tefilin in 1960 when I reached Barmitzvah age. My mother gave them to me telling me that I should treasure them as they belonged to her father, my grandfather Shlomo Zalman Komesaroff (Komisaruk, 1886-1958). Not only that, but they belonged to his grandfather before him, Rabbi Pinkhas Komisaruk (1830-1897), a revered figure in family lore.

Perhaps they were even older.

My grandfather died when I was eleven and his grandfather died when grandfather was eleven. In fact Rabbi Pinkhas’s grandfather, Rabbi Dov Ber Komisaruk (1776-1843) died when Pinkhas was thirteen and maybe the Tefilin originated that far back. What is certain is that they came from Lithuania when the Komisaruk family migrated from the town of Raseiniai to settle on the Jewish agricultural colony Grafskoy (now Proletarsky), Yekaterinoslav Guberniya, Ukraine in 1847.

As I think back over the history of my ancestors, the events they were involved in, the trials and tribulations and the joyous occasions, I imagine that the Tefilin were silent witnesses to those events. I imagine how they were lovingly packed with Pinkhas’s belonging when the family set off in 1847 in a small group of eleven families, some in wagons and some walking for the arduous journey that took months until they reached the Ukraine.

I imagine how Pinkhas took the Tefilin with him when he was conscripted into the Russian army during the Crimean War and took care of the needs of Jewish troops by slaughtering animals to provide for kosher food, he was a Shokhet, and by performing funerals for the Jewish casualties.

I imagine how Pinkhas took his Tefilin with him when he jumped onto his horse whenever he heard of a pogrom in 1880’s and rode off to help and comfort the victims.

I imagine how Pinkhas wore the Tefilin when he attended Morning Prayer with the families of babies for who he performed circumcision, he was a Mohel.

I imagine Pinkhas teaching his grandson Shlomo Zalman how to put on Tefilin in preparation for his Barmitzvah, an occasion Pinkhas was not to live long enough to attend.

Some of my fondest memories of my grandfather are intimately bound up with religious occasions: sitting in the synagogue next to him or on his knee as he showed me the place in the Siddur. Listening as he made Kiddush on Shabbat or conducted the Seder on Pesach. After his death and my attainment of Barmitzvah, I was proud to wear the Tefilin which carried with them so many memories, both personal and historical.

Just as my grandfather brought them from Russian to Australia in 1913, so I brought them from Australia to Israel when we made Aliyah in 1977. I wore them daily for about forty years. From time to time they were inspected by a Sofer to make sure that the inscription on the parchment had not been damaged. Winding the straps around the boxes after use gradually took its toll on the shape of the Tefilin as they became warped.

Finally about the year 2000, they became unusable. I was inconsolable; I had to buy new tefilin. They would never be the same.

My Heirloom is now a museum piece. The Tefilin sit in a show case in our living room on a small bag embroidered specially for them by my grandmother, along with my grandfather’s white Kippah that he wore on festivals, They look lonely and tired, but still proud after so much that they have witnessed.

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