Bound by the Mitzvah
December 14, 2023
Rabbi Avrohom Schachter’s mission of Hanacha K’halacha- Tefillin Awareness Project
It’s a cold morning, and the wind is blowing fiercely at anyone who dares go outside. It’s the type of morning that calls for huddling under the covers, for hot chocolate and gloves.
But the weather doesn’t stop Rabbi Schachter and his team. Whatever the destination, whether a small shul, large yeshivah, or hectic boys camp, they come to assist Jews with this mitzvah.
It’s not glamorous work, not a job that awards one honors by dinners or a fancy title. But it’s vital.
For 17 years, Rabbi Avrohom “Bumie” Schachter has been trekking from shul to shul all over the tristate area and beyond for one reason only: to educate and help others fulfill the mitzvah of tefillin properly.
The bar mitzvah boy breathlessly lifts his first pair of tefillin out of the bag. With reverence, he gently lays them on his head, fastens the straps exactly the way he’s been taught, and whispers the brachah.
Eight years later, the mitzvah is still inestimably precious, but time and wear has tarnished the look of his tefillin. And unlike menorah, where the mitzvah is only enhanced by the beauty of the menorah, when it comes to tefillin, the externals are just as much a part of the mitzvah as the parshiyos nestled inside.
The box of the tefillin may no longer be perfectly square. The batim may have faded to not-quite-black over time. The halachos of how and where to wear them may have been somewhat forgotten over the years, and the tefillin may not be positioned perfectly on his forehead and arm. And truthfully, even bar mitzvah bachurim, despite the pristine condition of their new tefillin, have been known to discover issues either in the stitching or the placement.
“It’s a mitzvah that’s done approximately 300 days of the year. It’s crucial for it to be done right,” says Rabbi Schachter, the driving force behind the Tefillin Awareness Program.
How does it work?
Thousands of shuls have hosted Hanacha K’halacha since its inception.
The process is simple for the mispallelim. It’s not quite as easy for Rabbi Schachter.
First, the shul reaches out to Rabbi Schachter with the request to host the program. The shul is expected to pay for the sofrim who come although there have been cases where the shul was unable to pay in full, and Reb Avrohom subsidized the rest.
The week before he comes, Rabbi Schachter sends someone to hangposters to alert the mispallelim. Finally, he comes for Shacharis with a group of sofrim. Depending on the size of the shul, the program goes on until about an hour after the last minyan. “In a chassidish minyan factory we can be there until 2:00 in the afternoon!”
Rabbi Schachter speaks at the end of each minyan to explain the need for tefillin to be checked. “For a total of 45 seconds. People don’t have patience to listen for longer!” The sofrim position themselves around the room and are available to check the many external issues that constantly arise with people’s tefillin as well as its positioning on the wearer.
“You need to get them while they’re still wearing their tefillin,” Rabbi Schachter quips. “Once its off, they’re not putting it back on to get it checked!”
The beginning of the story
How did Rabbi Schachter get involved in this mitzvah?
He laughs. “The question is better than the answer.”
He launches into his story. “The only thing I really knew about wearing tefillin correctly was where it should be positioned on the forehead. I would constantly see people wearing them too low, and it really bothered me.”
But he never did anything about it until once when he was visiting a senior development in Florida and happened to glance around the room. He noticed Rabbi Michoel Levy from Bais Yaakov D’Rav Meir and turned to him with the issue that had been bothering him for a long time. “Am I crazy, or are these people all wearing their tefillin too low?”
“A lot of people are not doing the mitzvah properly,” Rabbi Levy confirmed. “Do something about it.”
That conversation could have been shelved for eternity. Perhaps it might have been pulled out every time a discussion about the proper way to wear tefillin came up. But instead, Rabbi Schachter chose to do something about it.
Rabbi Schachter reached out to his friend Rabbi Mordechai Gelber, who arranged a meeting between him and his Rav, Rabbi Yosef Eisen as well as Rabbi Heshy Kleinman. The four of them decided to arrange an asifah to educate people about the halachos of tefillin wearing. Sofrim were hired to check people’s tefillin at the gathering. Each of the four organizers reached out to local rabbanim and asked them to send their mispallelim to the asifah on Sunday morning.
The asifah had a nice turnout of close to 300 people, but Rabbi Schachter quickly realized that this method wasn’t going to work. “Only about 10 percent of the members of each shul showed up. You can’t ask people to schlep out. We needed to go directly to the shuls and yeshivos themselves.”
Utilizing a classic business tactic, Rabbi Shacter offered the service to the first few shuls for free. Except that his goal wasn’t sales, it was awareness.
As the word spread, most shuls began paying a fee but only for the sofrim. Rabbi Schachter has never taken a penny for his work.
There are several issues that come up in this realm, some of which are me’akav, keeping the wearer from completing the mitzvah. Others cause the wearer not to fulfill the mitzvah in the most mehudar way, which is a shame given the amount of money people spend on tefillin and the importance of this most precious mitzvah.
- The kesharim: If the knots are not tied properly or not in the precise location, then the mitzvah is invalid.
- The retzuos: The straps need to be perfectly black. Rabbi Schachter brings black paint along and spends his time during the program repainting straps.
- The tefiros: The stitching must be perfectly square. The tefiros can sometimes rip without people realizing, and that invalidates the tefillin.
- Location: The tefillin shel rosh need to be above the original hairline, and the tefillin shel yad need to be on the muscle. Many people end up wearing it wrong.
Connected and secured
The Tefillin Awareness Program crosses party lines. Every Jew who wears tefillin can take advantage. Rabbi Schachter has been to chassidish shtieblach, Modern Orthodox shuls, Sephardi yeshivos, and has even done his work in BMG.
“That was difficultto get permission for!” he says ruefully. “They finally agreed to let me come but only bein hazmanim. They said I could have two tables. I told them I needed at least ten, but they didn’t believe I would need so many!”
Rabbi Schachter only put the signs up the day before he came, but the turnout was unbelievable. Even Rav Yisroel Neuman, shlita came downstairs to have his tefillin checked out.
He’s been to numerous chassidish shtieblach as well. “Sometimes they even let me speak to the crowd in English.” He winks.
The feedback he gets is incredible. In nearly every shul there’s at least one person who isn’t being mekayem the mitzvah, and the Hanacha K’halacha program gives them the opportunity to fix it.
“I was once in Rav Simcha Bunim Cohen’s shul when he came upstairs after his shiur and saw the four sofrim finishing up. He exclaimed, ‘It’s a time of simchah! So many Yidden will now be mekayem the mitzvah properly!’ He took the hands of the people standing near him and started singing and dancing joyously for close to 15 minutes.”
A chain of inspiration
Doing this mitzvah has brought others in its train.
One of the sofrim that Rabbi Schachter employs is also a mohel. On one trip back from a Miami tefillin event he sat near an obviously Jewish but secular man. They started talking, and in the course of the conversation, the sofer mentioned that he had been around the world doing brissim. They exchanged numbers, the secular man looking thoughtful. Two months later, the sofer/mohel received a phone call from his seatmate asking him to come do a bris on his newborn son. If they hadn’t been seated next to each other on the plane, would the baby have had a proper bris?
The program can be expensive for a shul, and individuals will sometimes step forward and offer to cover the costs, giving themselves unbelievable zechuyos.
Yossel, a Williamsburg native, once offered to sponsor the program on a Sunday in his shul. He didn’t know much about the Tefillin Awareness Program, but he knew it would be a zechus.
On the Thursday before the program, Yossel’s wife started feeling a mysterious pain. The doctor assumed it was a kidney stone and offered her a painkiller, but by Friday the pain had only gotten worse. They ended up calling Hatzalah on Shabbos, and she was brought to NYU medical center.
The results in the hospital were shocking. Doctors clustered around her, working at a rapid pace. Her entire body was starting to shut down, and she was in critical condition. There had been an aggressive infection that had silently spread throughout her body, and she needed to be put on a respirator. After a few hours, they stabilized her, but she was still very sick.
On Sunday morning, while still in the hospital, Yossel’s wife experienced a swift upturn in her condition. At 9:30 in the morning, the doctors had taken her off the respirator. The numbers just got better and better, and by 1:30 in the afternoon, his wife was almost back to normal.
The doctors were completely bewildered by this transformation. It normally takes weeks until the patient heals after such an infection, but she was released after three days.
Yossel is convinced it was in the merit of his sponsorship. “The sofrim were working from seven o’clock until two o’clock nonstop. That was exactly the time she was getting better.”
Vision for the future
“I’m not a rav,” Rabbi Schachter insists. “I’m just a ba’al habayis who tries to do the right thing.”
Despite his many years in the field, Rabbi Schachter has never done the checking, leaving it to the professionals. He sticks to the managing side of things, and on the day of the program, he suffices with painting the straps.
He’s been in the field for 17 years and shows no signs of slowing down. “I’ve been to so many locations, and it’s never been a waste of time. I want to be able to expand the program as much as possible, and my dream is to hire a manager to take this project to the next level.”
His dreams go even further than that. Rabbi Schachter hopes to be able to prepare handouts and videos demonstrating the halachos along with common issues to look out for. “One day, I would like to be able to teach and pay yungeleit to become tefillin experts so they can assist at future programs, enabling multiple events on a single day. I really believe that this should be a mandatory program for every shul and yeshivah.”
- Biggest shul Rabbi Schachter visited: Beis Medrash Ohr Chaim (Scheiner’s shul) in Monsey. We brought along 20 sofrim and had 3,000 participants.
- Furthest location: Eretz Yisrael for the yarchei kallah when the topic was tefillin.
- Most common issue: In most communities its wearing the tefillin shel rosh too low down, below the original hairline. In the more yeshivish world, there are tefiros, batim or retzuos issues