This week I went to morning minyan during Chol Hamoed. I brought my tefillin with
me. It was not the first time I attended minyan during Chol Hamoed, but it was the first time I
had my tefillin with me there during Chol Hamoed. No one there put them on. Should I have?
If you answer yes, you are correct. The argument here is that weekday Chol Hamoed is not a Shabbat
or Yom Tov. We wear tefillin on holidays during weekdays without Yom Tov’s including Rosh Chodesh,
Chanukah, and Purim. Therefore we need to be wearing them on Chol Hamoed.
However, if you answer no, you are also correct. We do not wear tefillin the Yom Tovs of the major
holidays in the Torah as we read in Emor on the second day of Peasch, this past Sunday and on the first
two days of Succos. Since Pesach lasts 7 days and we are eating Matzah throughout that holiday, and
since Succos last 7 days, not including Shemini Atzeret and Simchas Torah, we are still saying the Succos
prayers with the lulav and esrog and eating in the Succah. We are still celebrating those holidays on chol
hamoed. Therefore we need not be wearing tefillin on chol hamoed.
The Shulchan Aruch advocated not wearing them on chol hamoed. Sephardic Jews follow this custom
and therefore do not wear tefillin on chol hamoed. I read that Yemenite Jews wore tefillin on Chol
Hamoed. As of now I haven’t confirmed this.
What about early European and Ashkanazic Jews? In the Mishna, Rabbi Yehudah teaches that one may
write and correct Mezuzahs on Chol Hamoed. Rashi explains that with that it is permitted to use
Mezuzas and tefillin on Chol Hamoed and many but not all have interpreted Rashi that one must wear
tefillin as that is what the Mishna is teaching. Many early religious European Jewish communities did.
Some did without reciting a blessing, which included those that followed Jacob Ben Asher from the 13-
14 century who was born in Germany and died in Spain, Moses of Coucy from France in the 13th century
and David Halevi Segal from the 17th century Poland. Others recite a blessing in an undertone which
follows the RAMBAM, Maimonides. There were those who took their tefillin off before Hallel and those
who may have put them on only for the early blessings and took them off before the major portion of
shacharit. Two of the most influential rabbis and scholars in Eastern Europe for Ashkanazic Jews on
whether or not to put on tefillin on chol hamoed were the Rama and the Vilna Gaon.
Moses Issereles, also known as the Rama, who lived 16th century Krakow, now part of Poland and at one
time part of the Austrian empire, wrote interpretations of the Shulchan Aruch and was very influential,
especially in what is now southern Poland and adjacent countries. He believed in wearing tefillin on chol
hamoed. His custom was to take them off before Hallel which I was told (by Lazlo) followed by the
religious Jews of Budapest, Hungary and is also followed by Ashkanazic Jews in the United States whose
follow the custom of wearing them.
Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman also known as the Vilna Gaon was a famous Talmudic scholar in the 18th
Century in Vilna which is now in Lithuania and his teachings were very influential on those living in what
is today northern Poland and Russia and today all over the world. His teaching on this subject was that
tefillin not be worn on Chol Hamoed. Also from the same general area as the Vina Gaon was another
influential rabbi, Shner Zalman of Liadi, the first Chabad rebbe also known as the Alter Rebbe, who also
taught that tefillin not be worn. Therefore the Chabad Chassidic Jews and those Ashkanazic Jews
around Lithuania, that part of northern Poland, and that part of Russia did not wear them for chol
hamoed. Even though Chabad Lebavitch do not wear Tefillin on Chol Hamoed, I was told by Yossie
Nemes’s brother Menachem Mendel that there are other Chassidic sects who wear tefillin on Chol
For Ashkanazic Jews in United States, it is to follow whatever tradition followed by the family. If the
father put on tefillin of chol hamoed, he did. If the father did not, he did not. Those who didn’t know
the family tradition would follow those around them and whatever their rabbi answered when asked. I
was told by Norman Fertel that in the 1950’s those at Chevra Tehillin did and those at Anches Sfard did
not. It was not as clear about those at Beth Israel in the early days, but it may have been mixed. I asked
Rabbi Bienenfeld about the 1970’s when he was here, and it was his recollection, that those who
attended Beth Israel minyans at that time did. Rabbi Bienenfeld did put on tefillin on chol hamoed, and
therefore there may have been those who followed his lead. The last time I was at Beth Israel before
Katrina for chol hamoed which I think was Pesach 2005, it was the opposite. Rabbi Schiff did not wear
them and told those who brought tefillin that it was Chol Hamoed and they didn’t have to wear them,
and therefore no one put them on. I asked our current Rabbis at Beth Israel their custom. Rabbi Gabe
as many or most of you know by now, does not put on tefillin on Chol Hamoed. He mentioned to me
that his mother’s family who was from Galicia in an area which is now bordering Poland and Ukraine did
not. The rabbis at the Yeshiva in Israel where Rabbi Gabe studied also did not put them on. On the
other hand, Rabbi David as many or most of you know, puts on tefillin on Chol Hamoed. He told me he
does not know his family custom and follows the custom of his rabbinic teachers who do.
Rabbi Bienenfeld also told me about a Halachic Discussion as to whether there should be two minyans
for those who put on tefillin and those who do not when there are enough men for both minyans. For
the next holiday, Succos, there will be 2 minyans at Beth Israel for Chol Hamoed. Rabbi David will lead
the minyan for those who put on Tefillin and Rabbi Gabe will lead the minyan for those who do not.
(Note: This was intended to be a joke). Actually, Sion Danishrad told me that when goes to New York to
visit his sons, he goes to such a center that has two separate minyans, and they combine for Musaf. Rav
Moshe Feinstein did write in Orah Chaim (5:24:7) that it was fine for multiple people in one shul to
practice different minhagim whether or not to wear tefillin, but mentions that the chazzan should be
practicing the shul’s minhag. His opinion was also if someone has no minhag in regards to wearing
them, they should wear tefillin with a blessing as that was the minhag going back a long time. There are
those who would probably not agree with this, including those who follow the Vilna Gaon and those
influenced by Chabad.
I initially read that most Israeli Ashkanazic Jews follow the Vilna Gaon and do not. Shabi Perl told me
that where he goes to Minyan where he lives in Israel, some do, some don’t. Shabi told me that he used
to wear tefillin on Chol Hamoed, but no longer does after spending time at Chabad Center for years
before moving back to Israel. Though Rabbi Bienenfeld told me he used to put them on for Chol
Hamoed following his father’s custom, he changed his custom after moving to Israel when he was told
by the great poskim that the minhag in Israel was not to wear tefillin on Chol Hamoed, and he used the
terms great poskim and minhag.
What about me? Until recently, I never really knew what my father’s family did. I also never knew what
my Grandfather Blotner and his family did. My great grandfather Shaul or Charles Blotner passed away
when my Uncle Joe and my mom were little. I was told by my cousin Malcolm Blotner, a descendent of
Shaul’s brother Moshe, that Moshe was not religious. Like Rabbi Gabe’s family, the Blotners also came
from Galicia and came from the part which is now part of the Ukraine and it is possible they may not
have. The only one I knew about was that my grandmother Hilda Blotner told my cousin Jonathan that
her father and our great grandfather Joseph Levin who was the first generation Beth Israel member did
not wear tefillin on chol hamoed. My grandmother was born in Russia, and they were from an area of
Russia influenced by the Vilna Gaon and the Alter Rebbe and, with previous discussion with family
members, there may have also been Sephardic influence with her family.
I don’t remember what I did at minyans before moving back to the New Orleans Area approximately 26
years ago. I may have just followed the custom of those there, but I do not remember putting them on.
I have spent time attending services approaching 20 years at Chabad Center, including Chol Hamoed.
For at least 20 years and probably longer, I have not worn tefillin attending Chol Hamoed minyans at
Chabad Center following Chabad custom, and as I discovered later, also following the custom of my
maternal grandmother’s family.
Recently, I have been in contact with my father’s half-brother, Norman Fertel and with one of his sons
Baruch and they wear them. Norman told me that he was following the custom of those at Chevra
Tehillim at that time around the 1950’s. That also makes sense for another reason. If you remember
the talk given by Randy Fertel, our Great Grandfather Samuel Fertel, a Chevra Tehillum member, was
born in Krakow, the home of Rabbi Moses Issereles, the Rama, and all the rest of my father’s family
including the Deiches and the Cohens came from England, but were also originally from Krakow.
So should I now start putting them on because it is probably the original custom of all of my dad’s
family, or do I not since this is what I have done all these years. I have not sought advice from any of the
rabbis, but in discussing the situation with Yossie Nemes’s brother, Menachem Mendel, his comment
was that in not putting on tefillin all these years, that I have developed my own custom, and therefore, I
have continued not wearing tefillin on chol hamoed, including this week. Talking to others faced with
the same situation, including Shabi Perl and Rabbi Bienenfeld, I have found it easier to not to put them
on since I haven’t been all these years, than it is to start or restart putting them on after not putting
them on in the recent past.
Since tonight’s dinner is ostensibly in honor of our arrival, I’d like to take this opportunity to reflect both on our arrival, and this past year really. And we’ll do so in light of …. this week’s parsha!
We’re at the end of 40 years in the desert. Moshe knows at this point that he won’t be able to enter the land, and he asks God: “Hashem! Please appoint a new leader, who will work with the people.” I think it is instructive to see some of the ways the Torah, and the commentaries, understand this moment of transition.
Specifically, there are three moments in this weeks’ parsha that I think have significance both for our arrival, and my starting to work here at Beth Israel.
When Moses first asks God to appoint a new leader, he refers to God as:
“Elohai HaRUchot L’chol Basar” – God of all the living things.
That’s an odd title for God, why not the normal appellations of “Eloheem”, or the Y – H name of God.
The midrash, which Rashi in turn quotes, claims this title means as follows: “HaShem, you know that everyone, every person, has different ideas of how things should be done. Grant us a leader who knows who to deal with all the different kinds of people, and all of their different ideas.”
Now, I know that this is not true of our Jewish community, and our shul. Everyone here, we’re all on the same page, no disagreements, etc. But theoretically, there could be a community like this, so important that Moshe points it out.
What exactly is Moses’s worry? That if a new leader is not appointed,
Lo tihiyeh Adat Hashem katzon asher ayn lahem roeh.
This community of God shouldn’t be like sheep that have no shepherd.
In can be very difficult for a community not to have someone who’s formally in charge; particularly a shul community.
But Thank God, that was not the case this past year at Beth Israel. Many different people stepped up; in giving sermons, even if they hadn’t ever before; in volunteering to take care of Shabbat hosting, meals, planning, programming, the Holy Kitchen Krewe which continues every week to step up, and prepare food for our kiddushim.
So I want to first take this moment to acknowledge, and thank, every person in the Beth Israel community who has stepped up and served over this past year, and continues to do so. Thank you.
Lastly, God commands Moses, “vesamakhta et yadekha alav” – you will put your hands on him, and yet when the moment to do so comes, “the Torah recounts, “vayismoch Yadav alav” he places both hands upon him.
Whereas Joshua only needed one hand to be placed on him, Moshe places two.
I, as well, have felt blessed so far to have received from two hands. Firstly, I want to publicly thank Alex Barkoff. Over the course of the last year, and especially since we’ve arrive, he’s been so attentive to our needs, settling us in the house, and making us feel welcomed. So thank you Alex!
And the second hand, is that of Rabbi David. David stepped up huge this past year, and was asked to take on a whole variety of duties and responsibilities. And he performed very admirably. So David, I know I speak on behalf of the whole congregation in saying “Thank you.”
And thank you all for being here tonight. If I haven’t had the opportunity yet, I hope to use the next weeks and months to have the opportunity to connect to every member of the community, either in my office, our going out for a coffee or a beer. Please don’t hesitate to reach out to me, I’m looking forward to getting to know you better.
I am eager and excited to begin the process of helping this community flourish and grow.
Thank you, Enjoy and Shabbat shalom.
Rabbi Gabe joined Congregation Beth Israel in June of 2014. Originally from New England, Rabbi Gabe studied at Yeshivat HaMivtar and the Pardes Institute in Israel, before returning to the states to study for his semikha and rabbinic ordination at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York. He is an alum of the Adamah Fellowship in Connecticut, directed the Kayam Farm Kollel in Baltimore, and served as Rabbi and Senior Jewish Educator at the Hillel of UC Berkeley. Rabbi Gabe and his wife Abby are excited to be in the New Orleans area, and hope to expand the realm of Torah and Judaism in the city, while upholding the proud and storied legacy of Beth Israel. He would love to meet you; so please give a call, send an email, or just come over to the shul and say hello!