Thursday, June 21, 2007

Carried Across The Ocean

Along with tefillin and brick-laying tools, Yaakov Yosef, my father-in-law's father, left Vitebsk in the early 1900's immigrated to the United States. During a recent Sunday visit to his home, my father-in-law asked me to take a look at his father's tefillin to determine whether they were Chassidic or Litvish (Ashkenaz) tefillin.

I have long suspected some type of Lubavitch connection with my father-in-law's ancestors since my father-in-law has a soft spot in his heart for Chabad and also because it is well known that Vitebsk was once a stronghold of Lubavitcher chassidim. This is noted in the "Encylopedia of Hasidism" which states, "Vitebsk was dominated by the hasidim of Lubavitch."

Examining the shel rosh, I immediately noticed that the leftmost branch of the shin on the shel rosh did not enter the middle of the bottom of the head as is typical of Ashkenaz tefillin. I sent the picture of the shel rosh to the sofer of my tefillin to inquire further and he replied, "Definitely Chabad tefillin. The shin is not regular Ari, but Admor Hazaken."

The shin on the Vitebsk tefillin

Shin according to Ashkenaz minhag

This piece of information was a bit puzzling since the tefillin from Vitebsk also had a square kesher for the shel rosh. Yalkut Bar Mitzvah noted that the Chabad minhag for the kesher of the shel rosh is that it "must appear to one who stands behind the wearer like the shape of a printed daled." Once again, I asked the sofer how he would explain a square kesher from Vitebsk. He responded, "Simple explanation - the batim macher was Chabad, and someone else tied the knots that didn't know the minhag (the square is easier to tie)."

In order to get another opinion, I asked Shneur Zalman about them and he responded,

"Before the end of World War II there were no exact uniform standards in Chabad or in other groups (for example Brisk as a minhag did not exist). In Chabad the new rebbe promulgated the minhagim publicly in 1951 as he had no seed. In Europe, there were all sort of Chabad minhagim and variations of them. Most Chabad people in Europe intermarried with Misnagdim and so things became complex . So to sum it up, it very likely that the tefillin from Vitebsk had aspects of Chabad customs to them as well as some aspects that did not conform."

When I asked my father-in-law if his father had instructed him on how to put on the tefillin, he answered that indeed he had. He told me that the hand winding that he was shown was not the winding according to the Chabad minhag, but rather a standard Chassidic winding minhag.

Standard Chassidic minhag

Winding according to minhag Chabad

Given the Chabad tefilin, possible Chabad kesher, and non-Chabad hand winding would you think there are some Lubavitchers hiding up somewhere in my father-in-law's family tree?

Inscription on the matzeva of Yaakov Yosef z"l


At June 21, 2007 at 8:35:00 AM EDT, Blogger yitz.. said...

the standard Chassidic practice wraps the shel yad around two of the fingers?

interesting I never knew that.. I never thought about being so sheltered that I never paid attention to how ashkenazim wrap their tefillin (more than to know that for a non-chassidic ashkenazi to use my tefillin, he needs to either put them on backwards or on his right arm, didn't realize chasidim wrap the same way as us.(sefardim))

At June 21, 2007 at 8:38:00 AM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

There are many variations on how Chassidim wind the shel yad around the fingers. Rabbi Lazer Brody personally showed me this variation since it was common amongst chassidim of Ukraine.

At June 24, 2007 at 2:28:00 AM EDT, Anonymous Fedora Black said...

I suggest that people take a look at the following video, which shows many various methods of wrapping the shel yad found in Chassidic circles.

Great stuff!

At June 24, 2007 at 7:24:00 AM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Thankss, Fedora Black!

Interestingly, the winding Rabbi Brody showed me was none of these but closest to the Breslov one.

At June 24, 2007 at 6:15:00 PM EDT, Blogger Schvach said...

A most excellent blog. I enjoyed reading this a great deal, since Chabad Lubavitch got me into davening every day with tefillin (their tefillin according to their minhag, when it's required).Nu, what's your conclusion - chabad in your family or not?

At June 25, 2007 at 6:39:00 AM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

Schvach: Thank you. I still haven't discovered conclusive evidence.

At July 5, 2007 at 9:47:00 AM EDT, Blogger Paula Angelique Hafner said...

WHy do you call yourself a simple Jew? Are you simple in general or more simple than the average Jew or are Jews sort of complex in nature?

At July 5, 2007 at 9:49:00 AM EDT, Blogger A Simple Jew said...

It is a mission statement. It is what I aspire to be.

At May 8, 2009 at 9:30:00 AM EDT, Anonymous nate said...

I just found this old post, I know my family is originally from Vitebsk - leaving around the same time as your father's father-in-law - and went to NYC. I've been searching for a while to find out more about the community there; so this has been a great help. Do you know of other Vitebsk minhagim, or another way that I can find out more about them? Could you e-mail me at



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