When Rabbi Zvi Hersh Shapira (1850-1913) – later leader of the Munkatch hassidim – reached bar-mitzva age, his grandfather, Rabbi Elazar Shapira of Lancut (1808-1865), traveled from his hometown to Strzyzow for the event. At the meal held in honor of the occasion, Rabbi Elazar of Lancut spoke of the spiritual importance of tefillin, saying: “We see the awakening and the excitement of the soul that a bar mitzva boy has when he first dons tefillin.”
The day that a boy would begin donning tefillin was considered so spiritually auspicious that Rabbi Hayim Elazar Shapira of Munkács (1871-1937) – Rabbi Elazar’s great-grandson – would acknowledge the occasion in his own prayer quorum. Whenever there was a boy praying with him who was putting on tefillin for the first time, the quorum canceled the recitation of “Tahanun,” the penitentiary supplications added to the service in the morning (and afternoon) prayers. This was particularly noteworthy since Rabbi Hayim Elazar was generally opposed to whimsical cancellation of Tahanun.
This license to skip Tahanun was granted only if the bar mitzva boy was donning tefillin for the first time on the day of his 13th birthday. If the boy was putting on tefillin prior to his bar mitzva – that is, before he was officially obligated to wear tefillin – any excitement he might feel could be attributed to the novelty of the act, not to its spiritual valence. Thus Rabbi Hayim Elazar would cancel Tahanun only if the first time the boy put on tefillin was on the day of his bar mitzva.
Writing soon after Rabbi Hayim Elazar’s death, his biographer noted that on numerous occasions his teacher had related a vignette from his own bar mitzva.
When Rabbi Hayim Elazar had first put on tefillin on his 13th birthday – Tuesday, Tevet 5, 5645 (December 23, 1884) – he felt “a new light” with the tefillin.
Indeed, the custom of Munkatch hassidim is for boys to begin donning tefillin on the day of their bar mitzva. Other hassidic groups, such as Boyan, have a similar custom. In contrast, accepted practice in Lubavitch circles is to begin two months before the boy is bar mitzva, following the ruling of Rabbi Avraham Abele Gombiner (Magen Avraham, ca. 1635-1682) who wrote that the custom is to start wearing tefillin two or three months before the bar mitzva.
(Though Rabbi Hayim Elazar justified his practice by referring to spiritual perception, he was careful to warn against deciding matters of law on the grounds of such criteria. In this case, however, there was a bona fide legal source for the custom, as the great Ashkenazi jurist, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Rema, 1530-1575), had recorded the practice in his annotations to the Shulhan Aruch. Thus Rabbi Hayim Elazar employed spiritual considerations in deciding between accepted legal positions.) What about a case where the boy’s birthday falls on a day when tefillin are not worn, such as Shabbat or the festivals? In such cases, the boy cannot begin to don tefillin on the day of his bar mitzva. Should he begin before his birthday, or delay the first time until after the Shabbat or the festival? In such cases there are various customs. The Munkatch practice is to delay the first time; thus in the case of a birthday on Shabbat, the boy would begin putting on tefillin on Sunday. In contrast, the Boyan custom is for the boy to start before his bar mitzva.
Returning to Rabbi Elazar of Lancut’s exposition as he attended his grandson’s bar mitzva: “As for us grownups, we are bar mitzva each day” – meaning that it is incumbent upon us to fulfill the commandments each day – “and we should feel this enthusiasm and excitement each day when we don tefillin and fulfill mitzvot.”
The tefillin challenge set forth by Rabbi Elazar of Lancut was realized by another hassidic master. In his Torah commentary, Rabbi Yitzhak Eizek Yehuda Yehiel Safrin of Komarno (1806-1874) wrote: “As I don tefillin, [wear] tzitzit, and read ‘shema’ and the prayer, or study Torah – I was given the taste of the supreme light, the light that is sweet for the eyes, that the mind cannot grasp. So much so, that I became just like a new creation, with a glowing countenance and joyous heart, and with a heart gladdened by the abundance of good. To the extent that all feeling of this world was nullified in me.”