Today we continue the discussion of objects that may be carried on Shabbat outside of one’s house — in other words, what objects (e.g. weapons, tefillin, amulets, and certain types of removable jewelry) are considered things that people carry as opposed to things that people wear?
The mishnah tells us that the following objects may be carried on Shabbat:
Boys may go out with knots, and princes with bells. In fact, anyone may go out with these objects, but the sages spoke in terms of what is common.
The Talmud asks: What are “knots”? In response, a rabbi offers an explanation of what was then an apparently common practice among little boys:
Avin bar Huna said in the name of Rav Hama son of Guria: A son who longs for his father takes a strap from his right shoe and ties it to his left arm.
According to this explanation, boys who miss their fathers might use their shoelaces to tie a knot on their arms in order to comfort themselves. This may seem like a somewhat strange way for a child to deal with a bout of homesickness. However, another rabbi, Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak, points out that this practice is similar to the (adult) act of putting on tefillin, since those ritual objects also involve knots and, at least for right-handed people, are also attached to the left arm. Perhaps the lonesome child is doing his best to mimic what he sees his parent do every morning, thereby recalling that parent’s physical presence.
Mara Benjamin, a scholar of Jewish thought, notes that this comparison also tells us something important about the theological significance of tefillin, which one might wear to signify attachment to, and longing for, one’s heavenly parent. And as we learn in Berakhot 7, adult tefillin mimic — or are mimicked by — the tefillin that God apparently puts on as well. In this way, both the child’s knot-tying and the adult’s tefillin-wearing are acts of attachment and of admiring imitation.
Yet there is a legal difference between the child’s knotted shoelaces and the adult’s knotted tefillin straps: whereas the child may go out with knots, according to the rabbis, tefillin themselves normally cannot be worn on Shabbat. Because of the rabbis’ leniency here, Shabbat can be a time of comfort for the child who knows he needs it.