The Roman Empire, which ruled over the Land of Israel during the early centuries of the first millennium, implemented waves of religious oppression against the Jews. The Talmud1 recalls how during the reign of terror of Emperor Hadrian (which lasted from 117-138 CE) the Romans issued an edict banning the wearing of tefillin, punishable by death. People continued to wear tefillin, albeit discreetly, away from the prying eyes of the enemy.

Elisha, however, had other ideas: He chose to publicly defy the Roman order and walk around wearing his tefillin.

Known to us only as “Elisha the Winged,” he does not seem to have been a well-known figure, just a person who loved the mitzvah of tefillin to the point that the sages of the Talmud point to him as an example of who maintained proper hygiene while wearing tefillin.

What motivated him? Surely, he must have been aware that the Romans were not ones to make empty threats! Was it worth losing his life over this? If Elisha wished to don his tefillin, why not just stay home? It is also strange that he would endanger his life in order to wear his tefillin in the street, when he was under no religious obligation to do so. Moreover, what business did Elisha have putting his life at risk? According to Jewish law, there are only three cardinal sins for which one is expected to forfeit one’s life2, and tefillin is not one of them. In this case, wasn’t Elisha’s act of defiance an actual violation of the Biblical prohibition3 against endangering one’s life?

Continuing the story, we quickly discover that the inevitable happened. Before long, a military officer noticed Elisha and rushed to arrest him, but Elisha fled.

Now the confusion deepens. Elisha started out as a hero – willing to openly defy the Romans. Yet the moment he was spotted, he ran away like a coward! Why didn’t he stand up to the officer? What was the point of trying to escape? Did he really think he was going to outrun a trained soldier? Not only that but running away just confirms that you have something to hide and adds the additional crime of evading the law.

As Elisha ran, he removed the tefillin from his head. When the soldier finally caught up with him, he demanded to know what Elisha was holding in his hands. “The wings of a dove,” he responded. He opened his hands and indeed, there were wings of a dove!

And that is how he got his name “Elisha the Winged.”

But this conclusion to the story also leaves us perplexed. If Elisha believed that a miracle would happen, why not leave the tefillin on his head and wait for some miracle to occur? Did he think that he was more likely to be miraculously saved by holding the tefillin in his hand?

His real intention becomes clear with the help of three outstanding sages of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries – The Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Elijah of Vilna), the Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moses Schreiber of Pressburg/Bratislava), and the Lubavitcher Rebbe, respectively.

The Talmud4 tells us that during Roman times people were lax about the mitzvah of wearing tefillin. The illustrious second-century sage, Rabbi Elazar ben Shimon, friend and colleague of Rabbi Judah the Prince, stated: “Any mitzvah for which Israel did not sacrifice itself during the decrees of the [Roman] regime, such as tefillin, remain weak to this day.”

It was in this environment that our hero, Elisha, decided to make a very public statement.

In a seminal essay, the Rebbe explains that sometimes it is necessary to lay everything on the line to make a point.5 For example, the Maccabees in the Chanukah story waged war against the Syrian Greeks to protect Judaism, even though none of the Greek decrees were severe enough to require the Jews to risk their very lives. Similarly, according to the Rebbe, Joseph in the Biblical story knowingly endangered his life when seeking out his brothers, because he felt he needed to take a stand to uphold the fundamental principle of respect for a father.

In this vein, Elisha decided to make a dramatic statement about the importance of tefillin, so that the observance of this mitzvah would not continue to slide and perhaps be lost entirely. In normal times, this desperate act would not have been necessary – and thus would have been inappropriate. But these were not normal times. He therefore defied the Romans publicly and brazenly, in the full recognition that this would likely land him in serious trouble. Indeed, that was the whole point. Let it be seen that Jews are willing to stand up for their religious observance, regardless of the terrible price!

But that alone was not sufficient for Elisha. Getting publicly caught by the Romans for wearing tefillin was only the beginning. Elisha waited until he was spotted by the officer, and that is when his real maneuver began. As the Vilna Gaon explained,6 the reason Elisha ran away was to buy himself more time to keep wearing his tefillin. Elisha wanted to demonstrate to his own people how valuable the mitzvah is, that it is worth getting oneself into the most serious trouble by running away from an officer just to gain a few more moments to wear one’s tefillin!

He knew that this seemingly crazy act of courage would not go unnoticed, and would inspire others to rekindle their enthusiasm for this special mitzvah. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Now, nearly 2,000 years later, we still remember his bravery, and it inspires us with a deeper appreciation of tefillin.

But Elisha loved and deeply respected tefillin, and he did not want the holy object to be seized by the Roman, certain that it would be desecrated. He could have left the tefillin on his head and told the officer some made-up story, hoping by some miracle to get away with it.

Now when Elisha claimed to be holding dove’s wings, he was not lying since tefillin are compared to a dove’s protective wings,7 but neither was he being forthright.

And to speak in a way that was less than forthright while wearing tefillin, explained the Chatam Sofer, would be a kind of violation of their sanctity,8 which is why Elisha made sure to remove the tefillin from his head before being confronted by the officer, so that he could now claim to be merely holding the wings of a dove with a clear conscience.

This added sensitivity that Elisha displayed towards his tefillin has become a symbol of our care and respect for the holy object. The great Sephardic sage, Rabbi Joseph Chaim, chief rabbi of Baghdad, in his code the Ben Ish Chai, compares the careful wrapping of tefillin straps to the respectful manner in which we wrap a Torah scroll in the synagogue.9 Wrapping the tefillin in a dignified manner displays our respect and honor to the tefillin.

Given that the person most closely associated with loving care for tefillin is our very own Elisha, the most common manner in which the tefillin is wrapped is the form of the wings of a dove.10 So dedicated was Elisha to his tefillin that he wouldn’t lie whilst wearing them, even to save his life. And as his salvation came in the form of wings of a dove, many centuries later we emulate his example by wrapping our tefillin in this unique fashion.

As noted, it does not seem that our Elisha was a famous person, just an ordinary individual. He most likely would have passed into history unnoticed, had he not carried out this astonishing act of bravery, so meticulously planned and executed. This unremarkable man taught us two remarkable lessons: no force – not even the mighty Roman Empire – can stop us from practicing our faith, and that some things are worth fighting for.