Zaphod’s Phylacteries (Menahot 37a)

Today’s Daf (Menahot 37) ought to have been off limits for pregnant women. I already have nightmares about birth and babies – last night I dreamt that I left my baby on the stove for too long, and it started to cry because it was overheated. (I was grateful when my husband explained that this dream was obviously inspired by leaving artichokes on the stove for too long, which is a mistake I often make.) I know that birth is a natural process, but it also seems like a miracle from on high. If I am blessed with a healthy baby, I will be overcome with gratitude to God – to the extent that I find myself saying “Godwilling,” a word I never really invoked before, in every other sentence. It seems presumptuous to discuss baby names or to order a stroller or to talk about who will care for the baby while I teach this summer – how can I know that this baby will come out alive and well? I feel, more than ever before, how much is entrusted to God, and how little is in our human hands.

And so I was somewhat disturbed to find, amidst a discussion of Tefillin in the third chapter of Menahot, a reference to babies and birth defects. The Talmud is discussing the proper place for laying the head Tefillin. First the rabbis establish that the Biblical phrase “between the eyes” refers to the skull, specifically “the place where a baby’s head is soft.” As I’ve learned from my bumblebee-colored bedside companion “Pregnancy for Dummies,” the bones on the skull of a newborn are not yet fused, because the head must be able to squeeze through the narrow birth canal. For this reason it is so dangerous to touch the soft spot on a baby’s head. But it is that very soft spot (albeit not on a baby, of course) where the Tefillin are supposed to be placed. This discussion of the head Tefillin inspires a question from Pleymo, who asks Rabbi: “If a person has two heads, on which one should he lay Tefillin?” Rabbi, convinced that Pleymo is pulling his leg (one of his legs, at least), responds angrily: “Either get out of here, or be excommunicated!”

At that very moment, in the felicitous synchronicity that is often a feature of Talmudic narratives, a man happens to walk into Rabbi’s beit midrash: “In the meantime, a man walked in and asked: My baby was born with two heads. How much money do I need to give to the Kohen?” The new father is not asking about Tefillin, but about Pidyon HaBen. As we learn in the Torah, every firstborn has to be redeemed for the price of “five shekels per head” (Numbers 3:47). But what if the baby has two heads? That is, what if the baby resembles Zaphod Beeblebrox, the two-headed, three-armed former president of the galaxy in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker trilogy? The Talmud answers that baby Zaphod would need to be redeemed for ten shekels, five per head. And so Pleymo, who had just been rebuked by Rabbi for his silly question, is vindicated (or should I say redeemed?) by the inquiring new father.

The question about Zaphod’s Tefillin shel rosh remains unanswered, and the Talmud does not even consider what the three-armed former president of the galaxy is supposed to do about his shel yad. (OK, we understand that Tefillin go on the left hand – but what if you have two left hands? Which is different, of course, from two left feet….) Nor do we ever re-encounter the hapless father of the hydra-headed twins, who had to pay double for his Pidyon HaBen. And certainly we do not know anything about the expression on his wife’s face when she first laid eyes upon her Siamese progeny. I can imagine her look of horror, and can only hope, as I crawl into bed, that she does not haunt my nightmares tonight.

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