A new study indicates that the act of tightly wrapping the leather straps of tefillin around the arm on an almost daily basis by observant Jewish men during prayer could help prevent heart attacks.
“We found people who wear tefillin in either the short or long-term, recorded a measurable positive effect on their blood flow. That has been associated with better outcomes in heart disease,” said Dr. Jack Rubinstein, a cardiologist and associate professor at the University of Cincinnati, who co-authored the study.
Results of the study were published last month in the American Journal of Physiology-Heart and Circulatory Physiology and could explain previous Israeli studies that had found that religious men (but not women) suffered fewer heart attacks than the general population.
In the study, researchers took 20 Jewish men living in or around Cincinnati, including nine who wear tefillin daily and 11 who don’t. The subjects were measured before and after wearing them for 30 minutes each day.
Observant men wear tefillin, or phylacteries, for about half an hour each morning, except on Shabbat, during morning prayers, wrapping a set of leather straps attacked to a small box containing scripture on parchment on the left arm. Another one is worn on the forehead, a literal interpretation of the biblical injunction to bind God’s word “as a sign upon the hands and between the eyes.”
Orthodox Judaism considers wearing tefillin a commandment that only applies to men, although some Orthodox feminists and many more women in the Conservative and other non-Orthodox movements have taken up the ritual.
Measuring participants’ vital signs, blood for analysis of circulating cytokines and monocyte function and blood flow in the arm not wrapped with tefillin, indicated that blood flow was higher for men who wore tefillin daily and improved in all participants after wearing it just once as part of the study, said Rubinstein.
Men who wore tefillin daily also had fewer circulating cytokines, which are signaling molecules that can cause inflammation and negatively impact the heart, compared to non-users.
Rubinstein said the binding of the arm and the discomfort users often report may serve as a form preconditioning and offer a substantial degree of protection against “acute ischemic reperfusion injury” where a part of the heart is deprived of oxygen during a heart attack and then damaged by re-oxygenation.
“One of the ways that protection occurs is through pain,” said Rubinstein “Feeling pain is actually a preconditioning stimulus.”
Researchers have long studied preconditioning by inducing small heart attacks in animals and found that they protected the animal from larger, more serious heart attacks in the future.
“The problem with translating this to people is we don’t know when someone will have the heart attack,” says Rubinstein. “It is almost impossible to precondition someone unless they are willing to do something daily to themselves. Tefillin use may in fact offer protection as it’s worn on an almost daily basis.”