Tefillin: The Power Behind Those Black Boxes on Our Head & Hand - The Jewish Voice
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Monday, August 8, 2022

Tefillin: The Power Behind Those Black Boxes on Our Head & Hand

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Tefillin in various stages of production

Tefillin are special boxes and straps placed on one’s head and arm, as the Torah says: “Bind [these commandments] as a sign on your arm, and as totafot between your eyes” (Deut. 6:8).

Tefillin are sometimes referred to as phylacteries. This stems from the ancient Greek phylakterion, which means a safeguard. Apparently, the Greeks misunderstood the Tefillin to be some sort of amulet or charm. Actually, Tefillin serve not as a superstition, but as a bona fide connection to God.

The word mitzvah, commandment, relates at its root to the word “to bind.” As such, every mitzvah is an act of love that binds us to God. But Tefillin is the paradigm mitzvah, in that we literally bind ourselves to the will of God. Tefillin represents a total dedication and union with the Almighty.

Tefillin have a tremendous power to connect spiritually. Remarkably, The Chinese Journal of Medicine claims that the contact points of Tefillin are exactly those points at which acupuncture needles are inserted in order “to increase spirituality and to purify thoughts.”

Thus, while wearing Tefillin, one must be careful not to think unclean thoughts, or to act in a light-headed or frivolous manner. Beyond this, because the name of God is written on the parchments, a person should not divert his attention from this fact while wearing the Tefillin

The two boxes represent the two ways that we serve God in this world: thought (the head) and action (the arm). When putting on the arm-tefillin, we focus on devoting our strength to the Almighty. The head-tefillin imbues us with the idea of subjugating our intellect for the love of God.

The arm-tefillin is placed at a level opposite the heart, to teach that if our heart isn’t in sync with our mind, our decisions will remain half-hearted and flat.

It is interesting that the arm-tefillin contains one parchment in one compartment, whereas the head-tefillin contains four parchments, each in its own separate compartment. (This is inferred from the Torah reference to arm-tefillin with the singular “Ot,” and head-tefillin with the plural “Totafot.”) This is to signify that in service of God, the two powers must work congruently: We use the totality of our mind to gain the full perspective, and then we act with a singular clarity of purpose.

We place the arm-tefillin on first, teaching that commitment to action and implementation must precede thought. Why? Because Torah is not an intellectual adventure of ivory-tower theoretics. Rather, Torah study demands that we use that knowledge for the purpose of fulfilling God’s will in the world.


Mutual Love

The tefillin box is placed on the center of the bicep muscle, with the box facing inward toward the heart. It is placed on the weaker arm – i.e. right-handed people place the tefillin on the left arm, while left-handed people place it on the right arm.

While our Tefillin are an expression of love of God, the adoration is mutual. The Sages relate that God Himself wears a pair of Tefillin, on which is written His expression of love for the Jewish people: “Who is like Your people Israel, a unique nation upon the earth” (1-Chronicles 17:21). (This anthropomorphism should not be understood in a literal sense. Since God is incorporeal, he does not “wear” a physical item.)

Throughout Jewish history, and more recently in the Holocaust, many Jews risked their lives for the sake of Tefillin. Rabbi Joshua Aronsohn, in The Holocaust and Halakhah, describes how Tefillin were put on in Auschwitz:

When we arose in the darkness of the night, we had just managed to wash, the block leaders and their helpers were hurrying us along to the forced-labor details. There were long queues of prisoners waiting in line, not for bread or coffee, but to fulfill the mitzvah of Tefillin. We appointed a special “guard” whose job it was to make sure that no one kept the Tefillin on for longer than it took him to say the one verse “Shema Yisrael,” so that more would be able to fulfill the mitzvah.

Tefillin is the epitome of closeness to God, the true strength of the Jewish people. In referring to tefillin, the Torah says: “The peoples of the earth will see that God’s name is called upon you, and they shall be awed by you” (Deut. 28:10).


What is Tefillin?

The box of the Tefillin should be placed on the front of the head, just above the hairline (i.e. where it is resting entirely on hair).

Tefillin consist of two square, black leather boxes, which contain parchments of Torah verses. One of the boxes is worn on the bicep (Tefillin shel yad), and the other is worn on the front of the head (Tefillin shel rosh). Attached to each box are black leather straps.

Inside each Tefillin box are parchments containing four Torah sections:

  • the obligation to remember the Exodus (Exodus 13:1-10)
  • the responsibility to transmit Judaism to our descendants (Exodus 11-16)
  • the Shema – the proclamation of God’s unity, and the mitzvah to love God (Deut. 6:4-9)
  • the implications of our fulfillment of the Torah (Deut. 11:13-21)

There are five main parts of tefillin:

  • parshiot – the parchments
  • bayit – the box containing the parchments
  • titurah – the wider base of the bayit
  • ma’abarta – the opening on the base which the strap goes through
  • ritzu’ah – the strap (Plural: ritzu’ot)

The outer structure of the Tefillin contains three Hebrew letters, which spell out God’s name, Shadai:

  • The first letter (shin) is embossed in relief on the outside of the head-tefillin. (The right side of the box has a three-headed shin, and the left side has a four-headed shin.)
  • The second letter (daled) is formed by a knot on the strap of the head-tefillin, at the spot where the strap is tightened to the back of the neck.
  • The third letter (yud) is formed by a knot on the strap of the arm-tefillin, at the spot where the strap is tightened to the bicep. This knot must always stay in contact with the bayit.

There are innumerable details that go into producing “kosher” Tefillin. For example:

  • both the boxes and the parchment are made from the hide of a kosher animal
  • the boxes must be perfectly square in shape
  • the boxes and straps must be black
  • the parchments are tied with the hair of a kosher animal, and the boxes sewn closed with the sinew of a kosher animal
  • the verses are written with special black ink
  • the parchment must be written by an ordained, God-fearing scribe
  • Unfortunately, there are many cheap “imitation” models on the market, and wearing such Tefillin does not fulfill any mitzvah. Therefore, one should only purchase Tefillin from a God-fearing Jew. Some have likened tefillin to a sophisticated device that receives “spiritual-electronic” signals; if one wire or transistor is faulty, the entire system does not function.
  • You can purchase Tefillin online at: www.oter-israel.co.il, www.stam.net, www.hasofer.com, Israel Judaica Source, www.thesoferstam.com.


Wearing Tefillin

  • Although Tefillin is a positive “to-do” mitzvah, it is so central to Jewish identity that failing to put on Tefillin during the course of the day is considered actively transgressing.
  • Tefillin should be worn for the morning prayers. Men who wear a tallit should don it before laying Tefillin. If some reason, the Tefillin were not put on in the morning, they may be donned at any point during the daytime. The earliest time to wear Tefillin is approximately one hour before sunrise. They may never be worn at night.
  • Although the mitzvah of Tefillin extends throughout the daytime, Tefillin are typically not worn all day long. This is because a person’s body and mind must be halachically “clean” while wearing the Tefillin.

Thus, while wearing Tefillin, one must be careful not to think unclean thoughts, or to act in a light-headed or frivolous manner. Beyond this, because the name of God is written on the parchments, a person should not divert his attention from this fact while wearing the Tefillin. Given that this level of concentration is extremely difficult to fulfill, Tefillin are typically not worn all day.

The definition of a “clean body” is that it is forbidden to pass gas while wearing Tefillin. If one feels the need to do so, he should remove the Tefillin first. Someone who cannot control his bodily functions as a result of a stomach ailment is temporarily exempt from the mitzvah of Tefillin.

It is forbidden to enter a bathroom while wearing Tefillin. One may also not nap while wearing Tefillin.

The Talmud tells of the time the Romans decreed against wearing Tefillin. A righteous man named Elisha was caught walking down street wearing Tefillin. He immediately removed it, and it miraculously turned into dove feathers, thus sparing him harsh punishment. The Talmud explains that Elisha merited a miracle, because he always wore Tefillin with a clean body.

Tefillin are only worn by male adults. Children do not wear Tefillin because we assume they cannot care for them properly. A boy may practice wearing Tefillin shortly before his Bar Mitzvah.

Women have traditionally not worn Tefillin, because it is one of the “positive time-bound mitzvot” from which women are exempt. The kabbalists explain that women have more natural ways of binding with God; various parts of the Tefillin correspond to unique female qualities. Kabbalistically, the tefillin’s hollow chamber corresponds to the womb, and the straps correspond to the umbilical cord. Interestingly, the tefillin box is called the bayit (home). Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains that the home a woman develops is her private tefillin.

Tefillin are never worn on Shabbat or Yom Tov. This is because the sanctity of these days serves as the medium of bonding with God, and the additional mechanism of Tefillin is not necessary. Customs differ as whether to wear Tefillin on Chol Hamoed.

By: Rabbi Shraga Simmons


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