Tefillin (Phylacteries)

Tefillin are not amulets. They are reminders of God's laws.

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Reprinted with permission from Louis Jacobs, The Jewish Religion: A Companion published by Oxford University Press.

What They Are

Tefillin are the cube-shaped black leather boxes, containing four scriptural passages, attached to the head and arm and worn during the morning prayers. It is purely coincidental that the word tefillin so closely resembles the word for prayer, tefillah, since, although eventually the tefillin were only worn for the morning prayer, in Talmudic times they were worn all day and had no special association with prayer.

As Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Tefillin, 4.25-6) puts it: "Great is the sanctity of tefillin, for as long as the tefillin are upon man's head and arm, he is humble and God-fearing and is not drawn after frivolity and idle talk, and does not have evil thoughts, but directs his heart to words of truth and righteousness. Therefore a man should try to have them on him all day ... Even though they should be worn all day it is the greater obligation to wear them during prayer." In point of fact, some few extremely pious individuals, even in post-Talmudic times, did wear tefillin all day and this seems to have been Maimonides' own practice. But the vast majority of Jews only wear tefillin during the morning prayer.

Etymology and History

The etymology of [the term] tefillin is uncertain, but possibly is connected either with a Hebrew root meaning "to attach" or with a root meaning "to distinguish." If this is correct, tefillin mean either "attachments" to the body or else the means whereby the Jew is distinguished from Gentiles. "Tefillin" is usually translated in English as "phylacteries." This is based on the New Testament Greek: "But all their works they do to be seen of men; they make broad their phylacteries" (Matthew 23:5). This passage, hostile to the Pharisees, uses the Greek word, from which the English is derived, meaning "things which guard"; in other words, the tefillin are a kind of amulet to offer protection against the demonic powers; whereas in all the Jewish sources the tefillin serve, like the tzitzit, as a reminder of God's laws.

tefillin

In four Pentateuchal passages it is stated that certain words should be on the hand and between the eyes. Many commentators, including Rashbam [Samuel ben Meir, 11th century Bible and Talmud commentator from France], hold that the plain meaning of these passages is that the words of the Torah should be constantly in mind, as in the verses: "Set them as a seal upon thy heart, as a seal upon thine arm" (Song of Songs 8: 6) and "Let not kindness and truth forsake thee; bind them about thy neck, write them on the table of thy heart" (Proverbs 3: 3).

The Karaites [a sect of Judaism that rejects the authority of rabbinic interpretation and law] understood the passages in this figurative way and did not wear tefillin. But very early on, as can be seen from the reference in the New Testament, Jews understood the passages in a literal sense and wore these four sections on the head and the arm, the words being those in the sections themselves. These are the tefillin, although, undoubtedly, they have developed over the years to assume the form they now have. The following is a brief description of what tefillin are now and how they are worn.

The Objects and Contents

The tefillin consist of two cube-shaped leather boxes, one worn on the head, the other on the arm, with leather straps fixed to them for attaching them to the head and the arm. Into these boxes, known as batim, "houses," the four passages, written by hand, are inserted.

The hand tefillin (in the Rabbinic tradition the "hand" here means the arm) contains all four sections written on a single strip of parchment. In the head tefillin there are four separate compartments, one for each of the four. The four sections are: (a) Exodus 13:1-10; (b) Exodus 13:11-16; (c) Deuteronomy 6:4-9; (d) Deuteronomy 11:13-21. Although the box (bayit, "house," singular of batim) of the head tefillin has to be in the form of an exact square (in the part into which the sections are inserted; this part rests on a larger base), it is divided into four compartments for the insertion of the sections, care being taken that these should not be separated from one another in such a way as to interfere with the square shape. The box of the hand tefillin consists of a single compartment into which all four sections, written on a single strip, are inserted. The boxes have to be completely black as well as square-shaped.

Black straps are inserted into each of the batim. The straps of the head tefillin are made to form a knot that will be at the back of the neck when the tefillin are worn. This knot is in the shape of the letter dalet. The strap of the hand tefillin is attached to the bayit to form another knot shaped in the form of the letter yod. The letter shin is worked into the leather of the head tefillin, a three-pronged shin on the right side of the wearer and a four-pronged shin on the left (this is probably because of uncertainties as to how this letter should be formed). We now have the three letters shin, dalet, yod, in the tefillin, forming the word Shaddai, one of the divine names. (Some have the letter mem instead of the dalet as the shape of the knot and the three letters then form the word shemi, "My name.")

All these matters are attended to by the manufacturers of the tefillin, who arrange for the writing to be done by a competent scribe and for the sections to be inserted into the batim, which are then sewn up and the straps inserted. Naturally, pious Jews will only buy a set of tefillin from a reliable, trustworthy merchant. Tefillin often come with a guarantee from a rabbi that they have been properly prepared.

How to Put On (Lay) Tefillin

The procedure for putting on the tefillin is as follows. The hand tefillin is taken out of the bag in which the tefillin are reverentially kept, and placed on the upper part of the left arm [but see below], and the benediction recited: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast hallowed us by Thy commandments, and hast commanded us to put on the tefillin." The knot is then tightened and the strap wound seven times around the arm.

prayer quizThe head tefillin is then taken out of the bag, placed loosely on the head, and the further benediction recited: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast hallowed us by Thy commandments and hast given us command concerning the precept of tefillin." The head tefillin are then tightened round the head so that the bayit rest in the middle of the head above the forehead and where the hair begins.

The strap of' the hand tefillin is then wound thrice around the middle finger while the verses (from Hosea 1:21-2) are recited: "And I will betroth thee unto me for ever; yea, I will betroth thee unto me in righteousness, and in judgement, and in lovingkindness, and in mercy: I will even betroth thee unto me in faithfulness: and thou shalt know the Lord."

In the rabbinic tradition, the tefillin are to be worn on "the weaker hand" (perhaps the idea here is to symbolize that it is the weaker side of human nature that requires to be strengthened by observing the precept). For this reason a left-handed man wears the tefillin on his right arm.

The tefillin are not worn on the Sabbath and festivals. The reason given is that these are described as a "sign," and so are tefillin. When these "signs" are present there is no need for tefillin to be worn. Tefillin are worn only during the day, not at night. Consequently, tefillin is one of those precepts dependent on time from which women are exempt. There are one or two references to women wearing tefillin even though they are exempt, but this is extremely rare. Even women who nowadays do wear a tallit do not normally wear tefillin. A minor is not obliged to wear tefillin and the usual practice is for a boy to begin to wear them just before his Bar Mitzvah.

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Rabbi Louis Jacobs

Rabbi Dr. Louis Jacobs (1920-2006) was a Masorti rabbi, the first leader of Masorti Judaism (also known as Conservative Judaism) in the United Kingdom, and a leading writer and thinker on Judaism.