Tefillin (Phylacteries)

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

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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.

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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.