A Confirmation for the Oral Torah
The commandment to wear tefillin is written four times in the Torah. Indeed, each paragraph of the Torah containing that command constitutes the “script” that a scribe writes on parchment, which he then folds and places into the leather tefillin boxes. The tefillin box placed on the head – של ראש (the “shel rosh”) has four separate compartments, each containing one of the paragraphs written on a separate piece of parchment and inserted into each compartment in the order they appear in the Torah. The tefillin box placed on the arm – של יד (“the shel yad”) has one large compartment containing all four chapters written on one long piece of parchment, in the same order. Today, Jewish adult males don the Tefillin daily during Shacharit, the morning prayer (except for Shabbat and holidays). Formerly, and even today by very holy people, they were worn all day long.
The first two of the Tefillin’s four paragraphs comprise the last two paragraphs of this week’s Torah portion, Bo. The other two are in Deuteronomy, and are the first two sections of the Shema that we read twice daily in our prayers.
In this week’s portion (Exodus 13:9), the Torah commands us,
(ט) וְהָיָה לְךָ לְאוֹת עַל יָדְךָ וּלְזִכָּרוֹן בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ לְמַעַן תִּהְיֶה תּוֹרַת יְדֹוָד בְּפִיךָ כִּי בְּיָד חֲזָקָה הוֹצִאֲךָ יְדֹוָד מִמִּצְרָיִם
9) And it shall be for you a sign on your arm and a reminder between your eyes – so that Hashem’s Torah may be in your mouth- for with a strong hand Hashem took you out of Egypt.
In the next paragraph, verse 16, the Torah says,
(טז) וְהָיָה לְאוֹת עַל יָדְכָה וּלְטוֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ כִּי בְּחֹזֶק יָד הוֹצִיאָנוּ יְדֹוָד מִמִּצְרָיִם
16) And it shall be a sign on your arm and an ornament between your eyes, for with a strong hand Hashem took us out from Egypt.
The Tefillin contain a subtle but important message: These two verses, and the two others like them, are all that the Torah says about Tefillin. The rest of the intricate details involved in constructing a pair of Tefillin, e.g., that they need to be made of leather, and there be one and four compartments in the shel yad and shel rosh respectively, that they have black straps, and that they be perfectly square, are nowhere mentioned in the verses. Hashem gave these laws orally to Moshe, who taught them to the Jewish people when they made their Tefillin, and which have been incorporated into the Oral Torah. Without this oral information given to Moshe, it would be impossible to know how to properly make a pair of Tefillin. So, when someone dons a pair of Tefillin, he is validating the Oral Torah.
The Karaites, a group of people from the ninth century who denied the validity of the oral law, would place the shel yad on the palms of their hands, and the shel rosh on the bridge of their noses, between their eyes. Through the Oral Torah, the Sages learn that the correct place for the shel yad, for a righty, is on the muscle of the left arm, and the correct placement of the shel rosh is on top of the head between the eyes.
A Reminder of Who We Are
Both verses conclude with Hashem extracting the Jewish people from Egypt with a strong hand. Indeed, the theme of both chapters is Hashem urging the Jewish people not to forget the Exodus from Egypt. It is an essential part of our nationhood, and the Tefillin are designed to remind us of that.
Nachmanides (on Exodus 13:9) explains:
ופי’ שתכתוב על ידך ועל בין עיניך יציאת מצרים ותזכור אותה תמיד, למען שתהיה תורת ה’ בפיך לשמור מצותיו ותורותיו כי הוא אדוניך הפודך מבית עבדים
What this means is that you should “write on your hands” and “between your eyes” the events of the Exodus so that you constantly remember it. This way, Hashem’s Torah will always be in your mouths to keep His Torah and mitzvot, because He is your Master Who redeemed you from slavery.
These two paragraphs in the tefillin articulate that Hashem redeemed us from Egyptian slavery to become His servants.
A careful reading of the two versus, moreover, yields some interesting observations.
The Tefillin worn on the arm constitute a sign for us, whereas the Tefillin worn on the head are either a reminder or an ornament. What are these different functions of the Tefillin?
The shel yad, placed on the arm, should be covered with the shirt sleeve, whereas the shel rosh, on the head, is open and visible to all. The shel yad, tied to one’s arm, symbolizes that the wearer is a servant to Hashem. This serves as his personal sign that all of his endeavors, symbolized by his hands which are the tools that he uses to accomplish, are subservient to Hashem’s, his Master’s, will, This is why the shel yad is placed on the weaker hand. A righty places the shel yad on his left hand, and a lefty places the shel yad on his right hand. This is to indicate that all of our actions are weak and ultimately powerless. Hashem alone makes our work successful.
The shel rosh on the other hand, symbolizing a king’s (Hashem’s) crown, is worn openly for all to see. Through it we show our love and connection to Hashem and that we are so proud to be counted among His servants. Because the shel rosh is fully exposed and, generally, it is uncomfortable to be different, the head Tefillin constantly remind us of why we are wearing them. We stand proud and strong in the face of those who wonder about what we are doing because we understand what the Tefillin represent.
The verse says (Deuteronomy 28:10),
(י) וְרָאוּ כָּל עַמֵּי הָאָרֶץ כִּי שֵׁם יְדֹוָד נִקְרָא עָלֶיךָ וְיָרְאוּ מִמֶּךָּ
10) Then all the peoples of the earth will see that Hashem’s name is proclaimed over you, and they will revere you.
Rabbi Eliezer in the Talmud explained that this is a reference to the Tefillin shel rosh, which proclaim that Hashem has chosen us as His people, and we wear, with pride and joy, the “ornament” that He commanded us to wear.
Purifying our Minds and Dedicating our Hearts
The arm and the head were not randomly chosen as the appropriate places for the two Tefillin. When properly placed on the arm, the Tefillin hovers near one’s heart, which is on his left side. Although it is a little farther for a lefty, his Tefillin is still also opposite his heart. Because the Tefillin shel yad is a sign that we are Hashem’s servants, placing it next to our hearts indicates our desire to dedicate our hearts to Hashem’s service and that we wish to accept upon ourselves the commandments written within. Indeed, over time, day by day, as we place our Tefillin on our arms, they influence us to dedicate our hearts to Hashem just a little more.
The shel rosh, which sits upon our heads, is placed next to our mind, which dwells in our head. This also represents how we wish to dedicate our minds to Hashem and to use our intellectual prowess in His service. Once again, over time, day by day, placing the Tefillin on our heads influences our minds and thoughts in a positive way.
As noted, the shel yad has one compartment and the shel rosh contains four. Our Sages teach us that the single compartment corresponds to the sense of touch, which is in the hands, and the four compartments of the shel rosh correspond to the four other senses, which reside in the head. This adds to the idea mentioned above, that we wish to dedicate all five of our senses to the service of Hashem. Over time, as we think about this every day, the Tefillin help us to dedicate our five senses to the service of Hashem. This is a stellar example of how the performance of the mitzvot make us holier.
Back in the fifties, a great and holy Sage, Rav Eliayhu Lopian, (1876-1970), noticed a transistor radio playing on the table. (Prior to the invention of the transistor, radios used large vacuum tubes, which required a wall outlet for power. The portable transistor radio was powered by a small 9-volt battery.)
Upon seeing this newfangled device, the rabbi inquired, “What, no wires?” Those around him responded by telling him that this is the latest technology for which a simple, small battery is sufficient. To this the rabbi responded, “So why does everybody wonder about the Tefillin?”
Comparing the Tefillin to a transistor radio presents us with a new perspective on the Tefillin.
The Talmud teaches us (Berachot 6a).
אמר רבי אבין בר רב אדא אמר רבי יצחק: מנין שהקדוש ברוך הוא מניח תפילין? שנאמר, נשבע ה’ בימינו ובזרוע עוזו. בימינו זו תורה, שנאמר מימינו אש דת למו. ובזרוע עזו, אלו תפילין, שנאמר ה’ עוז לעמו יתן
Rabbi Avin son of Adda quoted Rabbi Yitzchak. How do we know that Hashem wears Tefillin? As the verse says …
The Talmud then asks, “What is written in Hashem’s Tefillin?” and quotes four verses in which Hashem through his Prophet extolls the virtue of the Jewish nation. For example (Divrei Hayamim [Chronicles] I 17:21).
(כא) וּמִי כְּעַמְּךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל גּוֹי אֶחָד בָּאָרֶץ
21) And who is like Your nation Yisrael, one nation in the land?
And Deuteronomy (33:29)
אַשְׁרֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל מִי כָמוֹךָ עַם נוֹשַׁע בַּידֹוָד
29) Fortunate are you, Yisrael: Who is like you! A people delivered by Hashem.
The Sages are careful to caution us that we cannot take the statement literally, for we know that Hashem has no physical attributes (including an arm and a forehead); nevertheless, says the Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (1555 – 1631)), the concept is clear. Just as we wear our Tefillin stating that Hashem our G-d is One, and we are His subjects, He, in kind, so to speak, wears Tefillin extolling our virtues, and takes pride in us, on how we single Him out and sanctify His name by keeping His Torah and performing His mitzvot.
So, when we wear the Tefillin on our arms close to our hearts, the Tefillin “pick up” our deep feelings of love for Hashem, amplifies them, and transmits those feelings to Hashem. Hashem’s Tefillin in response “pick up” the messages that our Tefillin send to Him, and, in return, He sends down blessings that our Tefillin pick up and place on our hearts. The same applies as to the head Tefillin vis-à-vis our thoughts, dreams, and aspirations that we have during our prayers. Not unlike the legendary “red phone” that connects the White House to the Kremlin. It affords us a straight line directly to Hashem.
There is another interesting passage in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 46a) in reference to a punished criminal.
אמר רבי מאיר בשעה שאדם מצטער שכינה מה לשון אומרת קלני מראשי קלני מזרועי
Rabbi Meir said, “When a person is in pain, what does Hashem say? My arm aches and my head aches.”
Why does Hashem experience pain, so to speak, only in His arm and head? The Toras Chaim (d. 1632) explains,
כך גם הוא יתברך כביכול מניח תפילין באלו מקומות שיזכור תמיד באהבתינו ושאנחנו עמו עם אחד … ולכך קאמר הכא בזמן שאדם מצטער שכינה מה לשון אומרת קלני וכו’ שבזמן שאין ישראל או אדם יחידי עושין רצונו של מקום כביכול מכבידין ומתישין כח של מעלה כאלו אינו יכול להטיב עמהן
Just as we wear our tefillin to show our love and connection to Hashem, so, too, Hashem so to speak puts tefillin on these places to constantly remember our love and how we are one nation. Therefore, when one is in pain from being punished, Hashem says, “My arm aches, My head aches,” because when the Jewish people, or and individual, do not do Hashem’s will, they weigh heavily and weaken Hashem’s power because He cannot bestow goodness upon them.
The Talmud goes on to say that if Hashem feels so bad when an evil person is in pain, how much more pain must Hashem feel when a righteous person is in pain.
We see from this a remarkable thing. Hashem feels our pain through His Tefillin, so to speak. The Tefillin that we wear represent the deepest and most intimate connection to Hashem.
A Deep Connection to Our Creator
In Exodus 33:18, Moshe asked Hashem to show him His honor.
(יח) וַיֹּאמַר הַרְאֵנִי נָא אֶת כְּבֹדֶךָ
The Talmud (Berachot 7a) tells us that Moshe asked Hashem to explain to him why righteous people suffer and why evil people seem to prosper. Hashem responded (v. 23)
(כג) וַהֲסִרֹתִי אֶת כַּפִּי וְרָאִיתָ אֶת אֲחֹרָי וּפָנַי לֹא יֵרָאוּ
23) Then I will remove my hand and you will see My back, but My face may not be seen.
The Panim Yafot (1730-1805) explains that when Hashem told Moshe – My face may not be seen, He meant that, “I cannot show you why I do what I do to the righteous and to the evil before it is done. These are the deepest secrets, which no human can understand. What I can and will show you is the outcome, and how in the end it was all for the good.” This is the meaning of “My back.” You can look back and, in retrospect, see how everything was for the good.
The Talmud then reveals an unapparent facet of the verse above.
והסירתי את כפי וראית את אחרי. אמר רב חנא בר ביזנא אמר רבי שמעון חסידא: מלמד שהראה הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה קשר של תפילין
Rav Chana son of Bizna quoted Rabbi Shimon the Chassid, “This teaches us that Hashem showed Moshe the knot of His Tefillin.”
Why the “knot” of His tefillin?
Hashem showed Moshe that He is wearing His tefillin and as such he feels all the pain that the righteous people are going through. Hashem also has an ache in His head and arm, so to speak, from the punishments that He will ultimately need to give to the evil people who ignore Him. Hashem’s Tefillin are the sensors to each of His subjects and through them He feels our needs and answers our prayers and bestows His blessings upon us when we connect to Him through our Tefillin.
Of course, Tefillin do not constitute the only way to connect to Hashem. A heartfelt prayer is never neglected, and women, who do not have the mitzvah of Tefillin, receive that same level of connection to Hashem without them. Women’s prayers penetrate directly to the highest places in heaven with no need for the external “equipment” that men require.
For a man, who has the mitzvah, Tefillin provide a superb tool to help us overcome our earthiness and connect in the deepest and most intimate way with Hashem.