Tefillin: Tied Up
From the age of bar mitzvah onwards, there is a daily obligation for every
Jewish adult to wear the two black leather boxes of tefillin. The tefillin
shel rosh, "head tefillin" is placed upon the head above the forehead
starting from the hairline in a direct line between the eyes. The tefillin
shel yad, "hand tefillin" are tied to the biceps of the weaker arm facing
The relationship between tefillin and Torah is very significant:
1. The very mention of tefillin in to be found in the context of
Torah learning: "You shall teach them [the Torah] thoroughly to your
children…Bind them as a sign upon your arm and let them be totafos
(tefillin) between your eyes" (Devarim 6:7-8).
2. The tefillin house four Torah passages (Shemos 13:1-10, Shemos
13:11-16, Devarim 6:4-9 & Devarim 11:13 -21) which are written on
parchment like a Torah scroll.
3. One who wears tefillin is compared to one who is reading from the
Torah (Pesikta Zutrasa Shemos 13).
4. Torah in its entirety is compared to tefillin (Makkos 11a, Rosh
5. The exegesis used to derive the law that women are not instructed
in wearing tefillin, is from its comparison to Torah study from which
women are also exempt (Kiddushin 34a)
How Torah finds expression in the precepts performed in the world of
action is revealed in the mitzvah of tefillin.
Tefillin commemorate the Exodus (Shemos 13:16 ) – the departure from Egypt
which was the stepping-stone for the Jewish nation to accept the
responsibilities of Torah at Sinai.
The tefillin tied to the "head" and "arm" symbolically convey how Torah
comes to "bind" our bodies to G-d and fill them with holiness. It is how
the Torah passages housed in the tefillin are wrapped and extend downwards
into the realm of action.
This naturally extends to include the two primary components in our divine
service: machshavah, "thoughts" of the mind correspond to the tefillin of
the "head" and its expression into the maaseh, "action" executed by the
hands parallels the tefillin of the "arm".
In pursuit of this serving G-d, however, it is necessary to monitor the
two scouts of the body: the "eyes" and the "heart" which can so easily
lead man astray. The Torah warns "You should not wander after your hearts
and your eyes" (Bamidbar 15:39) to which Rashi notes "The eye sees, the
heart desires and the body does the sin".
Accordingly, tefillin – the declaration of loyalty to Torah which is
manifest in mitzvah performance – counters this. On a daily basis, the
tefillin bound onto a Jew enjoin him to focus his eyes and heart on the
holiness that mitzvah fulfillment brings. He sets his sights exclusively
on the service of his Creator. And he complements his deeds with emotional
fervor, knowing "The Merciful One desires the heart" (Sanhedrin 106b).
Together, tefillin attests to the subjugation of a Jew's faculties where
Torah leads to mitzvos whereby he sanctifies all aspects of his body. And
in the same way that the holiness of Torah housed in the tefillin demands
the wearer to have a clean body ( guf noki) to wear these religious
artifacts (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 38:1-2), so too, should the
holiness of Torah indeed filter down and spiritualize our physical bodies.
The Jew is tied up to his Master.
Text Copyright © 2007 by Rabbi Osher Chaim Levene and Torah.org.