Before beginning the translation, one quick point of introduction. The
Rambam in the first half of this law stated that the judgment of man goes
according to the majority of his deeds -- generally counting only from the
third time each sin was transgressed. If based on these criteria a person is
50% righteous or better, G-d forgives all of his sins and he goes directly
to the World to Come. The Rambam thus clearly stated (based on Talmud Rosh
Hashanah 17a) that a person who is precisely at the 50% mark is judged
mercifully by G-d.
"Individuals who are in the middle (i.e., precisely at the 50% mark), if
among their 50% transgressions is that they have not donned Tefillin
(phylacteries) ever, they are judged according to their sins (i.e., punished
for their sins). [Afterwards], they are granted a share in the World to Come.
"The same is true for all wicked people whose sins are more numerous [than
their good deeds]. They are judged according to their sins and they are
[afterwards] granted a share in the World to Come. [This is] because all of
Israel has a share in the World to Come, even if they have sinned, as it is
stated, 'And your nation, all of them are righteous, they will eternally
inherit the land' (Isaiah 60:21). 'The land' is a metaphor, meaning to say
'the Land of the Living' -- which is the World to Come.
"So too the pious of the nations of the world have a share in the World to
The Rambam this week makes several very important points. The first is that
although G-d normally inclines the scales towards mercy, if an average
individual has failed to perform so basic a commandment as wearing Tefillin
even one time in his life, he will be judged more harshly. To explain I'll
offer a very brief background to the mitzvah (obligation) of wearing Tefillin.
The Torah (Deut. 6:6) states, "And these matters which I command you today
shall be upon your heart." Verse 8 continues, "And you shall bind them as a
sign on your hand, and they shall be 'totafos' between your eyes." According
to our tradition, the meaning is that we are to write down these words of
the Torah -- namely the paragraph Deut. 6:4-9 -- as well three other
paragraphs which mention the commandment of Tefillin -- and bind them to our
How is this done? Two copies of the relevant sections of the Torah are
written on small pieces of parchment (in the same manner a Torah scroll is
written). These parchments are rolled up and place within two small black
leather boxes. The boxes are stitched shut and connected to leather straps,
dyed black on the outside. The straps are used to bind the boxes to our head
and our weaker arm. Jewish men from the age of Bar Mitzvah (13) wear
Tefillin during morning services.
For a more complete treatment of this very basic obligation, please see
here: Aish.com. Note
also that "Tefillin" is a plural word, as it refers to a set of two boxes
and straps. Accordingly, I refer to Tefillin in the plural below.
One very basic question here is why is the obligation to wear Tefillin
singled out among all the mitzvos of the Torah? It is certainly fundamental,
but the Talmud makes no such statement regarding desecrating the Sabbath,
eating on Yom Kippur, committing adultery, etc. What is so significant about
Tefillin as to make our overall judgment dependent upon their observance?
(By the way, I am a dyed-in-the-wool "Litvak" myself, but I imagine the
reason Chabad Chassidim (Lubavitch) place so much effort in encouraging Jews
to wear Tefillin -- as we often see "Tefillin booths" in public places
throughout the world -- is because causing a Jew to put on Tefillin is an
incredible merit for him. As we see, this one mitzvah inclines a person's
judgment overall in his favor. And of course, even before the ultimate
Judgment Day, who knows how much further this one little mitzvah will lead
One way of viewing the underlying purpose of the Torah is to sanctify our
bodies. As we all know, human beings are engaged in a constant struggle
between their bodies and souls. The physical is heavy, lethargic, desirous.
Our bodies don't want us to get up and serve G-d but would rather have
themselves pampered and their desires fulfilled. Our souls, conversely, want
to strive closer to G-d. We all have souls which really do want to fulfill
themselves, resemble their Creator, and build a relationship with G-d. Yet
our bodies are often not willing to budge.
Now, with this struggle in mind, we could view the mitzvos of the Torah as
simply telling us how to develop our souls to the expense of our bodies.
Ignore your body's wants and do X; overcome your laziness and do Y; refrain
from Z even though your body would just love to do it.
This however is not an accurate portrayal of what the Torah is all about --
in fact it misses the point entirely.
The actual point of the Torah and mitzvos is to *sublimate* our bodies, to
develop ourselves to the point that our entire selves, both soul and body,
appreciate that the Torah life is the most fulfilling and enjoyable. The
Talmud (Makkos 23b) writes that of the 613 commandment of the Torah, 248 are
positive commandments. Each of these corresponds to one of the 248 limbs of
a man's body. Thus, each mitzvah comes to sublimate a particular part of the
human body, sanctifying it so that it desires only closeness to G-d.
(Incidentally, the number 248 is somewhat higher than the number of bones in
the human body (206), and somewhat less than the total in a baby, before
many of its bones merge together. It is not clear the precise anatomical
equivalent of the Sages' statement.)
Thus, ideally, if we observe the Torah properly, we will not *want* to sin.
We will appreciate that being disciplined and productive is more fulfilling
than sleeping late, that being more generous is more rewarding than hoarding
our wealth, and that building a stable, loving home is more meaningful than
living selfishly and for the moment.
This in a nutshell is the significance of Tefillin. We bind them onto our
head and on the muscle of our arm, and when our arm is at rest, the
arm-Tefillin rests opposite our heart. As the commentators observe, the
implication is that we devote our entire selves to G-d, our brains being the
source of our souls and our hearts the seat of our passions (see Shulchan
Thus, by wearing Tefillin we subscribe to this basic truth. We commit our
bodies to G-d. We recognize that Judaism does not mean simply forcing our
bodies to obey; it means our bodies themselves are bound to G-d. Our bodies
are not a dirty part of us which must be quelled and ignored. They are holy,
worthy of communion with G-d. Perhaps we cannot live up to this ideal our
every moment, yet by wearing Tefillin we admit to this basic truth. We know
that nothing in this world is profane if G-d created it -- least not in the
human being, crown of G-d's creation. We know our bodies can be devoted to
G-d. We may be far from perfect today, but we admit and subscribe to this
But Tefillin are far deeper than just a symbol of our commitment. The Torah
refers to Tefillin as a "sign": "And you shall bind them as a sign on your
hand." What does it mean to be a sign?
R. Aryeh Kaplan, in his pamphlet on Tefillin (sold as part of The Aryeh
Kaplan Anthology, ArtScroll Mesorah Publications (Artscroll.com))
describes it like this.
Let's say you had a deep and profound love for another human being. You
treasured every moment spent together and longed for his company whenever he
was away. And suppose your love sent you a ring or a pin -- as a token of
his love and to remind you of him in his absence. You would treasure his
gift. Every moment you would wear it would give you that warm, ecstatic
feeling of your closeness to him.
This is precisely the mitzvah of Tefillin. They are a "sign" or symbol of
G-d's love for Israel. G-d loves and wants a relationship with us. Tefillin
serve as a means of encapsulating that love. G-d gives us a physical symbol
of His love for us; by wearing Tefillin we are reminded of His closeness to
us. We state our acknowledgment of G-d's love, and by binding our bodies and
souls to Him, our desire to live up to His devotion.
Lastly, the parchments in the Tefillin make ample reference to the Exodus.
We are reminded how G-d demonstrated His love to us in glorious fashion at
the very beginning of our history.
With this we can understand why Tefillin are so significant in inclining our
judgment towards the good. Let's say a Jew is exactly 50-50. He is average:
not too good and not too bad. If he has done nothing further to recommend
himself, he remains in the balance. There is no reason to sway the scales in
his favor. If, however, he has put on Tefillin -- even a single time in his
life, he has sanctified his body to G-d. He states that although he is far
from perfect, he at least admits to the basic reality that man's body is to
be devoted to G-d. And so, such a person's very body earns G-d's favor --
inclining his entire judgment towards mercy. It is not an evil entity
distant from its Creator. It is a being created in G-d's image, capable of
resembling and building a relationship with G-d in heaven.
The Talmud which the Rambam is based on (Rosh Hashanah 17a) uses a very
peculiar expression in referring to people who have never worn Tefillin. It
refers to them as "the sinners of Israel with their bodies." The message is
that such people have never devoted their bodies to G-d in any way. And such
a body is a very serious liability in judgment.
But Judaism teaches us otherwise. Our bodies are not distant from G-d,
something which must be crushed and subdued in order to truly become
spiritual. Our bodies can and must be made holy. They, as every part of us,
are the very tools G-d provided us to draw us ever closer to our Creator.