Jewish Signs and Symbols: Tefillin

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Boy wearing tefillin.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

Prayer is central to Judaism. Observant Jews pray three times a day, but the morning prayers – called shaharit – are the most important and comprehensive. This is also the time of day at which men wear tefillin, known in English as phylacteries. Tefillin (a word derived from tefilla, meaning prayer) consist of two hard leather boxes (known as batim) painted black – one that is worn on the head, as close as possible to the brain, and the other around the arm, generally one’s weaker arm, as close as possible to the heart.

Like mezuzah, the commandment to wear tefillin appears in the Torah: “Therefore ye shall put these my words in your heart and in your soul; bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes" (Deuteronomy11:18).

Here’s the rub: the Torah does not specify exactly which “words” are to be worn on the hand and between the eyes. After some discussion, the rabbis of the Talmud concluded that the four biblical references to tefillin should themselves be the words that are inscribed on the scrolls housed inside the tefillin.

It is said that the dual positioning of the tefillin near the brain and around the bicep, near the heart, makes a pointed statement: We should worship God with both mind and soul, with thought as well as action.

Producing tefillin is a meticulous and painstaking process. All of the materials are natural, from the batim (fashioned from a single piece of thick cowskin) to the scrolls that are sealed into them, to the leather straps that hold them in place. The work may extend over a full year.

In the Talmudic period (approximately 1,500 to 1,800 years ago), tefillin were worn all day long. Part of the rationale was that wearing this prominent outward sign of religious faith and observance would keep the wearer safe from improper thoughts and actions. However, this proved to be too arduous an undertaking, and many Jews ultimately stopped observing the mitzvah.

A compromise solution was devised – henceforth, Jewish males began to wear tefillin only during morning prayers. Incidentally, they are not worn on the Sabbath or holidays, which provide abundant other reminders of the tenets of Judaism.

Of late, there has been a revival of the ancient practice of wearing tefillin all day long among certain yeshiva students, but this is still atypical. At the other end of the spectrum, it is said that Bruria, the learned wife of 2nd-century sage Rabbi Meir, used to wear tefillin; in some Jewish feminist circles, there has been a limited resurgence of this practice.

If you are looking for public displays of tefillin, you will frequently find Lubavitch hasids in Israel and elsewhere offering their fellow Jews an opportunity to perform a mitzvah by putting on tefillin and reciting a few words of prayer before Shabbat or on holidays.  

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