5 Shvat 5781 / Monday, January 18, 2021 | Torah Reading: Bo
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Introduction to Tefillin  
HomeTefillinIntroduction to Tefillin

Introduction to Tefillin

Introduction to Tefillin

The Torah describes Tefillin as a sign, a public statement of Jewish involvement. By donning Tefillin daily, an individual gives expression to his basic feeling of Jewish identity, and its importance to him. Through placing the Tefillin on the arm facing the heart and on the head, we are binding our emotion and intellect to the service of God.

The late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan wrote a booklet entitled Tefillin, which has become a classic and is highly recommended. The following excerpt is reprinted with permission from NCSY/OU, New York, 1986.


Have you ever felt so close to another person that every moment together was precious and every letter or memento was something to be treasured? What if this person gave you a meaningful gift? Every time you looked at it or used it, you would be reminded of that special relationship?

To the best of our understanding, God's very act of creation was an act of giving and of love. It was a love so immense that the human mind cannot begin to fathom it.

Tefillin are a sign of this bond between God and man. Faith and love are very tenuous. We can speak of them and think about them. But unless we do something about them we tend to forget; Tefillin serve to help us remember.

If you would open a pair of Tefillin, you would see that they contain four parchments. One of these parchments consists of the famous Shema - "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, God is One." Tefillin concretize for us that God created the universe, orchestrates world history and is intimately involved with our daily lives.

The essence of the Torah is in its commandments, mitzvot in Hebrew. The word mitzvah comes from the root meaning "to bind." Every commandment or mitzvah serves to draw us close to God and strengthen this spiritual connection.

Every mitzvah forges a deeper spiritual bond with God. In the case of Tefillin, this bond is physical as well as spiritual. We literally bind God's love symbol to our bodies. Thus, our sages teach us that the commandment of Tefillin encompasses all others. With Tefillin, we can actually see and feel the bond.

Another important theme of the Tefillin is the Exodus from Egypt--"And it shall be a sign . . . because with a strong hand God brought you out of Egypt." The Exodus took place over 3000 years ago. But it still plays a most important role in Judaism.

God gathered an entire people, three million strong, to the foot of Mount Sinai, and proclaimed His message. Every man, woman, and child heard God's voice decreeing the Ten Commandments. Thus was the bond forged between God and Israel. This took place just seven weeks after the Jews left Egypt. It was the climax of the drama of the Exodus.

This was an event unique in the history of mankind. It is most important not to forget...

The Torah tells us (Devarim. 4:9, 10), "Be very careful and watch yourself, that you not forget the things you saw with your own eyes. Do not let them pass from your minds as long as you live. Teach them to your children, and to your children's children. The day when you stood before God…"

The parchments in the Tefillin speak of the Exodus.

The Tefillin thus serve to bind us to our past, especially to this unique event in our history.

We can understand this on a deeper level. But first we must understand the true significance of the Exodus and Sinai. We must know what it means to say that an entire people heard God's voice.

To hear God's voice is no simple matter. Only prophets hear God's voice. What happened at Sinai- was that an entire people, men, women and children achieved the level of prophecy.

There are many ways to approach God. You can approach Him on an intellectual level. You can ask questions and seek answers until you achieve some understanding of the Infinite. This is the realm of the philosopher.

You can seek God on a more intimate level, in prayer and in meditation. There may then come a time when your self ceases to exist and all your senses are numbed. Suddenly, a door seems to open if only by the slightest crack. You catch a glimpse of the Divine, and discover something more wonderful than anything on earth. Somehow you feel a unique closeness to God. To describe it would be as impossible as to describe the beauty of a sunset to a blind man. But you know it is there. The door has been opened to you, and you have peered through the crack.

This is the level of the mystic.

But sometimes the door is opened all the way. A man experiences more than merely a glimpse. He hears a clear voice and receives a lucid message. This is the highest possible human bond with God. It is the level of the prophet.

At Sinai, every Jew attained this level. Tefillin bring us back to this unique moment. Not many of us can be philosophers. Very few of us can attain the level of the mystic. Prophets no longer walk the earth.

But we can remember...

When we bind the Tefillin to our bodies, we relive the infinite bond of love that was forged at Sinai. There were Tzadikim--saints--who achieved a mystical experience every time they put on Tefillin. They could feel the words of the parchments literally burning into their heart and soul. We may never achieve this level.

But we can begin...

God has given us the commandment of Tefillin and clearly spelled out how to do it. Tefillin may seem like simple boxes and straps. But they are much, much more.

When a man wears Tefillin, he binds himself to the very highest spiritual level. He achieves a closeness to God that even the deepest meditation could not accomplish. Of course, when a man wears Tefillin and also contemplates their significance, his very thoughts are elevated close to God. But even the physical act in itself can bring a man to the loftiest heights. We can also understand this in a much simpler sense.

In order to create this bond, our Tefillin must conform exactly to God's design. The slightest deviation breaks this link. A good analogy is that of a radio. A radio is specifically designed to receive a particular type of signal. Every element in it is needed for this. Cut a single wire, remove a single capacitor, no matter how small, and you no longer receive the signal. There are precise rules by which a radio must be built. These include all the laws of electromagnetism and circuits. If these are not exactly followed, the radio will not function.

Tefillin are our receiver for a specific spiritual signal. As such, they must be designed to receive this particular kind of signal. Violate a single rule, and they become like a radio with a transistor removed. The bond just no longer exists.

We can carry the analogy still further. You would have to have an extensive scientific education to even begin to understand how a radio works. You would have to know calculus and differential equations and all the complexities of electromagnetic theory. But still, even the youngest child can turn on a radio. The same is true of the mitzvot. A lifetime of study might lead you to begin to understand their significance. But anyone can put them on and receive the signal.


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