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Thoughts on the Prayers for Tefillin

 Re-posted from June 3, 2021


The Greeks posed a philosophical question regarding the ship which Theseus and the youth of Athens had returned from Crete. It was preserved by the Athenians in the harbor of Athens for centuries, for they took the old planks as they decayed and put in new and stronger timber in their places. The question the philosophers asked as more and more of the original ship was replaced by new lumber: could one still claim that this was the ship of Theseus? At what point, if ever, does the ship lose its original identity?


This conundrum came to mind as I reflected on a pair of tefillin that I inherited from my grandfather who had died seven months prior to my bar mitzvah. Before I received them, the synagogue shamash had taken them and repainted the surface of the boxes so they were completely black once more. A number of years went by and during a trip to Israel, I had the tefillin boxes opened and inspected and one of the four parchment scrolls placed in the tefillin on the head had to be replaced because two letters were found to be touching. A new parchment was substituted. As years passed, the straps began to wear out and one was about to tear, so I had new straps placed on the tefillin.  At another point, I learned about the quality of different kinds of tefillin boxes. The lowest quality was known as peshutot or simple, basic tefillin made from parchment folded into shape and painted over - sacred origami, so to speak. Apparently, these tefillin of my grandfather’s were peshutot, nothing fancy. However, I could replace the boxes I found out with a higher quality material made from hides from sheep or goats, known as behemot dakkot, small animals. So, on a subsequent trip to Israel I upgraded my tefillin and substituted such boxes. At this point, the boxes and the straps were no longer the same ones that I had inherited from my grandfather and, as mentioned, one of the parchments on the head tefillin was not original either. Were these then still my grandfather’s tefillin? Interesting question.


By the way, I’ve kept the parchment with the two letters touching as well and I carried it in my pocket on the day of my ordination as a rabbi, 46 years ago. I thought on that special day of how my grandfather had at one time considered becoming a rabbi and had always encouraged my interest in Hebrew and Jewish studies. So, I wanted to feel his presence that day.


Some years ago, I stopped wearing these tefillin and replaced them with higher quality leather boxes made from rawhide and known as gassot, referring to large animals, behemot gassot. These are supposed to retain their square shape longer than the sheepskin variety which begins to get rounded corners over time. I had wanted to move my grandfather’s parchments into the new boxes, but was told by the scribe that they were not of sufficiently high quality to be used in these top-of-the-line tefillin, so they remain in the dakkot boxes as a spare. I still think of my grandfather as I put on my tefillin each day. So I wonder are these tefillin which I now wear in any sense my grandfather’s tefillin?


The wearing of tefillin is one of many concrete symbols in Judaism that transcend their physical qualities and call to mind various associations both personal and communal each time we utilize them. Each time I take the tefillin off I remember the powerful little man, the synagogue sexton, as we called him then, Moshe Kosover, who taught me about tefillin and how to put them on and take them off. Most people, I’ve noticed, wrap the straps of both the tefillin from the head and from the arm the same way, wrapping part of it on either side of the leather boxes. Mr. Kosover, however, taught us a special way to wrap the strap for the tefillin on out arms.  This method made it easily distinguished from the tefillin of the head when one reaches into the bag, so one automatically takes the correct box out first avoiding the problem of passing over one mitzvah to do another. When I remove the tefillin from my arm, I place the box in the palm of my hand. I extend my index finger and my pinky and wrap the strap around them in a figure eight until nearly all the strap is used up. The last part of the strap is then wrapped around the middle to secure the bundle.


I don’t recall Mr. Kosover explaining the meaning of this procedure to us at the time. But years later, I studied about a rabbi mentioned in the Talmud, Elisha Baal K’nafayim, who insisted on wearing his tefillin all day as was the custom some practiced back then, even when the Romans prohibited the practice of Jewish rites. According to the story, one day as he was wearing the tefillin in public, a Roman officer was seen approaching. Elisha quickly slipped them off and put them in the palm of his hand. When the officer demanded that he open his hand, all he saw were the wings of a dove, kanfei yonah. Elisha became known aterwards as the master of the wings, baal k’nafayim. I suddenly realized when I read this passage that the two loops of the figure eight of my tefillin must represent those wings of the dove and so I continue to wrap my tefillin that way to this day and have taught others to do the same. In doing so I remember Mr. Kosover, a refugee from a later persecution, who taught me all about tefillin.


The late 16th - early 17th century Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, known as the author of the mystical work Sh’nei Luchot Habrit, abbreviated as the Sh’lah, composed a kavanah, a meditation, directing our thoughts for the mitzvah of tefillin. This is a passage which Mr. Kosover had us read as he explained it. The kavanah appears in many traditional prayer books to be read prior to putting on the tefillin each day. I’ve noticed that the text has been shortened in some siddurim and often altered according to the ideology of the editors. Some versions include some clearly Kabbalistic ideas connecting the mitzvah with the unification of the various divine names in the Kabbalistic system of sefirot and others omit those sections, but focus on the basic symbolism of the tefillin.


The Kabbalistic kavanah, included in the Artscroll Siddur, begins, “For the sake of the unification of the Holy One, Blessed is He and His Presence, in fear and love to unify the Name – Yud Hei with Vav Hey – in perfect unity, in the name of all Israel.” If you are familiar with the Kabbalistic language, the Holy One, Blessed is He, HaKadosh Baruch Hu, refers to the sefirah of Tiferet, while the Presence refers to the Shechinah or the lowest sefirah of Malchut. Many of our prayers and mitzvot according to the mystics are intended to restore the Shechinah to its proper place and unite the lower spheres with the upper ones. God’s Holy Name is spelled in four letters, Yud -Hei – Vav -Hei. These also are related to the sefirot system. Thus yud – hei, the first two letters, stands for the higher sefirot of Chochmah (wisdom) and Binah (understanding). Vav which is numerically equivalent to six represents the six lower sefirot of Chesed, Gevurah, Tiferet, Netzach, Hod, and Yesod . The second hei represents the Shechinah or Malchut. By directing our thoughts properly while performing a mitzvah,it is assumed that we can have an effect on the upper spheres as well, uniting the Holy Blessed One with the Divine Presence to unify these aspects of divinity.


Whether or not one is into the mystical concepts, the kavanah as it continues points to the inner significance of the mitzvah of tefillin. “By putting on the tefillin I hereby intend to fulfill the commandment of my Creator who commanded us to wear tefillin, as it is written in His Torah: “Bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be an emblem on the center of your head.” - that last phrase is usually translated as “for frontlets between your eyes.” The kavanah continues, “They contain these four sections of the Torah, one beginning with Sh’ma, another with V’haya im shamoa [both recited as part of the reading of the Sh’ma morning and evening], the third with Kadesh, and the fourth with V’haya ki y’viacha. [These last two portions appear back to back in Exodus 13. All four mention the tefillin.]” The kavanah continues,‘These proclaim the uniqueness and unity of God, blessed be His name, in the world. They also remind us of the miracles and wonders which He did for us when He brought us out of Egypt, and that He has the power and the dominion over the highest and the lowest to deal with them as He pleases.”


The author now explains the significance of the placement of the tefillin. “He commanded us to place one of the tefillin on the arm in memory of the “outstretched arm’” (of redemption), setting it opposite the heart, to subject the desires and designs of our heart to His service, blessed be His name. The other is to be on the head, opposite the brain, so that my mind, whose seat is in the brain, together with my other senses and faculties, may be subjected to His service, blessed be His name.”


As the passage concludes, once again we see the influence of Kabbalistic ideas appearing, “May the spiritual influence of the commandment of the tefillin be with me so that I may have a long life, a flow of holiness, and sacred thoughts, free from any suggestion of sin or iniquity May the evil inclination neither incite nor entice us, but leave us to serve the Lord, as it is in our hearts to do.”


An additional passage is commonly added to this and other kavanot for different mitzvot, “And may it be Your will, Lord our God and God of our ancestors, that the commandment of tefillin be considered before You as if I had fulfilled it to all its specifics, details and intentions, as well as the 613 commandments dependent on it. Amen Selah.”


While some choose to recite this kavanah every day prior to performing the mitzvah, it is purely optional and does not appear in some siddurim altogether. Rather we continue with the placing of the tefillin on our arm. Ashkenazim stand as they put on this tefillah (singular of tefillin), while the custom among Sephardim is to remain seated. The tefillin shel yad, the hand tefillah, is placed on the weaker hand, based on a strange spelling of yadcha, your hand, in the v’hayah im shamoa. Other traditions call for the shel yad to be placed on the left arm regardless, again due to kabbalistic influence.  A yud-shaped knot is to be on the inside toward the heart and the loop tied in the strap is brought up to the lower part of the upper arm. We recite the blessing: “Praised are You, Lord our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has made us holy through His commandments, and has commanded us to put on tefillin.” At this point, the tefillah shel yad is tightened into place. With a half twist, the strap is now wrapped seven times around the lower arm. There are different traditions on exactly how to wrap it. Some wrap the strap toward themselves and others wrap it away. How many times it should be wrapped also varies with by tradition, some recommending eight loops just to be sure. The end of the strap is temporarily wrapped around one’s hand.


There is some controversy over whether the tefillin constitute a single mitzvah or if the two tefillin represent two mitzvot and therefore there should be a second blessing for the tefillah shel rosh, the one on the head. All agree that one should stand to put the tefillin on one’s head and one does so resting the box not on one’s nose, literally between one’s eyes (I’ve seen many people do), but rather at one’s hairline at a point that is between the eyes. It is easy to tell the two boxes apart. The one on the arm has a smooth surface with a single chamber inside containing a single strip of parchment with all four passages written by hand, like a Torah scroll in the order in which the passages appear in the Torah. The tefillah on the head is actually four boxes pressed together to form a single cube and within it are four compartments, each containing a slip of parchment with one of the four passages.


Most tefillin follow the view of Rashi, the great commentator on the Bible and Talmud and place the four parchments in the order of the Torah. However there are tefillin that follow the view of Rabbenu Tam, Rashi’s grandson Jacob Tam, and reverse the order of the last two portions. Some very pious folks change their tefillin near the end of the morning service and put on Rabbenu Tam tefillin for the final prayers. Apparently there are even some people who wear both kinds at the same time. I’ve seen pictures of this, but never met a person who did so.


On the outside of the tefillin for the head you will see the letter shin, for Shaddai, Almighty God, in raised letters on either side. The tradition is to place a normal three-pronged shin on the right side and one with four prongs on the left. All three of the letters of Shaddai are to be found in the tefillin as we literally place God’s name upon our bodies. Holding the box in one hand and placing the knot which is either in the shape of the letter dalet or in a square, considered to be a double dalet, in the back of one’s neck, Ashkenazim recite a second blessing, “who commanded us about the commandment of tefillin.” Sephardim, considering the tefillin a single mitzvah, do not add this second blessing. As we finish the blessing, we settle the tefillin into place feeling the strap to make sure the shiny side is outward and we add the line, “Baruch shem k’vod malchuto l’olam va-ed, Praised be the name of His glorious kingdom forever and all time.” That prayer is added whenever we recite a blessing that may not be required to indicate that all that we do is for the praise of God and there was no intention to take God’s name in vain. I was taught to continue running my hands down the straps to make sure that one strap is on either side of my neck and that they are not twisted.


Throughout this process, one should concentrate on the mitzvah and not interrupt with any conversation. After this second blessing, some recite an additional kavanah which clearly reflects the Kabbalistic teachings about the sefirot, “From your wisdom, God most high, grant me [wisdom] and from your understanding, give me understanding. [Wisdom and Understanidng,Chochmah and Binah, are two of the highest sefirot.] May Your lovingkindness be greatly upon me, and in Your might may my enemies and those who rise against me be subdued. [Lovingkindnes and Might, Chesed and Gevurah, are the next two sefirot]. Pour Your goodly oil on the seven branches of the menorah so that Your good flows down upon Your creatures.[As previously mentioned the lower sefirot are often represented by the letter vav, which is six, adding one more for the Shechina, makes seven. God’s divine light pouring down from the upper sefirot to the lower ones and into the world is represented here as oil in the Temple’s seven-branched menorah.]”


The last line of this prayer is a quotation from the Ashrei, Psalm 145, “You open your hand, and satisfy every living thing with Your favor.” In Hebrew this verse has seven words and as Mr. Kosover taught me, one should take the straps from the tefillin shel rosh and touching the strap on your arm, count out the seven wrappings as one recites these seven words: Poteiach et yadecha umasbia l’chol chay ratzon. The Talmud cites this verse as one reason why we recite the Ashrei three times each day, praising God’s lovingkindness, and the rabbis ask us to concentrate and emphasize this verse whenever we read the Ashrei.


Finally, we go back to the strap that we wrapped temporarily on our hand and we unwrap it and then re-wrap it in a special way around our hand to form the letter shin on the outside of our hand and to wrap the strap three times around our middle finger, like a wedding ring.  Again, there are different traditions on how to accomplish this. As we wrap the tefillin strap around our finger, we recite verses from the prophet Hosea, that speak of God entering into an intimate relationship with the people of Israel. “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and justice, loving kindness and compassion; I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord.”


Following this, some make it a point to read the two passages from Exodus 13 that are placed in the tefillin but are not otherwise part of our morning prayers. One then proceeds to the morning service and leaves the tefillin in place until the end of the service. In an earlier time, some people kept the tefillin on throughout the day as we mentioned, but nowadays most everyone removes them by the end of the morning service. In fact, some do so shortly before the end during the Kedusha d’sidra (Uva l’tziyon). I was taught to wait until the end of the service to remove them.


When we do remove them, the custom is to do so in reverse order to the way one put them on. First we unwrap the tefillin from our hands. Then we take the tefillin off of our heads. We do so standing up and put on its cover and wrap the strap around the box and place it in the bag. We then remove the rest of the tefillin from our arm. Sephardim sit down to do so; Ashkenazim remain standing. As mentioned earlier, Mr. Kosover taught me how to make the wings of the dove out of the strap, wrapping it in a figure eight and placing it next to the tefillin from the head in the bag, but with the wings on top, so that I will always reach for the tefillin of the hand first and not pass over a mitzvah.


Since tefillin are called a sign (ot) they are not worn on Shabbat and festivals, for as we sing on Shabbat, “ot hi l’olam” “It [Shabbat] is a sign forever. The signs of Shabbat and Yom Tov replace the sign of the tefillin. There is a controversy over whether or not one should wear tefillin on Chol HaMoed, the intermediate days of Passover and Sukkot.  The Ashkenazim, at least outside of Israel, do wear them then, while the Sephardim and Chasidim do not. In Israel nearly everyone follows the practice of not wearing tefillin on Chol HaMoed.  In 1973, as a student, I flew to Israel during Chol HaMoed Sukkot for my third year of Seminary, which began during the Yom Kippur War. I had worn my tefillin during the early days of Chol HaMoed before my flight and wore them again on the plane en route to Israel. However, I was not certain what to do the next day at our Seminary morning service. No one else was wearing tefillin in keeping with Israeli practice. However, since I had worn tefillin throughout the week, I decided that I should continue my practice on this last day of Sukkot as well to be consistent. I’m pretty sure that when Pesach rolled around, though, I did not wear them that year during the intermediate days.


Janice and I and our son Aaron were in Israel in 1988, prior to Aaron’s bar mitzvah and we decided to buy tefillin for him in the Old City of Jerusalem. We found a shop opposite the Churva synagogue, run by a sofer, a scribe, named appropriately Ezra, the same as the biblical Ezra the scribe; his shop was called Ot (sign)  While Aaron did not get to watch the parchments being written, Ezra did let him watch as he inspected them and then inserted them into their boxes and stitched them closed. He cut the straps to the proper length and inserted them in the boxes and tied the knots. They were not exactly grandpa’s tefillin, but the best we could do was to give Aaron a story to tell about them. As Elie Weisel wrote, “God made man because He loves stories.”

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