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Tefillin and Its Significance

Tefillin and Its Significance


Tefillin is one of the most important Mitzvot (precepts) of the Torah. It has been observed and treasured for thousands of years, right down to the present day. The Torah mentions it more than once, but most explicitly in Deut. 6:8 "And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes."

Tefillin consists of two small leather boxes attached to leather straps. The two boxes each contain four sections of the Torah inscribed on parchment. These passages cite:

  1. The Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) - pronouncing the Unity of The One G‑d.
  2. Vehayah (Deuteronomy 11:13-21) - expressing G‑d's assurance to us of reward that will follow our observance of the Torah's precepts, and warning of retribution for disobedience to them.
  3. Kadesh (Exodus 13:1-10) - the duty of the Jewish people to always remember the redemption from Egyptian bondage.
  4. Vehayah (Exodus 13:11-16) - the obligation of every Jew to inform his children on these matters.

One of the boxes (the "hand Tefillin") is placed upon the left arm so as to rest against the heart - the seat of the emotions, and the suspended leather strap is wound around the left hand, and around the middle finger of that hand. The other box (the "Head Tefillin") is placed upon the head, above the forehead, so as to rest upon the cerebrum. In this manner our attention is directed to the head, heart and hand. It teaches us to dedicate ourselves to the service of G‑d in all that we think, feel and do. It is also to teach us not to be governed solely by the impulse of the heart, lest that lead us into error and transgression. Nor are we to be governed by reason alone, for that may lead to harsh materialism.

Placed on the arm opposite the heart, and on the head, the Tefillin signify the submission of one's mind, heart and actions to the Almighty, as well as the rule of intellect over emotion.

A fundamental principle of Chabad Chassidic philosophy is that the intellect must control the emotions. Unfortunately, there exists a schism between the mind and the heart. Moreover, often the emotions control the mind, and the intellect is utilized merely to provide justification, rationalization, and excuses for this "instinct-emotion centered" existence. The Mitzvah of Tefillin and its practice facilitates the attainment by the individual of unity of mind and heart, intellect and emotion.

Most of life's regrets, sorrows and pain could be avoided if we would but learn this important lesson - the application of head and heart to our every day problems. Besides, such wholesome balance constitutes the very first step on the road to self-assurance, courage, hopefulness and inner peace; those eternally precious soul values the Jew must develop, the better to serve G‑d and mankind. Tefillin will cultivate these blessed characteristics, if observed in a spirit of true reverence.

In many communities it is customary to recite the following passage from Hosea (2:21-22) while winding the leather strap around the middle finger of the left hand:

And I will betroth you unto Me forever; and I will betroth you unto Me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in loving-kindness, and in compassion. And I will betroth you unto Me in faithfulness and you shall know The L-rd.These words were adressed to all Jews by G‑d, through His prophet Hosea.

In these words we were given a Divine formula - an ethical recipe - a dependable guide for all, yet comprehensive enough to satisfy the loftiest aspiration of the most pious: 'To "Know the L-rd", practice righteousness, judgment, loving- kindness, compassion and faithfulness. And for the precious endowment of this priceless treasure we Jews are truly grateful.

Rabbi Yehudah Halevi (ca. 12th century) probably had the lesson of Tefillin in mind when he wrote: "The Divine religion (Judaism) does not urge us to live an ascetic life, but guides us in the middle path, equidistant from the extremes of too much and too little. It allows free play to every G‑d given faculty of both body and soul, within the constructive limits drawn by The Divine Hand itself. For certain it is that what we devote to one faculty in excessive measure we withdraw from another, and thus upset the harmony which should pervade our entire being ... "

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1800-1888; 5560-5648), an outstanding Rabbi of the nineteenth century, said of Tefillin: "A truth, in order to produce results, must be impressed upon the mind and heart repeatedly and emphatically. Merely to acknowledge the essential principles of righteousness and love, is not sufficient to actually build up such a life ... In addition thereto, symbolic words and actions are necessary so that they may become indelibly stamped upon the soul, and thus preserved for yourself and for others."

More recently a distinguished Rabbi, Meier Jung, (1859-1921; 5619-5681) had this to say of Tefillin: "This religious act performed daily has done more to preserve and to further the high morality of our people than all the books on ethics that have ever been written. The same can also be said of other Mitzvot, though some have a double influence, one direct, making for immediate physical well-being, the other indirect, forming character by teaching constructive restraint through habitual action."

Tefillin and the Exodus from Egypt

It has been pointed out that the four Torah excerpts to be found in Tefillin comprise the Shema and the Vehaya, while the other two have almost exclusive reference to the Exodus from Egypt. Some may wonder why the Exodus should be assigned such signal honor as to accompany the verses that pronounce our very concept of G‑d. Hence the following explanation:

There can be no question that for the Jewish people the Exodus was to be an everlasting, unforgettable "Remembrance." Our sages even went so far as to incorporate the words "In remembrance of the departure from Egypt" in the Kiddush that ushers in every Sabbath and Festival. Careful deliberation, moreover, will clearly show why they ascribed to it such singular significance.

The Exodus, it must be recalled, is the story of a people enslaved for hundreds of years by a mighty nation. Although they were unarmed and overwhelmingly outnumbered, this enslaved people finally marched out to their freedom without having to resort to violence. Not only were they freed, but their departure was hastened by their erstwhile overlords, now terrified lest more plagues be meted out to them by the retributive justice of the G‑d of Israel.

All available historical records disclose nothing to equal this unique event. The case of a miraculous redemption of an entire people numbering over two million souls, each of them an eyewitness to the protecting benevolence of Divine Providence. It was this event that convinced all the Jewish people, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that their faith in the G‑d of their ancestors was well founded. It was the miracle of the Exodus that gave emphatic meaning to the words of the Shema: "Hear, O Israel, The L-rd is Our G‑d, The L-rd is One." Note carefully how the very first commandment connects the two. "I am the L-rd your G‑d Who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage."

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Hanalah Houston, Tx February 11, 2017

My father escaped from the Ukraine with his grandfather, who brought him up after the Ukrainians murdered his mother in 1919 (along with hundreds of other Jews whom they also murdered). Daddy was eager to lay tefillin and managed to get himself Bar Mitzvah in Poland at age 12. He dovened with tallis & tefillin every weekday for the rest of his life. It was the highlight of his day. He loved dovening. That was the time when he was at peace. (Having seen his mother's murder was a trauma that haunted him forever after, except while he was dovening.) He reached Houston in 1923d at age 13 and died, may he rest in peace, in 1997, keeping kosher & keeping Shabbos. His last name was Weisgar and he lived in Teplik, Terlitzer (sp?) and Uman. Reply

Eliezer Zalmanov for April 3, 2016

Re: Disabled? Yes, assistance with laying tefillin is perfectly acceptable. Reply

Anonymous Maryland March 31, 2016

Disabled? If someone is disabled and it's impossible for them to don tefillin, is someone else allowed to put the tefillin on for them? Reply

Anonymous July 19, 2015

some very very good quotes :) "Merely to acknowledge the essential principles of righteousness and love, is not sufficient to actually build up such a life ... In addition thereto, symbolic words and actions are necessary so that they may become indelibly stamped upon the soul, and thus preserved for yourself and for others."

Wow. Thank you for sharing this.

"Make signs for the Torah, and buy it." (Shabbos 104a)

The mitzvos are the Torah, and they are also signs for the Torah.
How bizarre. And impressive.

"This religious act performed daily has done more to preserve and to further the high morality of our people than all the books on ethics that have ever been written."

Wow again. Reply

sean stein September 17, 2014

s i performed the mitzvah of laying Tefillin with my mate phil silberman today - it was indeed and in deed a blessing- Reply

Viktor Oakland, CA April 6, 2014

tefellin and emotion @tuviah - I feel like I can speak to this because I am having the same issue as I am not an early riser. The point of the teffellin is to connect yourself with the divine, at the beginning of the day, as a reminder for yourself to be connected to god throughout the day.

Essentially you should WANT to be connected to the creator as early as possible, thus being the best way to begin your day.

What the Teffellin is not: it is not a chore.
I know rabbis will argue against me, but if you are feeling that the wrapping tefellin is a chore you should probably stop and do some soul searching first. Do you enjoy a nice, big home cooked breakfast? Of course you do, if you didn't, you wouldn't eat it. Tefellin is a daily dose of divine connection for your soul, it should power up your soul in the mornings so you can function throughout the day on that charge. Tefellin is something you should want to do otherwise you aren't being true to yourself. Reply

Tuviah NYC, BY March 1, 2009

Tefillin and emotion Putting on my tefillin the first thing in the morning sometimes feels like a chore I must do, but with no real heart for it. I wonder what is the point iif I'm just reciting words and not feeling any connection with G-d? Can I put tefillin on later in the day when I feel that moment that I want to communicate with G-d? Or should I just continue this ritualiustic but empty feeling duty. I want my heart to fly when I do something for G-d. I don't want it to be empty or boring. Reply

Dan Dayton Lakewood November 16, 2008

Left-Handers Being one of the ~10% of the population who is left-handed, please remember "strong hand"; so left-handed put tefillin on their right hand. Reply

Daniel Kyoto September 18, 2006

Dear Mr. Vaisfiche and Mr. Zaklikowski,

Thank you so much for having taken the time and trouble to research and post this information. It means much to me and my family to learn these things. Alexander's granddaughter Anne, who, as Rabbi Jacobson relates, does remember attending a Jewish kindergarten in the city (thanks to her grandfather), also sends her gratitude. Reply

Avraham D. Vaisfiche Brooklyn, NY September 14, 2006

More about Alexander Cowen Thank you for writing about Alexander Cowen.
Please allow me to quote from Rabbi Israel Jacobson, Executive Director of Agudas Chasidei Chabad of the United States and Canada during the late 1920s, 30s and 40s, who related:
"Alexander Cowen became close to the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, upon the latter's visit to the USA, during 1930.
"In 1937, Rabbi Jacobson traveled to Poland to visit Rabbi Schneersohn. On this trip, he took along a letter from Dr Cowen to the Rebbe, who, in turn, sent back a reply letter with Rabbi Jacobson. Dr Cowen susequently recieved a number of letters from the Rebbe. After Rabbi Schneersohn emigrated to the USA in 1940, Dr Cowen became very involved in Chabad activites.
"In addition, he brought his family closer to Judaism, and enrolled his granddaugter in a traditional Jewish kindergarten in Manhattan."
Would this be Anne, mentioned above by Daniel Emery? Reply

Daniel Kyoto September 12, 2006

Thank you very much for this information. For the record, I am Daniel the son of Anne who is the daugher of Ruth who was the daughter of Alexander. Reply

Dovid Zaklikowski Brooklyn, NY September 12, 2006

The connection Thank you for the correction, we have located the original version from 1944 and we have updated the name to be spelled Cowen.

Elchanan Kaven or Alexander Cowen was quite close to the previous Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Joseph Isaac Schneersohn, of righteous memory (1880-1950) and his successor, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory (1902-1994).

Rabbi Joseph Isaac would respond with long letters on philosophical subjects. No less than 31 letters to Mr. Cowen have been published in the 16 volumes of Rabbi Joseph Isaac’s letters.

In the 1940's Mr. Cowen was a part of a group of intellectuals that formed classes on science, philosophy and Torah. They were encouraged by Rabbi Joseph Isaac, and Rabbi Menachem Mendel wrote many responses to their questions. In total I have found 16 published letters from Rabbi Menachem Mendel. In the last one from 1957 there is a note at the end to send regards to Alexander’s wife and son, this could be your grandfather.

Also involved were two other special individuals: Rabbi Dr. Nissan Mindel, who was Rabbi Joseph Isaac’s and later Rabbi Menachem Mendel’s personal secretary, and Mr. Jullias Stullman, who both, more recently, passed away. Reply

Daniel Kyoto September 10, 2006

p.s. I was able to get in contact with Lazer Kaufman. He provided me the full dates in his edition of this pamphlet:

"Dedicated to the Memory of
Born: Sivan 21, 5646 - June 24, 1886
Died: Mar-Cheshvan 24, 5720 - November 25, 1959"

The days match too. This brings great joy to me and my family. We didn't know. Thank you for this and for all of your support. Reply

Daniel C. Emery Kyoto, Japan September 7, 2006

On Alexander Cowen I wish to thank Mr. Lazer Kaufman for that information about Alexander Cowen. Alexander Cowen is my Great-Grandfather. Born in 1886 in London, he came to America at the age of fourteen and brought the rest of his family over when he became able. I was raised in a secular household, but recently I have felt the great need to become an observant Jew. Since I have not even learned to say the Shma yet, there is a lot of work ahead for me. As I began my journey I asked my mother for any information about my family she could provide. She sent me a family tree. I googled Alexander Cowen's name and found the author of this pamphlet. I have been trying to find if the two are the same, but with little success. This brings me great joy, especially as I get ready to put on Tefillin for the first time. I'm wondering if anyone has any other information about Alexander Cowen. I am also wondering why the pamphlet when published in the past used the name Cowen, but now the name Cowan is used? Reply

Lazer Kaufman Brooklyn, NY August 15, 2006

tefillin booklet My dad gave me a copy of this in booklet form. It's dated 1960 (5721), and is dedicated to the memory of the author, Alexander Cowen (1886-1959; 5646-5720). Glad to see it's been preserved online, complete with updated diction and photographs. Thanks! Reply

Rabbi Mirman November 27, 2005

Tefillin... Excellent summary. Reply

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