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:
- The Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) - pronouncing the Unity of The One G‑d.
- 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.
- Kadesh (Exodus 13:1-10) - the duty of the Jewish people to always remember the redemption from Egyptian bondage.
- 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."