Dear Rabbi,

I am curious about the order that the tefillin are put on and taken off. The box for the arm is fastened first, and the box for the head is removed first.

It would seem to me that the tefillin should be placed on the head first. Also, why are the tefillin boxes not removed in the same order they are put on?


Many of the commandments are described in the Torah, the Hebrew Bible, only generally, but the details of their performance as they have been practiced by Jews for thousands of years are alluded to in some way in the Torah verses.

The verses describing the commandment of wearing tefillin give us clues about how to put on and remove the tefillin (Deuteronomy 6:8):

And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes.

The Talmud explains:

When you put them on, you put one on your arm first and then one on your head. When you take them off, first remove the box on the head and then the one on the arm. This is understood from the order of the verse which states, “And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand,” and then, “and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes.”

However, how do we see from the verse that the head tefillin is removed first and then the hand tefillin?

Rabbah says that Rav Hunnah explains it this way:

The verse says, “They shall be for ornaments between your eyes.” When should you be wearing the head tefillin? Only when “they” are both being worn (i.e., the hand tefillin should always be on when the head tefillin is on).1

The Crown and the Garment

In kabbalistic teachings, the tefillin worn on the head is like a crown that sits above the head, representing the G‑dly spheres that are infinite and beyond the grasp of us humans. In kabbalistic terms, the crown of the head corresponds to the world of atzilut, or “emanation,” the highest of the four spiritual “worlds” that describe the contraction of the infinite into our world. Wearing the head tefillin makes the connection between us and that which is above us, the infinite.

The hand tefillin is referred to as a garment, symbolizing our world, which is more like a garment in its relationship to us, and not above us like a crown. In kabbalistic language, the garment refers to the progressively lower, more physical worlds of beriah, yetziah and asiah, “creation,” “formation” and “action.”2 (For more about worlds and the creation process, see The Four Worlds.)

Placing the tefillin on the head symbolizes our connection to a Higher source, whereas the hand tefillin symbolizes the G‑dly actions that we do in this world.

The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, of righteous memory, explains that when G‑d tells us to put on the hand tefillin first, it is because our good actions in this world are more important than all the happenings in the supernal worlds. (Read more at Four Ways to Use Your Head.3

It could also be said that is the reason we keep the hand tefillin on until the head tefillin is removed, emphasizing the importance of the “hand” in our lives. All the contemplation we do, the spiritual seeking and inspiration, needs to be connected to the tangible action of fulfilling G‑d’s will by keeping the commandments He gave us in this world.

See The Guide to Putting on Tefillin from our Tefillin minisite.