1. There Are Two Separate Commandments

A set of tefillin comprises two black leather boxes each containing scrolls of parchment. The two boxes—one for the head and one for the arm—are two separate mitzvot. If only one of the two is available, it should be donned despite the lack of the other.1

2. It’s Also Called “Totafot”

In Scripture, the arm tefillin is called a “sign,” and the head tefillin is referred to as “totafot.” According to one explanation, totafot is a combination of two ancient words that each mean “two.” When joined together, totafot hints to the four compartments of the head-tefillin. Other translations include “speech” (as they inspire us to speak of G‑d’s miracles) and “diadem” (because of their placement).2

From Talmudic times, this mitzvah is commonly referred to as tefillin—a word related to the Hebrew word pelilah, “proof,” as they demonstrate to all that the Divine Presence dwells among us.3

3. The Parchment Features Four Torah Passages

The scrolls of the tefillin are strips of parchment upon which four passages from the Torah are inscribed: Kadesh (Exodus 13:1-10), VeHayah Ki Yeviacha (Exodus 13:11-16), the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), and VeHayah Im Shamoa (Deuteronomy 11:13-21).

Read: How Tefillin Are Made

The four handwritten parchment scrolls, soon to be placed in a high-quality head tefillin. (Credit: Rabbi Yosef Y. Rabin, Craft Sofer)
The four handwritten parchment scrolls, soon to be placed in a high-quality head tefillin. (Credit: Rabbi Yosef Y. Rabin, Craft Sofer)

4. The Head Box Has Four Compartments

The hand tefillin consists of one large compartment, in which a single scroll inscribed with the four passages is inserted. The head tefillin, by contrast, contains four compartments, each holding a separate scroll with one of the four passages.

5. It Forms the Name Sha-dai

The head tefillin has the Hebrew letter shin protruding on each side. Both boxes feature leather straps, each with a distinctive knot: the head strap’s knot is in the shape of the Hebrew letter daled, while the knot of the hand tefillin is in the shape of the letter yud. Together, the letters shin, daled, and yud spell the Divine name of Sha-dai.

5. It Sports a Four-Headed Shin

The head tefillin has the Hebrew letter shin protruding on both sides. However, there is a difference between the two: while the shin on the right side features the usual three heads, the shin on the left side has four.

These two shins correspond to the two ways a letter can be formed: written or engraved. When written (as in a Torah scroll), the ink is applied to create three heads. When engraved (as on the two tablets), however, the three carved heads necessitate four segments of rock, in effect creating a shin with four heads.4

Additionally, the combined seven heads correspond to the seven branches of the menorah, and to the seven blessings recited before and after the Shema during the morning and evening prayers.5

6. They’re Painted Black

Many particulars of the mitzvah of tefillin are oral traditions going back to Moses, who heard them from G‑d on Mount Sinai. Among these oral traditions are the black color of the straps and the square shape of the boxes.

Although (according to most opinions) the black color applies only to the straps, the boxes should be painted black as well.6

Read: Why Are Tefillin Black?
What Is the “Oral Torah”?

7. They Can Cost Upwards of $300

Tefillin prices range between $300 and $1,000. Although all tefillin contain the same basic components, the price can vary dramatically based on subtle distinctions in quality. While these numbers may seem steep, a lot of skill and effort goes into making a pair of tefillin, and the raw materials are not cheap. Tefillin for below $250 may seem like a deal, but buyer beware, as they are very often not authentic.

Read: Purchasing Tefillin – A Buyer’s Guide

A trained scribe inspects a tefillin scroll (Photo: Eliyahu Parypa)
A trained scribe inspects a tefillin scroll (Photo: Eliyahu Parypa)

8. It’s Worn on the Weaker Arm

The arm tefillin is worn on the weaker side: right-handed people wear it on the left arm, and lefties wear it on the right.

One of the reasons for this is that in Exodus,7 when telling us to bind tefillin on the arm, the word yadcha (“your hand”) has an extra hei at the end (ידכה). The sages explain that the elongated word can thus be read as two words (יד כה), meaning “the weak arm.”8

Read: Why Is Tefillin Worn on the Left Arm?

9. The Donning Itself Is a Mitzvah

The commandment of donning tefillin is fulfilled just by putting on the tefillin, even if they are immediately removed. It is best, however, to wear them for the entire morning service. If this is not possible, at least say the Shema prayer before removing them.

Read: How to Put on Tefillin
The Shema: The Daily Declaration of Faith

A teen recites the Shema prayer while wearing tefillin (credit: Cteen)
A teen recites the Shema prayer while wearing tefillin (credit: Cteen)

10. There’s a Blessing for Them

After placing the hand tefillin on the bicep, but before tightening it, a blessing is recited:

Baruch atah Ado-nai, Elo-heinu melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu l’haniach tefillin.

Blessed are You, L‑rd our G‑d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to put on tefillin.

According to some opinions, a second blessing is recited after placing the head tefillin above the forehead, before tightening it:

Baruch atah Ado-nai, Elo-heinu melech ha’olam, asher kideshanu b’mitzvotav, v’tzivanu al mitzvat tefillin.

Blessed are You, L‑rd our G‑d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us regarding the mitzvah of tefillin.

Even according to those who maintain that the second blessing is generally not said, if one spoke between donning the arm tefillin and the head tefillin, the second blessing is recited.

Read: Is a Separate Blessing Recited on the Head Tefillin?

An Israeli soldier wearing tefillin in Jerusalem (Photo: Flash90/Mendy Hechtman)
An Israeli soldier wearing tefillin in Jerusalem (Photo: Flash90/Mendy Hechtman)

11. They’re Not Worn on Shabbat or at Night

Tefillin are wrapped every day (during daylight hours), except for Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Passover, and Shavuot. Many (including Chabad) also do not wear them during chol hamoed, the intermediate days of Sukkot and Passover.

The Torah9 refers to tefillin as a sign of the special bond between G‑d and the Jewish people. Shabbat and holidays are also a sign10 of this bond. Since there already is a sign on these days, the additional sign of the tefillin is superfluous and would demean the sign of the holiday.

Read: On Which Days Do We Not Wrap Tefillin? Do I Put on Tefillin During Chol Hamoed?

12. Some Wear Two Pairs

The tefillin contain scrolls of parchment inscribed with four passages from the Torah (see above, “The Parchment Features Four Torah Passages”). There are, however, differing opinions regarding the exact arrangement of these four passages.

According to Rashi, the correct order is Kadesh, VeHayah Ki Yeviacha, Shema, and VeHayah Im Shamoa (from right to left, from the view of one standing opposite the tefillin wearer). According to Rabbeinu Tam, however, the order is Kadesh, VeHayah Ki Yeviacha, VeHayah Im Shamoa, and Shema.

While the law follows Rashi’s opinion, many people have two pairs and wear both each day: Rashi’s tefillin are worn during the morning prayers, while Rabbeinu Tam’s tefillin are donned afterward.

Read: Why Do Some Wear Two Pairs of Tefillin?

13. They Influence Our Intellect, Emotions, and Actions

One of the boxes is placed on the arm so as to rest against the heart—the seat of emotion, and the leather strap is wound around the left arm and hand. The other box is placed on the head, above the forehead. This teaches us to dedicate ourselves to the service of G‑d in all that we think, feel, and do.

The tefillin help to achieve a spiritual alignment of mind, heart, and body, uniting our thoughts, feelings, and actions toward G‑d.

Read: Mind Over Heart, The Mind-Heart-Body Connection

14. They Bring Protection to Jews Worldwide

Commenting on the verse, “All the nations of the land will see that the name of G‑d is called upon you,”11 the sages declare that this refers to the tefillin worn on the head.

Wearing tefillin is important not just for the individual; it brings protection to the Jewish people as a whole. This is why, just before the outbreak of the Six-Day War in 1967, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, began a campaign to encourage Jewish men and boys to put on tefillin.

Watch a mini-documentary on the Tefillin Campaign
Read: 32 Amazing Tefillin Moments that Will Fill You with Jewish Pride

(Photo: Chabad of the Western Wall)
(Photo: Chabad of the Western Wall)

Tefillin is the mitzvah that binds our minds with our hearts and deeds, and allows a daily reunification within ourselves and with G‑d. Moreover, tefillin connect us to our past, to our future, and to our people. When you put on tefillin, you’ll be doing something that your great-great-grandfather did in exactly the same way, and you’re increasing the chances that your great-great-grandchildren will do it too.

For more information on tefillin, visit our tefillin mini-site.