1. Myth: Rashi’s Daughters Wore them

There is a persistent urban legend that the daughters of Rashi, the great medieval scholar whose commentaries span nearly the entire Tanach and Talmud, wore tefillin. This apocryphal tidbit is often cited as precedent by those who wish to argue that contemporary women should wear tefillin, just like men.

Interior of Rashi's home in Worms, Germany
Interior of Rashi's home in Worms, Germany

Fact: There Is No Evidence to Support This

Rashi had (at least) three daughters, who became the matrons of the the most prominent Ashkenazi rabbinic families. There is reason to believe that they were learned, as one would expect. However, there does not appear to be any support to 20th-century notion that they wore tefillin, a mitzvah that’s incumbent only upon men.

Read: Why Don’t Women Wear Tefillin?

2. Myth: Tefillin May Only Be Worn in the Morning

The vast majority of tefillin wearers put them on every day (except for Shabbat and holidays) for morning prayers and then remove them before going about their day. This has led to the misconception that tefillin may only be worn in the morning, and it is too late to wear them later on during the day.

Fact: Tefillin May Be Worn All Day

Tefillin may not be worn at night, but as long as the sun has not set, anyone who did not yet put on tefillin in the morning (which is ideal) should certainly do so then.

Watch: DIY Tefillin

3. Myth: The Boxes Are Made of Wood

I was once told by a museum tour guide that the tefillin boxes are made of wood, painted black. This is easy to imagine, considering that they are perfectly square, hard, and relatively light.

Teffillin boxes being crafted by a "batim-macher" - crafter of boxes. While the texture looks and feels quite similar to wood, they are in fact made of leather.
Teffillin boxes being crafted by a "batim-macher" - crafter of boxes. While the texture looks and feels quite similar to wood, they are in fact made of leather.

Fact: They Are Animal Hide

Tefillin boxes are made of animal hide. The higher quality variety, which can last a lifetime, are made of the hide of an ox, softened with chemicals, stretched, and then set into shape with special molds, pressured by hydraulic presses. The more basic kind is made of thick pieces of parchment that are folded and glued together like an origami creation.

Read: Maimonides’ Instructions for Tefillin Box Creation

4. Myth: The Head Tefillin Are Placed on the Forehead

This myth actually has a Biblical basis, as we read in the Torah, “and they shall be frontlets for you between your eyes.” Perhaps because of this verse, it’s not uncommon for people to place the tefillin low on the forehead, sometimes so low that it actually sits between the eyes.

(c) Coby Engelhart
(c) Coby Engelhart

Fact: Tefillin Go Just Above the Hairline

The sages have been battling this myth since Talmudic times, declaring that wearing tefillin low on the forehead is “the way of the heretical sects.” Rather, the proper place for the head tefillin is the spot where “a baby’s head is soft,” above the hairline.

5. Myth: If I Got It at a Judaica Store, It Must Be Kosher

Many people believe that if they purchase tefillin from a Jewish establishment (or online from a website with a Jewish sounding name, decorated with Stars of David), they must be kosher.

A rabbi presents a group of Israeli soldiers with a special gift - Their own pairs of kosher tefillin.
A rabbi presents a group of Israeli soldiers with a special gift - Their own pairs of kosher tefillin.

Fact: There Are Lots of Crooks Out There

If tefillin are being sold for under $350, proceed with caution. It is generally not feasible to pay for the skilled labor and raw materials that go into a kosher pair of tefillin for much less. However, even if you are paying more, the only way you can know for sure that you are getting the real deal is by purchasing from a merchant or scribe that you personally know to be reputable or who has been recommended by someone you trust.

In fact, it is perfectly acceptable (and probably a good idea) to take your freshly purchased tefillin to a scribe for inspection. While some flaws are invisible, the scribe will be able to give you a pretty accurate picture of what you have purchased.

Visit: The Chabad.org Judaica Store

6. Myth: Someone’s Making a Killing

When faced with the prospect of paying top dollar for a new pair of tefillin, it’s normal for consumers to suspect that someone is taking advantage of them and getting rich off their naivete.

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

Fact: The Numbers Make Sense

As just explained, making a pair of tefillin is extremely labor intensive and requires painstaking effort, involving tanners, scribes, and others. When you add it all together, and realize that the shopkeeper needs to make a living as well, you suddenly begin to wonder how the tefillin can even be sold so reasonably.

Read: A Buyer’s Guide to Tefillin

7. Myth: People Know What Phylacteries Are

In an effort to explain to outsiders what tefillin are, people sometimes say, “Sure, these are phylacteries,” as if that somehow makes everything crystal clear.

Fact: Very Few People Speak Latin

It is true that “phylactery” (which was originally Greek and then Latin) is technically an English word. But it is virtually unused these days by anyone who does not know what tefillin are. Looking for an English term? Try “prayer boxes.” Or better yet, say “tefillin,” and teach them something they don’t yet know.

Read: What Are Tefillin?

8. Myth: Rabbenu Tam “Invented” Another Kind of Tefillin

Many pious Jews wear two sets of tefillin, one with the parchments inside arranged according to the tradition espoused by Rashi, and a second pair following the teachings of his grandson, Rabbenu Tam. Believing that Rebbenu Tam is the origin of this second form of tefillin, many wonder how he suddenly burst onto the Jewish scene with an alternative to something so established. Could they not have opened up their grandfathers’ tefillin and showed him what was proper?

Fact: The Dispute Predates Rashi and Rabbenu Tam

It is true that one format was championed by Rashi and the other by Rabbeinu Tam, but these two modalities had already been in use for generations.

9. Myth: You Only Need to Wear Them at Your Bar Mitzvah

Learning to put on tefillin is a big part of becoming a bar mitzvah and often takes center stage in the festivities. There is, however, the unfortunate phenomenon of boys setting aside their tefillin after bar mitzvah and rarely putting them on again.

Tradition passed down to another generation: A grandfather helps his grandson don his tefillin (Credit: Serraf Studio)
Tradition passed down to another generation: A grandfather helps his grandson don his tefillin (Credit: Serraf Studio)

Fact: Bar Mitzvah Is Just the Beginning

Putting on tefillin is something a Jewish man does daily (besides for Shabbat and Jewish holidays) for his entire life. Bar mitzvah is the beginning, not the end!