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The Mysterious Tefillin Bookmark and Share
The Mysterious Tefillin
By: Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan

Have you ever felt so close to another human being that every moment together was precious? Where every letter and memento from this person was something to be treasured? What if this person gave you a meaningful gift? Every time you looked at it or used it, would it not remind you of this special relationship?

To the best of our understanding, God's very act of creation was an act of chesed, giving, and of love. It was a love so immense that the human mind cannot begin to fathom it.

Tefillin are a sign of this bond between God and man. Faith and love are very tenuous things. We can speak of them and think about them. But unless we do something about them we tend to forget; Tefillin serve to help us remember.

If you would open a pair of Tefillin, you would find that they contain four parchments. One of these parchments consists of the famous Sh'ma -- "Listen Israel, the Lord is our God, God is One." (1) Tefillin concretize for us that God created the universe, orchestrates world history and is intimately involved with our daily lives.

The essence of the Torah is its commandments, mitzvot in Hebrew. The word mitzvah comes from the root meaning "to bind." Every commandment or mitzvah serves to draw us close to God and strengthen this connection. (2)

With every mitzvah we forge a spiritual bond with God. In the case of Tefillin, this bond is physical as well as spiritual. We literally bind God's love symbol to our bodies. Thus, our sages teach us that the commandment of Tefillin encompasses all others. (3) Here, we can actually see and feel the bond.

Another important theme of the Tefillin is the Exodus from Egypt -- "And it shall be a sign... because with a strong hand God brought you out of Egypt." The Exodus took place over 3,000 years ago. But it still plays a most important role in Judaism.

To understand the reason for this, we must realize how Judaism differs from all other religions. Other religions begin with a single individual. He claims to have a special message and gradually gathers a following. His followers spread the word and gather converts, and a new religion is born. Virtually every world religion follows this pattern. The only exception is Judaism.

God gathered an entire people, three million strong, to the foot of Mount Sinai, and proclaimed His message. Every man, woman, and child heard God's voice decreeing the Ten Commandments. Thus was the bond forged between God and Israel. This took place just seven weeks after the Jews left Egypt. It was the climax of the drama of the Exodus.

This was an event unique in the history of mankind. It is most important not to forget...

The Torah tells us (Deut. 4:9, 10), "Be very careful and watch yourself, that you not forget the things you saw with your own eyes. Do not let them pass from your minds as long as you live. Teach them to your children, and to your children's children. The day when you stood before God..."

The parchments in the Tefillin speak of the Exodus.

The Tefillin thus serve to bind us to our past, especially to this unique event in our history. We can understand this on a deeper level. But first we must understand the true significance of the Exodus and Sinai. We must know what it means to say that an entire people heard God's voice.

To hear God's voice is no simple matter. Only prophets hear God's voice. What happened at Sinai -- was that an entire people, men, women and children achieved the level of prophecy.

There are many ways to approach God. You can approach Him on an intellectual level. You can ask questions and seek answers until you achieve some understanding of the Infinite. This is the realm of the philosopher.

You can seek God on a more intimate level, in prayer and in meditation. There may then come a time when your self ceases to exist and all your senses are numbed. Suddenly, a door seems to open if only by the slightest crack. You catch a glimpse of the Divine, and discover something more wonderful than anything on earth. Somehow you feel a unique closeness to God. To describe it would be as impossible as to describe the beauty of a sunset to a blind man. But you know it is there. The door has been opened to you, and you have peered through the crack.

This is the level of the mystic.

But sometimes the door is opened all the way. A person experiences more than merely a glimpse. He hears a clear voice and receives a lucid message. This is the highest possible human bond with God. It is the level of the prophet.

At Sinai, every Jew attained this level. Tefillin bring us back to this unique moment. Not many of us can be philosophers. Very few of us can attain the level of the mystic. Prophets no longer walk the earth.

But we can remember...

When we bind the Tefillin to our bodies, we relive the infinite bond of love that was forged at Sinai. There were tzadikim -- saints -- who achieved a mystical experience every time they put on Tefillin. They could feel the words of the parchments literally burning into their heart and soul. We may never achieve this level.

But we can begin...

God has given us the commandment of Tefillin and clearly spelled out how to do it. Tefillin may seem like simple boxes and straps. But they are much, much more.

When a man wears Tefillin, he binds himself to the very highest spiritual level. He achieves a closeness to God that even the deepest meditation could not accomplish. Of course, when a man wears Tefillin and also contemplates their significance, his very thoughts are elevated close to God. But even the physical act in itself can bring a man to the loftiest heights. We can also understand this in a much simpler sense.

In order to create this bond, our Tefillin must conform exactly to God's design. The slightest deviation breaks this link. A good analogy is that of a radio. A radio is specifically designed to receive a particular type of signal. Every element in it is needed for this. Cut a single wire, remove a single capacitor, no matter how small, and you no longer receive the signal. There are precise rules by which a radio must be built. These include all the laws of electromagnetism and circuits. If these are not exactly followed, the radio will not function.

Tefillin are our receiver for a specific spiritual signal. As such, they must be designed to receive this particular kind of signal. Violate a single rule, and they become like a radio with a transistor removed. The bond just no longer exists.

We can carry the analogy still further. You would have to have an extensive scientific education to even begin to understand how a radio works. You would have to know calculus and differential equations and all the complexities of electromagnetic theory. But still, even the youngest child can turn on a radio. The same is true of the mitzvot. A lifetime of study might lead you to begin to understand their significance But anyone can put them on and receive the signal.

For Women Only

You are most probably saying, "All this is very fine. Tefillin are a most wonderful way to bind yourself to God. But it is only for boys and men. Where do we come in?"

On a most simple level, the reason for the commandments is to establish a link with God. The most profound way to do this is to resemble Him. There is one unique way that women resemble God in a way that no man could ever hope to. Only a woman can create within her body. Only a woman can bear a child. In this sense, a woman partakes of God's attributes more intimately than any man.

The Kabbalists teach us that the hand Tefillin represent the feminine element. The single hollow section in the Tefillin box represents the womb, and the coils wrapped around the arm signify the umbilical cord. What a man partakes of with an object, a woman partakes of with her very body.

The box of Tefillin is called a Bayit -- literally a house. The woman also has her Bayit -- the home in which she raises a family. One could say that a woman's home is her Tefillin.

Women resemble God through their Tefillin, just as man does through his. The entire world is God's house, and the Divine attribute that tends to it is called the Shechinah or Divine Presence. It is interesting to note that the word Shechinah is of the feminine gender. The Kabbalists call it the Akeret HaBayit -- literally, the Mistress of the house.

There are two basic elements in Judaism, the home and the synagogue. Unlike other religions where the church is primary, Judaism treats the home and synagogue as being co-equal. Some of our most important rituals belong exclusively to the home, such as the Seder, the Succah, the Sabbath table, and the Chanukah lamp. The continuity of Judaism rests on the home more than anything else.

This Bayit -- the home -- is a woman's Tefillin. It is her contribution to the overall picture of God's purpose.

It is interesting to note that when God first gave the Jewish nation the Torah, God told Moses to instruct the women of Israel initially, and then subsequently teach the men of Israel. If the Torah does not enter the Jewish home first, symbolized and embodied by the Jewish women, there can be no continuity of Judaism. This spirit of Torah in the Jewish home (Bayit) is the same as the parchments of Torah in the Tefillin box (Bayit). But this is the domain of the woman.

Originally published in "Tefillin," by NCSY-OU, New York, 1986.


  1. See Sefer Mitzvot HaGadol (S'mag), positive commandments #3; Orech Chaim 25:5.
  2. Lekutey Moharan 4:6. Cf. Brachot 6b, Shabbos 30b; Rashi ad loc. "Mitzvot"
  3. Kiddushin 35a.