Halacha L’Moshe MiSinai
Volume 2: Number 8
November 14, 2005
Mitzvah #8 & 9: To Wear Tephillin
Mitzvah 8 & 9
It is a positive commandment to bind tephillin on your arm
It is a positive commandment to put tephillin on your head
Hafetz Hayim: Scripture states, “And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.” (Deut. 6:8) The place to put tephillin on your arm is on the biceps, at the raised part. The place to put the head tephillin is at the spot where an infant’s skull is soft. The boxes contain parchments of scripture that speak of accepting the yoke of the kingship of heaven. In the head tephillin there are four compartments with a parchment in each compartment. In the hand tephillin, there is one compartment and all four verses are on one parchment in that box. Wearing tephillin requires a clean body. Wearing tephillin on a clean body lengthens one’s life. (See Jeremiah 38:16 and the Rashi in the Talmud Menachot44b) One should touch the tephillin from time to time while wearing them so as not to take our mind off of them even for a moment. While wearing tephillin one should be humble, G-d fearing and should not be drawn into frivolity or idle talk. They should encourage one to think of words of truth. It is in force everywhere and at every time, for men but not for women.
There is a lot to cover here. Hand tephillin is worn on the bicep of the “weaker” arm. If you are right handed, it is put on the left arm. If you are a leftie, it goes on your right arm. It is affixed right on the bicep and the slipknot is tightened. The long strap is then wound seven times around the lower part of the arm between the elbow and the wrist. The slack is wound around the hand. Then the head tephillin are placed with the knot at the base of the skull and the box just above the hairline (or where the hairline used to be) the knot is fixed so it must be sized for the head of the one who wears it. Both boxes must rest on the body with nothing between the box and the skin/hair. There are two blessings, one for each box as it is placed on the body. There is a third passage that is recited when one winds the straps of the arm tephillin around the hand (after the head tephillin is in place). This strap is wound around the middle finger three times and then worn in a way that spells out the Hebrew word “Shaddai” which is a name for G-d. Tephillin is worn on weekdays and not on Shabbat or Holidays.
The body must be clean lest the dirt create a barrier between the box and the skin. The passages in the boxes are from the Torah and refer to wearing tephillin. When one wears them for the first time it is awkward, but with time, it become very natural. Wearing tephillin slows us down when we pray so that we can concentrate on the words that we are saying. The parchments inside do fade over time and should be checked and repaired once every seven years or so. A Sofer, a scribe who writes a Torah or a mezuzah can repair tephillin as well.
To the Hafetz Hayim, only men wear tephillin, but in the Conservative Movement women can wear tephillin as well. It is not a “one time” decision, however. Women who wish to wear tephillin should commit to wearing it daily for the foreseeable future, and not just to seem fashionable or due to peer pressure. It should remind all wearers of the importance of daily prayer and to help focus on the words that we pray.
Next week: Mitzvah 10: To put fringes on the corners of our garments
Gabriel Greenberg asks: You say that “It is necessary to pray with the focused attention of the heart; one should turn his heart away from every thought, and she should see himself as though standing before the presence of G-d.” I’m taking a course this semester in historical trends of Jewish mysticism and this method of “turn(ing) his heart away from every thought” sounds very similar to that of the ecstatic kabbalah practiced by Abraham Abulafia. From what I’ve learned in this course, Abulafia prescribes a method of meditation in which the first step is clearing the mind of all earthly things. I guess my question is, to what extent have Jewish mystical tendencies influenced the way Jews of all groups (Orthodox, Conservative, and Reformed) pray? I understand that all Hasidic groups are of a mystical bent, but the passage quoted above seems to indicate that all Jews, at least when they are praying, should be aspiring to a mystical “meeting with G-d.” Is this the case, or am I misinterpreting some nuances of the lesson?
Rabbi responds: While mainstream Judaism and Kabbalistic Judaism seem to differ over how one should concentrate on the words they pray, both agree that one should focus on the words we pray and not let them become rote. The Sages of the Talmud used to take an hour to warm up to be ready to pray. Abulafia spells out a particularly kabbalistic way to get focused on prayer, but all Jews must learn, in one way or another, to focus their minds and hearts on the words we pray.
Riccardo Di Capua writes: Maybe He does not get anything from our prayers; maybe He does not hear them; maybe He does not even care. The fourth reason is that we pray because man NEEDS to pray, regardless. There is a support website for a particularly cruel disease. One column deals with what the patient can, should, cannot and should not do when stricken by it. The column on the other side of the website deals with the immediate family. Item Number One is “Pray: it will make you feel better.” There is no mention of speedy return to health, but rather as you so aptly put it, changes the way the family members live each terrible day.
Rabbi responds: We can never know what G-d gets from our prayers. G-s is so far beyond our conception that it is hard to understand how our finite words can affect an infinite G-d. But as I said and you so ably illustrated, Prayer has the ability to change the way we see the world and our place within it. It is said that President Lincoln, during the battle of Gettysburg, left the situation room at the White House and returned a short time later with his stress greatly reduced. When asked where he went, he is said to have replied, “I went to pray. I told G-d that I had done all I could to save the Union and now it was in His hands. I am not as worried anymore since whatever may happen is G-d’s will”. Did G-d want the Union to be saved? Who knows?! But prayer certainly helped President Lincoln through some hard times.