For the week ending 4 November 2023 / 20 Cheshvan 5784

Taamei Hamitzvos

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Reasons Behind the Mitzvos: Tefillin

421. Tefillin of the arm; 422. Tefillin of the head

(Shemos 13:1-16; Devarim 6:4-9; 11:13-21)

“And it shall be for you a sign on your arm and a reminder between your eyes, so that Hashem’s Torah will be in your mouth, for Hashem took you out of Egypt with a strong hand.” (Shemos 13:9)

One should intend with the placement of [the tefillin] that the Holy One, blessed is He, commanded us to place these four passages [that are enclosed within each of the tefillin boxes], which discuss Hashem’s unity and the Exodus from Egypt, on the arm against the heart [which is on the left side of the chest], and on the head against the brain. Thereby, we will remember the miracles and wonders that He performed for us, which demonstrate His unity, and that He has the power and dominion over the Heavens and the earth to manipulate them according to His will. One should subjugate to the Holy One, blessed is He, his soul, which in the brain, and also the heart, which is the seat of the desires and thoughts, and thereby he will remember His Creator, [to fulfill His desire,] and minimize the fulfillment of his own desires (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, 25:5).

The Mitzvah

It is a mitzvah to place on the arm and on the head, throughout the day, tefillinboxes that contain the four passages of the Torah in which the mitzvah of tefillinis mentioned. These discuss fundamental ideas pertaining to our relationship with Hashem, and their common theme is our subjugation to Him, the One and Only God Who took us out of Egypt, which we demonstrate and remember by wearing tefillin.

The first passage, “Kadesh Li,” speaks of the mitzvah of remembering the Exodus, the symbol of our relationship with Hashem, for it was then that He revealed Himself and became our G-d. The second passage, “V’haya ki y’viacha,” continues the theme of the first passage, and adds that Hashem smote the firstborn Egyptians, which confirmed our status as His chosen people. The third passage, “Shema,” proclaims that Hashem our God is one, and that we are therefore obligated to love Him with all of one’s soul, heart, and resources. The fourth passage, “V’haya im shmo’a,” discusses the idea of reward and punishment, for serving Hashem or for straying from His will. When a person wears the tefillin, he should meditate upon these ideas so that he will live according to them. Whoever sees the tefillinrecalls the Exodus and talk about it. There is a special obligation to wear them during the recital of the Shema and the Shemoneh Esrei each weekday morning, in order to fortify these two expressions of subjugation to Hashem.

Some relate the word “tefillin” to the word “pellilah,” a testimonial, for it demonstrates that Hashem’s name is called upon the Jewish People. Others understand that it is related to a homonymous word that means “thought,” which indicates that a person must constantly meditate upon the ideas represented by the tefillin. A third opinion associates it with the word “tafel,” meaning “attached,” for the tefillinare attached to the head and arm. Yet another opinion suggests that it comes from the word “tefillah,” prayer, since tefillinare worn primarily at that time.

Signs of Subjugation

Man is earthly, and therefore naturally inclined to lowliness and sin. The tefillin serve to remind us of our lofty relationship with Hashem and our obligations towards him. Hashem gave them to us to wear in the same way a human master gives his slave with a badge or a uniform to wear.

The tefillinare worn against the heart and eyes, the main catalysts of sin in the human body, as the Sages state, “The eye sees, then the heart covets, and then the body commits the sin.” The arm-tefillinare worn on the left arm because it is closest to the heart. In addition, the right arm, which is the primary arm, needs to be unburdened and fully available for its regular functions. The straps of the arm-tefillinare tied along the arm and the hand, indicating that our actions are bound to the symbolism of the tefillinthat is upon our hearts. It would appear that the straps of the head-tefillinthat extend down along the body similarly indicate that the symbolism of the tefillinsanctifies our bodies.

The passages are placed in a single compartment in the arm-tefillin, but in four separate compartments in the head-tefillin. This is because the arm-tefillin corresponds to the sense of feel, symbolized primarily by the arm and hand, whereas the head-tefillin corresponds to the four senses of the head: sight, hearing, smell, and taste. In addition, the single compartment of the arm-tefillinindicates the simple faith of the heart, while the compartmented head-tefillinindicates the complex intellectualization of the mind. Thus, the arm-tefillin are placed first, to symbolize that we are to fulfill Hashem’s commandments in deed even before we comprehend them fully.

Hashem gave us other symbols of slavery as well: Shabbos and Yom Tov. They are in fact greater than that of tefillin, for they are Hashem’s own symbols. As such, it is unnecessary, and even disrespectful, to place tefillinon Shabbos and Yom Tov. The Zohar compares one who places tefillinon these days to a slave who removes the more important badge of slavery that his master personally adorned upon him, and wears his own badge instead.

Crowned with the Shechinah

There is a more subliminal level of meaning in the subjugation symbolized by the tefillin. A slave to a human master is lowered by his subjugation, while a slave to Hashem is elevated. Our badge of slavery, the tefillin,alludes to the Divine Presence that rests upon every Jew.

Thus, there is a shin etched on each side of the head-tefillin, a letter that represents Hashem’s name. In addition, it combines with the letter dalet of the knot of the head tefillinand the letter yud of the knot of the arm-tefillinto form the Divine name Sha-dai. In the same way black does not change color when other colors are added to it, so too, Hashem, Who is represented by the tefillin, is eternally one. The color black also symbolizes the depth and concealment of their meaning. The four-sided cubic shape of the tefillinboxes alludes to four-letter name of Hashem. The shin on the right side has three heads, corresponding to the three Patriarchs, on the shin on the left side has four heads, corresponding to the four Matriarchs, in whose merit the Divine Presence rests upon the Jewish people. The boxes are sewn with twelve stitches, four on each side, alluding to the twelve tribes of Israel, who encamped on the four sides of Mishkan. In addition, the gematria value of two shin’sand three and four is 613; thus, the tefillinallude to our obligation to observe 613 mitzvos.

The straps of the head-tefillinextend downward, alluding to that which Hashem’s Presence fills the world and controls it. The strap on the right side extends at least until the navel, symbolizing that Hashem’s dominion on high extends down to earth, and especially to the center of the world, Eretz Yisrael.

The tefillinthus serve to elevate us and to distinguish us from amongst the nations that do not share our bond with the Creator. With regard to the head-tefillin, which is displayed for all to see, the verse states: “Then all the peoples of the earth will see that the name of Hashem is proclaimed upon you, and they will revere you.”

*Sources: Rashi and Chizkuni to Shemos 13:9;Tosafos to Menachos 34b; Shoshanim LeDavid; Aruch (tafel); Mayim Chaim, by Rabbi Yosef Masas (Orach Chaim §38); see also Pri Megadim (Orach Chaim §25, Eishel Avraham §8);Maharal, Gevuros Hashem (Ch. 39); Chinuch;Zohar cited in Beis Yosef (Orach Chaim §31); Rav Shimshon R. Hirsch (Devarim 6:8); Menachos 37b; Chizkuni (13:16);Tzror HaMor to Shemos 13:5; Maadanei Melech to Devarim 6:8; Kuzari (3:11); Alshich (11:18); Chidushei Aggados L’Rashba (Berachos 6a); EliyahRabbah (Orach Chaim §25); Rabbeinu Bachya (Shemos 13); Ateres Zekeinim §11; Tzioni to Shemos 12:12; Eliyah Rabbah (see also Beis Yosef §32); Raavan in his commentary to the prayer “Shochen ad”; Kad HaKemach; Matteh Moshe (Tefillin §16); Beis Yosef (Orach Chaim §31).

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