Talmud Tips

For the week ending 2 June 2018 / 19 Sivan 5778

Zevachim 37 - 43

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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When Hebrew is a Foreign Language

Rabbi Akiva said: ‘Tot’ in Kafti (the name of a place — Rashi) means ‘two,’ and ‘fot’ in Afriki (presumably another foreign place) means ‘two.’

This is how Rabbi Akiva in our sugya explains the meaning of an enigmatic word, “tot-a-fot,” found in Shmot 13:16. The verse states: “And it shall be for a sign upon your hand and for totafot between your eyes, for with a mighty hand did G-d take us out of Egypt.” Rabbi Akiva says that the meaning of the word totafot is as simple as two plus two! From here we see that there are a total of four compartments in the tefillin shel rosh (head tefillin). This teaching of Rabbi Akiva is one way that Rashi explains the word totafot in his commentary on the Chumash.

Tosefot asks why, based on Rabbi Akiva’s explanation, there should not actually be twelve compartments, since the word totafot is in fact written three separate times (Shmot 13:16 , Devarim 6:8 and Devarim 11:18). One answer that Tosefot cites is from Rabbeinu Yehuda of Corville: One word is for the mitzvah of tefillin, and the other two times are to express a total of four in each one of the Kafti and Afriki languages.

Are there any other indications in our sources about the meaning of the word totafot? Targum Onkelos here translates the word totafot in a straightforward manner as “tefillin.” Rav S.R. Hirsch writes that the root of the word totafot is not clear, but that we find this word also in Shas (Shabbat 57b), where it refers to an ornament on one’s forehead. In this sense the tefillin can be understood as a type of crown, suggests Rav Hirsch.

A second meaning that Rashi offers in his commentary on the Torah is that the word totafot means “speech,” and conveys that whoever sees the tefillin shel rosh will remember the miracles that G-d did for the Jewish People during the Exodus from Egypt and will speak greatly about it. Rashi bases this on similar root-words that appear in Tanach.

Another insight into the Torah’s use of the word totafot for tefillin: The gematria of “u’l’totafot bein eineicha” (“and for totafot beween your eyes” — equals the same numerical value as in the phrase “eleh arba’ah batim” — “these are four compartments” — and therefore hints to the same idea as expressed in our gemara that the tefillin shel rosh is comprised of four compartments. (Ba’al Haturim)

There is famous question that is asked on Rabbi Akiva’s statement that the word totafot in the Torah is in fact a compound of two words in foreign languages. Why does the Torah describe the mitzvah of tefillin with foreign words and not with Lashon Hakodesh (the Holy Tongue), the language of the Torah? One answer that I have heard is based on the Dor Hapelaga, the generation that was dispersed throughout the world at the time of the Tower of Babel. The Torah states that before the nations were dispersed, they all spoke one language, Lashon Hakodesh (Ber. 11:1 and Rashi). Together, the nations conspired to build a great “city and tower” in order to wage a war against G-d, as it were (Rashi). However, G-d foiled their plan and scattered them throughout the world, with each nation speaking a different foreign language that made for the communication between them virtually impossible. Nevertheless, remnants and “sparks” of Lashon Hakodesh were interspersed within their foreign languages. As a result, we should not be surprised to find words in the Torah that seem to be foreign, since those foreign words actually originally came from Lashon Hakodesh. This shows that even objects of “mundane” existence are also imbued with holiness by the Creator.

Regarding the tefillin shel rosh, why do we put it on after the tefillin shel yad, and why do we take it off first? Chazal teach that “the eyes see, the heart desires and the limbs of action transgress (Midrash Tanchuma in Rashi on Bamidbar 15:39). The hand tefillin is on a limb of action, and is also next to the heart. It thus represents and protects us from two of the three “sin-components” mentioned in the Midrash — the heart and the hand. The head tefillin, however, represents only one such factor — the eyes. By putting tefillin on the hand/heart first, and by removing the hand/heart tefillin last, we provide ourselves greater protection. (Kli Yakar)

  • Zevachim 37b

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