My apologies for the Pesach interlude while in the midst of answering your questions regarding your son’s Tefillin for his bar mitzvah. Now we’re back on track, and we’ll proceed to attempt to address the rest of your questions.
You asked what is the meaning of the various knots which are tied in the Tefillin straps. The knots are tied in a fascinating way, together spelling the name of G-d, Sha-dai; the Hebrew letters shin, dalet and yud (which is the same name of G-d on the outside of the mezuzah, hence the letter shin often symbolically carved on the mezuzah case).
The head Tefillin actually has the letter shin engraved upon it, and the letter shin is formed upon the hand when the strap is wrapped around the hand (in Ashkenazic and many other customs). The letter dalet is formed by the knot tying the head Tefillin. The yud is formed by the knot tying the hand tefillin. In this way, the Jew donning his Tefillin is enwrapped and cloaked by the name of G-d.
The Talmud says that this is in fulfillment of the verse,” And all the peoples of the earth shall see that the Name of G-d is called upon you and they shall be awed by you” (Deuteronomy. 28:10; see Talmud Menachos 35b). There are numerous stories throughout Jewish history in which Jews were saved or rescued by virtue of the awe-struck state of their persecutors when they were confronted by Jews wearing their Tefillin, cloaked by the Name of G-d and glowing with the holiness of His name. Sadly, that wasn’t always the case, such as many less happy endings in the Holocaust.
This concept is further alluding to a very deep connection between G-d and the Jewish people. The Talmud, (Berachos 6a) teaches that “G-d wears Tefillin.” Our Tefillin mirror His “Tefillin”; the awe the nations have for us when wearing Tefillin is indicative of the awe of G-d Himself. In our Tefillin, it says “Shema Yisrael … our Lord is One,” in the Al-mighty’s Tefillin it says, “Who is like Your people, Israel, One nation on earth…” (I Chron. 17:21). The Tefillin are an expression of the deep, intimate connection, the bonding of love and respect between G-d and the Jewish people.
This statement is actually one of the most mysterious teachings in the entire Talmud. G-d wears Tefillin? We believe G-d has no physical body. We are furthermore taught that when Moses asked G-d to show him the secret of Divine Providence, G-d showed him the “knot of His head Tefillin.” What does this mean?
One way of understanding this is the vital importance of Jewish history. Although we can’t fathom G-d directly, we can have insight into His ways by looking back into history, seeing how He interacts with us in myriad situations. This is the hint into G-d’s “Tefillin,” which are allegorically referring to His connection with us; the knot on the back of the head Tefillin — hinting to looking back into history. (This I heard in my youth from R’ Ahron Soloveichik ob’m).
We can follow this thought to another level. The deep sources teach us that chesed (love and kindness) are reflected in the right hand and din;(strict judgement) and power are in the left. This, teach the Kabbalistic sages, goes back to the source of creation and the emanations of G-d’s attributes in the highest spiritual worlds. The crown above it all, which is the source of all emanations, is the place where the Tefillin rest (see Tikunei Zohar 17a).
An insight into the meaning of this is that G-d exercises His midos, or traits, in controlling the world, which at times seem contradictory, such as kindness and judgement. In truth, however, they all go back to the Oneness of G-d; they all fit into His master plan. The purpose, above all, is the Jewish people which manifest His purpose in creation through their teaching and fulfillment of Torah; a light unto the nations.
That is the crown of the Tefillin; the purpose which towers above and beyond all purposes in G-d’s creation and Providence. The two Tefillin straps, one resting on the right and one on the left, represent the two opposing main character traits of kindness and judgement. These two straps are bonded together in the knot which holds the head Tefillin, the crown, in place; bonding together these two opposing traits into one unity of purpose emanating from the crown of the Oneness of G-d and the Jewish people.
This is the profound message of the knot of the head Tefillin – on the back of the head; back into history – where these seemingly cross-purposes of Providence meld into one as they emanate from the crown, the source of all purpose, from the Al-mighty. (See more in The Aryeh Kaplan Anthology II, NCSY Press, pages 253-9).
When we view the mitzvos from their deeper perspective, even the most seemingly trivial details reveal a treasure-trove of depth and meaning.