Dear Rabbi Fried,
Soon is my son’s bar mitzvah and I bought him tefillin to wear, because that’s what my father did for me at my bar mitzvah. To tell you the truth, that’s about all there is to it for all I know. The problem is that that’s not good enough for my little boy; he questions everything. He wants to know why we do this? What does it mean? Why are they black and you can’t order a set in your favorite color? Why are the knots the way they are? He doesn’t stop. And the bigger problem is that I have no idea what to answer any of his questions; can you please help me out here?
I consider your “problem” — your son questioning everything — a very good problem. His questions are excellent; every Jew should understand why we do what we do. Perhaps if we passed down the mitzvos with all their understanding, meaning and beauty, then far more Jews would observe the mitzvos, and those who already do would do so with more joy, pride and love.
Since we can’t possibly answer all the questions you posed in the space of one column, perhaps we’ll dedicate the next couple of columns to attempt to get a deeper understanding of tefillin.
Let’s begin by looking at the sources in the Torah. The primary source for donning tefillin is in the recitation of the “Shema Yisrael.” In this foundational recitation — by which we accept the belief in God, His Oneness or Unity and to love Him with all our heart, soul and might — the Torah says to bind all of these incredible messages upon our arm and head in the form of tefillin (and in the mezuzah) (Deuteronomy 6:4-9). We are meant to literally wear our belief system “on our sleeve.”
The simple meaning of the two tefillin is that binding this message upon our arm signifies our actions conforming with our beliefs. The wrapping seven times around the arm reminds us that we are to act in consonance with our belief in G-d all seven days of the week. The arm tefillin also tips toward the heart, representing that our actions emanate from a believing heart. They are also bound upon the head in order that these core concepts should deeply occupy our minds.
The commandment of tefillin appears three more times, teaching further that the tefillin are a remembrance of our miraculous birth as a nation: the Exodus from Egypt. (See Exodus 13:9, 19:16.) And finally, they are again mentioned in the second paragraph of the Shema, (Deuteronomy 11:18).
Clearly, the fact that the mitzvah of tefillin is repeated four times in the Torah punctuates its unique significance in the hierarchy of the mitzvah system.
Another practical lesson learned from the four-time repetition of this mitzvah is that all four sections of those commandments are to be written by an expert scribe upon parchment (like a Torah scroll) and inserted into the tefillin. This the essence of what the tefillin are, the four messages of their very commandments. In short, this means the following:
The section containing our obligation to remember the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 13:1-10).
Our obligation to transmit this tradition to our children (Exodus 13:11-16).
The Shema, speaking of God’s unity and our mutual bond of love (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).
The second paragraph of Shema, man’s responsibility toward God (Deuteronomy 11:13-21).
In the box upon the arm, all four sections are written upon one long parchment and inserted into the one box. In the box upon the head, which is made up of four separate chambers, the four sections are each written upon a separate parchment and inserted individually into their respective compartments.
This is the essence of the tefillin. Hopefully we will answer more of your questions and understand this more deeply in the columns to follow.
Dear Rabbi Fried,