views updated


TEFILLIN (Heb. תְּפִלִּין; usually translated "phylacteries"; sing. tefillah – see Men. 4:1; Mik. 10:3), two black leather boxes containing scriptural passages which are bound by black leather straps on the left hand and on the head and worn for the morning services on all days of the year except Sabbaths and scriptural holy days (see below). In four passages of the Bible (Ex. 13:1–10 and 11–16; Deut. 6:4–9 and 11:13–21) there occurs the almost identical passage requiring the Jew to put "these words" (of the Law) for "a sign upon thy hand and a frontlet between thine eyes." (Only in the first does "zikkaron" – "memorial" – occur instead of totafot – "frontlets.") Both the passages of Deuteronomy state explicitly, "and thou shalt bind them," while the two passages in Exodus merely say, "and they shall be."

Of all the commentators on the Bible only the 12th-century commentator Samuel b. Meir takes this command as a figurative one. In his commentary on Exodus 13:9 he says: "according to the essence of its literal meaning it means 'it shall ever be as a memorial as though it were written upon thy hand,' as in the verse: 'Set me as a seal upon thy heart as a seal upon thine arm.'" (Song 8:6; Abraham ibn Ezra suggests the same explanation but rejects it.) Apart from this, it was accepted that the verse had to be taken literally and that the words of the Scripture had to be bound on the hand and placed (on the forehead) between the eyes. The portions selected for the fulfillment of this commandment were the four above-mentioned passages which constitute the tefillin.

The rabbis were aware of the fact that apart from these verses there is no explicit reference to this ceremony or the manner in which it was to be fulfilled in the Bible, and they regarded it as the classic example of a biblical law whose details are wholly "of the Scribes" and immutable (Sanh. 88b); it is, indeed, a perfect example of an injunction whose method of performance is the result of the Oral Law. The Samaritans did not wear them (Men. 42b).

The tefillin are first mentioned in the Letter of *Aristeas (159), but only the tefillah of the hand: "and upon our hands too, He [God] expressly orders the symbols to be fastened." Josephus (Ant. 4:213) mentions both, that of the head before the hand. The rabbis regarded them as having been instituted at the earliest times, and in a discussion as to whether the incident of Ezekiel in the Valley of Dead Bones was a vision or a fact, "Judah b. Bathyra stood up and said, 'I am one of their descendants and these are the tefillin which my grandfather handed down to me from them'" (Sanh. 92b).

Tefillin are mentioned once in the New Testament under the peculiarly inappropriate name of "phylacteries" (Gr. φυλακτήριον, "amulet"), and this name has been universally adopted as the English equivalent of the word. (For the meaning of the word, see later.) It is part of the diatribe against the Pharisees, "But all their works they do to be seen of men; they make broad their phylacteries" (Matt. 23:5). This charge of the demonstrative nature of the commandment is, in fact, confirmed by the rabbis, who interpret the verse "and all the peoples of the earth shall see that the name of the Lord is called upon thee" (Deut. 28:10) to refer to "the tefillin of the head" (Ber. 6a).

The tefillin were worn by day, but not at night; it is even stated that "he who wears tefillin at night transgresses a positive commandment" (tj, Ber. 2:3, 4c), but it is doubtful whether they were generally worn all day. Both of Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai (Suk. 28a) and his disciple Eliezer b. Hyrcanus (tj, Ber. 2:3, 4c) in Ereẓ Israel, as well as of Ada b. Ahavah in Babylon (Ta'an. 20b), it is stated that they "never walked four cubits without wearing phylacteries," suggesting that this was an act of special piety. They were worn only by men, but according to a baraita, "Michal the daughter of the Cushite [i.e., Saul, cf. mk 16b] wore tefillin and the sages did not protest" (Er. 96a).

There is evidence of a certain laxity in the fulfillment of this commandment during the talmudic period. It is stated that because the Jews did not risk martyrdom for them during the Hadrianic persecution "the precept is still weak with them" (Shab. 130a). It is, however, certain that the injunction was largely disregarded both in France and in Spain in the 12th and 13th centuries. This is specifically stated (Tos. Shab. 49a), and Jacob Tam actually quotes the talmudic passage in extenuation of this laxity (ibid.), contending that the statement that "a head which does not wear tefillin is of a willful sinner of Israel" (rh 17a) refers only to one who refuses to wear them out of defiance or contempt. Little more than half a century later Moses of Coucy states: "In the year 1236 I was in Spain to reprove them…and there was a wholesale repentance and thousands and tens of thousands accepted the duty of donning tefillin … and so it was in other lands, and afterward my admonitions were accepted in all these places" (Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, Positive Commandment 3).

Nevertheless, it would be erroneous to regard the difference of opinion between Rashi and his grandson Tam as to the correct order of the paragraphs in the tefillah of the head as proof that it was a re-innovation at the time, as the discovery of the tefillin in the Dead Sea area shows (see later).

Order of Passages

As stated, both the tefillin of the hand and of the head contain the four paragraphs. Whereas in the tefillah of the hand they are written on one piece of parchment and in the order of their occurrence in the Bible, the tefillah of the head is instead divided into four compartments, and the four paragraphs – each written on a separate piece of parchment and tied – are inserted in them. Only according to Rashi are they inserted in the order of their occurrence; according to R. Tam, the passage from Deuteronomy 11:13–21 precedes that of Deuteronomy 6:4–9.

This is practically the only difference of opinion found with regard to the tefillin. Rashi's order has been universally accepted, although a small but diminishing number of individuals of especial piety, in view of possible doubt, substitute "R. Tam's tefillin" for those "of Rashi" for the concluding part of the service. Apart from that there is a remarkable uniformity of custom and procedure which applies to all rites and communities, and, with a few differences which will be noted, the details which follow are universal.

Both the tefillin are cubical boxes ("square") of leather painted black (Men. 35a). The parchment must be made from the skins of ritually clean animals (ibid., 42b, Sanh. 48b), preferably of a calf (oḤ 32:44), and the scriptural passages written on them in square ("Assyrian") script, like that of the Sefer Torah. The aperture into which the parchment is inserted is closed with a square piece of thick leather (titora) and stitched with 12 stitches of gut made from clean animals (Shab. 8b). Protruding from the back of the tefillin case is a hollow extension (ma'barta) through which the straps are passed. These straps must also be made from the hide of clean animals and be black on the outside.

The arrangement of the straps is conditioned by the purpose to which they are put. That of the hand tefillah is in the form of a noose to enable it to be tightened on the arm; that of the head has a circlet, tied with a knot, its size adjusted to the circumference of the head, the two ends hanging loosely.

Under the influence of the Kabbalah the word שַׁדַּי (Shaddai; Almighty) is represented on both tefillin. In the case of the tefillin of the head it is represented by the letter ש inscribed on the box on both sides, that on the right having the normal letter with three strokes, that on the left with four. The knot is made in the shape of a ד while the י is represented by the end of the strap. In the case of the hand tefillah the strap is wrapped on the hand in the shape of the ש and the ר and the knot at the end is in the shape of the י.

The order of donning the tefillin is meticulously laid down. They are put on after the tallit. That of the hand is put on first, placed on the upper arm ("opposite the heart"), and the noose is tightened when the blessing to lay the tefillin is recited. The plain spelling of the word "thy hand" (יָדְכָה) in Exodus 13:16 was interpreted to mean "the weak hand" (יָד כֵּהָה), and a left-handed person therefore places it on his right hand, though it is not "opposite the heart"; the strap is wound seven times round the arm between the elbow and the wrist. The Ashkenazim wind it anti-clockwise, in an inward manner, the Sephardim (followed by the Ḥasidim) clockwise. The head tefillah is then put on, care being taken that it lies above the middle of the forehead and all on the hair of the head, the knot resting on the nape of the neck, the two loose ends being made to hang down in front. The blessing "on the commandment of the tefillin" is recited at the time. Since, however, according to one opinion, the second blessing is superfluous, it was instituted that after reciting it, it be, so to speak "neutralized" by adding the words "blessed be the name of His glorious kingdom for ever." The remaining part of the strap of the hand tefillah is then wrapped in a prescribed manner on the hand and the middle finger of the hand to form the abovementioned ש and ד, while Hosea 2:21–2 is recited. Palestinian scholars in the talmudic period were accustomed to recite a benediction (Lishmor ḥukkav – to observe His commandments) when they took off the tefillin (Ber. 44b). However, tosafot (ibid.) point out that they used to wear tefillin all day and recite the benediction at night.

Tefillin are worn on all weekdays, but not on Sabbaths and festivals. The reason given in the Talmud (Men. 36b) is that they are called "a sign," but the Sabbath itself is so called (Ex. 31:17), and the same rule was applied to festivals. In the Diaspora, Ḥasidim do not don tefillin during the intermediate days of the festivals while Mitnaggedim do; in Israel, it is the universal custom not to wear them on the intermediate days.

The duty of laying tefillin begins when a boy reaches his religious majority, i.e., at the age of 13 years and a day, but he usually begins to do so a few weeks earlier for practice. Among Oriental communities a special ceremony is held to celebrate it. Since the tefillin are a "pe'er" (a "diadem of glory"; see later) they are not worn on the morning of Tishah be-Av, their donning being postponed to the Minḥah service (in some German congregations this applies to other fast days also), nor by a bereaved person before the burial; various other categories are temporarily exempt, either because of inability to concentrate (e.g., a bridegroom on his wedding day) or because the body is unclean (Shab. 49a). Similarly, they must not be worn in a cemetery, in an unclean place (Ber. 18a), or while asleep.

The Talmud stresses the supreme importance of the tefillin. Even God dons them (Ber. 6a), hearing the verse, "who is like thy people Israel, one people on earth (i Chron. 17:21)" (Ber. 62). A person who does not put them on is a willful transgressor. God surrounded Israel with seven precepts, including "tefillin on their heads, tefillin on their arms," and "whosoever has the tefillin on his head, the tefillin on his arm, ẓiẓit on his garment and the mezuzah on his doorpost is fortified against sinning" (Men. 43b). Their sanctity was stressed by regarding them as "rendering the hands unclean" as is the case with the Sefer Torah (Yad. 3:3), and if they are accidentally dropped, the person responsible is obliged to fast for that day.

The wearing of tefillin induces a serious frame of mind, preventing levity (Ber. 30b). According to Bet Hillel the tefillin had to be examined every year, but Bet Shammai disagreed (Mekh., Pisḥa, 17, p. 157, vol. 2; cf. tj, Er. 10:26a, where other rabbis are mentioned). The law was later established to examine them once (or twice) every seven years (Tos. Men. 43a).

The kabbalists instituted a meditation before putting on the tefillin which is a perfect example of the spiritualization of a ceremonial precept. It includes the statement, "He hath commanded us to lay the tefillin upon the hand as a memorial of His outstretched arm; opposite the heart to indicate the duty of subjecting the longings and designs of our heart to His service; and upon the head, over against the brain, thereby teaching that the mind, whose seat is in the brain, together with all senses and faculties, is to be subjected to His service."

The word tefillah is identical with the word for prayer, but it may be a homonym, and some have interpreted it as derived not from the root of this word פלל ("to intercede") but from פלה (to "separate", "distinguish") indicating that thereby the Jew is distinguished from the non-Jew. One mishnah (Mik. 10:2) mentions the tefillah together with an amulet but does not suggest any connection between them. Some scholars have suggested that the phylacteries derive from some form of amulet or charm (see Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstitions (19612), 145–6), but others feel that there is no evidence that it was regarded as an amulet, as the word "phylacteries" suggests.

The main exposition in the Talmud on the laws of tefillin is found in Men. 34a–37b, in a discussion of the statement of the Mishnah 3:7 that if one of the four paragraphs is missing the tefillin are invalidated. All references, except where otherwise stated, are from this passage. The small tractate called Tefillin is a late composition which merely assembles the material scattered in the Talmud and belongs to the geonic period.

The Tefillin of the Dead Sea

Before 1968 a number of fragments of tefillin found in the various caves of the Dead Sea were published (for a list see bibl., Yadin, 7, n. 1). All apparently belonged to the tefillin of the hand and were found without their original containers or capsules. (Previous fragments, however, include tefillin of the head, and some empty capsules of head tefillin have been found.) They did, however, reveal one important point, namely that the difference of opinion between Rashi and his grandson Jacob Tam as to the order of the scriptural passages did not originate with them, but they transmit different traditions which go back to the first century at least, both systems being found among those fragments, and both were therefore in use concurrently. In point of fact the Piskei Tosafot to Men. 34b has the statement that "In Nehardea and in Jerusalem they found two sets of tefillin, one according to the order of Rashi and the other according to that of Tam."

In 1968, however, Yigael Yadin acquired the only known capsule of the head tefillin of this period, found together with the portions of the text. It was almost certainly found in one of the Qumran caves, probably Cave 4, and its importance lies in the fact that exhaustive scientific tests proved that of the four passages, all tied, three were in the original positions in the capsules in which they were found, and they thus afford undeniable evidence of both the manner in which the slips had been folded and tied, and the materials used for the tying. Of additional importance is the fact that they include the text of the Decalogue. This last discovery confirms an assumption which was made on the basis of certain passages in the Talmud. According to the Mishnah (Tam. 5:1), in the Temple the priests used to recite the Decalogue together with the three paragraphs of the *Shema, but the addition of the Decalogue to the Shema, which "according to the law should be part of the daily service," was discontinued "because of the errors of the sectarians that they should not say 'these alone were given to Moses in Sinai'" (tj, Ber. 1:8, 3c; cf. also tb, ibid., 12a). The *Nash Papyrus of the second century (jqr, 15 (1902–03), 392–408) contains the Decalogue with the first paragraph of the Shema. The Sifrei to Deuteronomy 4:6, which deals with the tefillin, used two exegetical interpretations to justify the exclusion of the Decalogue from the tefillin, and it was plausibly assumed that originally, or in some quarters, the tefillin actually included the Decalogue, but it was excluded for the same reason as from the daily service, the exegetical justifications for the exclusion being merely a rationalization. The order of the passages in those tefillin, apart from their additions, follow the order given by Rashi, with one exception, that the order given by him for the second and third paragraphs is transposed, a change which is expressly permitted in the Talmud (Men. 34bf.).

S. Goren (see bibl.) has examined the tefillin of the Dead Sea Scrolls from the point of view of the halakhah, and has established that whereas the tefillin of Murabba'at accord with the halakhah, those of Qumran 1 and 4 are sectarian in nature.

It therefore seems probable that during the first century there were considerable variations and differences of custom as to the order, and additions to, the four basic paragraphs of the tefillin, but by the beginning of the second century, uniformity was established as to the text, while two traditions remained and persisted as to the order in which these paragraphs were to be written.

The form of the tefillin and the materials used, both the parchment and the tendons used for tying the passages, not only confirm the regulations given in the Talmud but in many cases throw new light on obscure passages.


M.L. Rodkinssohn, Tefillah le-Moshe… Toledot ha-Tefillin ve-Koroteihen (1883); A.D. Bloch, Keter Tefillin (1914); M. Higger (ed. and tr.), Seven Minor Treatises (1930), 24–30; Eisenstein, Dinim, 443–6; Kunteres Ẓiyyurim le-Limmud… Dinei Hanaḥat Tefillin (1957); A. Cowen, Tefillin (Eng., 1960); Israel, Ministry of Religions, Leket Dinim bi-Khetivat SaTaM (1960); A.M. Breitstein, Seder Parashiyyot ve-Oẓar Inyenei Tefillin de-Rabbenu Tam (1966); A. Kon, Si'aḥ Tefillah (19662), 209–65; Ẓe'irei Aguddat Ḥabad, Israel, Tefillin (1968); S. Rozman, Zikhron Kedoshim Carpentras-Marmaresh (Yid., 1968), 347–8; T. Reik, Pagan Rites in Judaism (1964), 103–52. tefillin of the dead sea scrolls: Y. Yadin, Tefillin from Qumran (Heb. and Eng., 1969), includes a list of all the tefillin of the Dead Sea hitherto published; idem, in: Ḥadshot Muze'on Yisrael, 4 (1969), 36–45: S. Goren, in: Maḥanayim, 62 (1961), 5–14.

[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]