Tefillin (phylacteries in English) play a hugely significant role in the life of a young Jew. Traditionally worn from just before a youngster hits Bar Mitzvah, the boxes are filled with parchment scrolls hand-scribed with Hebrew prayers and accompanied by a set of supple leather straps. Parents or grandparents have customarily gifted the young man with tefillin ahead of his special day, and the holy boxes will stay with him throughout his life.
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Walk into any synagogue for a weekday morning service and you will most likely see the men reading from prayer books, wrapped in prayer shawls and donning leather boxes and straps on both their arms and heads. What are these leather items and what is their connection to prayer? These boxes and straps are tefillin and they are a part of Judaism's rich religious heritage.
What Exactly Are Tefillin? Tefillin are two black leather boxes with leather straps attached to them, one for the arm and one for the head. The tefillin box for the arm is placed on the forearm, with the attached strap wound seven times around the arm and tied around the hand. It should be noted that a right-handed person wears their arm tefillin on the left arm and the a left-handed person wears their arm tefillin on the right arm. The tefillin box for the head is placed at the hairline, with the straps hanging over the front of the wearer. Both the tefillin boxes for the arm and the head contain parchments written by a trained sofer stam (a scribe skilled in writing Torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzahs). The arm tefillin contains one piece of parchment inscribed with the four scriptural references to the commandment of tefillin (Exodus 13:9, Exodus 13:16, Deuteronomy 6:8 and Deuteronomy 11:18) while the head tefillin contains the verses on four separate pieces of parchment.
Where Does The Commandment of Tefillin Come From? Referenced four times throughout the Torah (Exodus 13:9, Exodus 13:16, Deuteronomy 6:8 and Deuteronomy 11:18), the Jewish people are first commanded to wear tefillin as a sign upon their arms and between their eyes soon after the exodus from Egypt – even before the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. What Is The Purpose of Tefillin? Based on the wording of the commandments in the Torah, it is understood that tefillin are meant to serve as a constant reminder of God's actions in bringing the Children of Israel out of Egypt. As well, tefillin are thought to support the wearer in living a life of spirituality, righteousness and greater devotion to the will of God.
When Are You Supposed To Wear Tefillin? While the original commandment does not specify a time to wear tefillin and it was originally worn throughout the day (but not at night), the current custom is to only wear it during the morning prayer service. This is because tefillin are considered to be a holy object and you have to be in the right frame of mind while wearing them. As well, tefillin are not worn on Shabbat, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and the festival days of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. During the intermediate days of Pesach and Sukkot, some have the custom to wear tefillin while others do not. With regards to which custom you should follow, please consult your local rabbi.
Are All Tefillin The Same? While there are certain basic guidelines with regards to how tefillin are made (i.e. they must be made from animal hides, colored black and the boxes must be square), there can be customary and stylistic differences between each pair of tefillin. The three major differences that can exist between tefillin are:
1) Quality of boxes: As mentioned earlier, the tefillin boxes, or batim ("houses"), must be made from animal hides, colored black and must be square. However, within these parameters, you will find a few variations regarding the quality of the boxes. The quality of the boxes can range from simple boxes (made from more than one piece of leather glued together) to thin boxes (one piece of leather stretched to make the box) to thick ones (the highest quality, made from a single piece of leather using a special process). While all of these boxes are kosher, the quality does affect the durability of the tefillin over time.
2) Types of Scrolls: As aforementioned, the parchment within the tefillin must be written by a trained and skilled scribe. However, there are certain customary differences with regards to the writing styles used on the parchments. The three major writing styles are: Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Arizal. The Ashkenazi script is used by Jews whose families descend from European Jews, the Sephardi script is used by Jews whose families come from North Africa and the Middle East and the Arizal script is used by followers of the 15th century Kabbalist, Rabbi Isaac Luria. At Judaica Webstore, we carry tefillin written according to all three scripts. In order to determine which script is right for you, please consult your local rabbi.
3) Order of Parchments: While all tefillin contain parchments inscribed with the four Torah references to tefillin, there is a historic dispute regarding the order of these verses. This dispute is exemplified by two medieval sages, Rashi and Rabenu Tam. Today, the opinion of Rashi is almost universally accepted and the vast majority of pairs of tefillin are ordered according to this opinion. However, there are those who wish to satisfy both opinions and will change from Rashi tefillin to Rabbenu Tam tefillin either partway through the prayer service or upon the completion of prayers.
Now that you have a better understanding of the wonderful ritual of tefillin, you can explore the various options for tefillin and tefillin bags featured on our website.