Tefillin – The Original Mystery Box — By Ben

I don’t know if I had ever even heard of tefillin before I started my journey of exploring Judaism. So if you are at all like me from ten years ago, these tiny, square, black boxes may be a mystery to you. And to be honest, even if you’ve been wrapping tefillin since your bar mitzvah they may still be a mystery as they are one of the most esoteric mitzvahs of the Torah.

My first experience with them was when I lived in Burbank. I can’t remember why I ended up attending a weekday morning service at Chabad, but when I got there, the Rabbi implored me to wrap. It’s definitely an odd experience, wearing a box on your head with the other one on your arm, then wrapping the loose straps around your forearm. I felt self conscious. As you’re dipping your toe into religious waters, you always ask yourself, how far are you going to go? Which rituals are so crazy, you’re sure they must be fanaticism? This definitely approached that line.

So when my friend Michael (really more of a mentor, actually) offered to buy me a pair, I was still hesitant about the practice. But he was insistent, so I gave in. But I didn’t wrap them very often.

However, one day I decided, for the sake of finally achieving a paid career as a writer, I would wrap tefillin for one year. I wrote on my white board the date July 11th, 2016 (it being 2015 at the time), and didn’t miss a day (except Shabbos/Holidays where one doesn’t wrap). Well, sure enough, on July 12th, 2016 I had a meeting to develop a writing project which paid. Though the income hasn’t always been abundant, even since that day, I’ve always had paid writing projects.

So WHAT are these mystery boxes?

Image by svetlanabar from Pixabay

There’s very little about tefillin in the written Torah. Within the first paragraph of the Shema (aka the V’ahavta) there is the mitzvah, “And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes.” (Devarim 6:8) That word, “ornaments” is actually an untranslatable Hebrew word “לְטֹֽטָפֹ֖ת” (l’totaphos). That’s pretty much all the Torah says about it.

From the oral tradition Moses received at Mount Sinai, we get far more precise and intricate details about the mitzvah. To cut to the chase, here are the big points.

Two boxes must be made from leather.

I was surprised to find that these black boxes aren’t wood, plastic, or glass, but hardened leather. The hollow boxes are painstakingly molded over a year to form their perfect square shape (also a requirement). The head tefillin is actually four hollow boxes pressed together and also has the Hebrew letter shin ש embossed into two sides.

Straps and Knots

The head tefillin has two straps that are tied together in the shape of the Hebrew letter dalet ד, then ends of the straps hang down in front of the wearer. The straps must be black on one side (so if the black coating on the leather tears, it may no longer be kosher.) The arm tefillin straps are tied together in the shape of a yud י and with that, one of the names of God, Sha-dai appears on the tefillin.

The Writing on the Inside
Much like a mezuzah, handwritten scrolls are placed on the inside. But with tefillin, they are sewn shut. Four verses are placed in both the arm and head tefillin. They are: Shemos 13: 1-10, Shemos 13: 11-16, Devarim 6: 4-9, Devarim 11: 13-21. In the head tefillin, each verse is placed in one of the four compartments, while with the arm tefillin all four verses are written on one parchment.

There are more requirements for kosher tefillin, such as the all parts must come from a kosher animal, short hairs of a calf have to be sticking out of the head tefillin, and the scribe must have certain mental intentions when writing the parchments… And that’s not to mention the requirements of how to wrap them! But this isn’t a halacha blog, so I’ll move on.

Why do we wrap tefillin? It’s a mystery.

Pretty much every part of the tefillin must be black. The rabbis say that the color black represents the unknown, aka mystery. We have many mitzvahs in the Torah, but one category of mitzvahs are chokim, mitzvahs that have no reason or explanation. Tefillin are quite possibly one of the biggest chokim mitzvahs. However, just because a reason isn’t given, doesn’t mean we can search for one. In fact, one of the places tefillin are mentioned in the oral tradition is a story about understanding the greatest mystery of all, Hashem’s will.

Shortly after the sin of the golden calf, Moses goes up to Mount Sinai to plead for God’s forgiveness of the Jewish people. It is there that Moses asks, “Please grant me a vision of Your Glory.” (Shemos 33:18) The rabbis understand this to mean that Moses wanted to be able to see God’s presence in every moment, notably when bad things happen to good people. To which God responds, “‘I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious and I will be compassionate to whom I will be compassionate.’ And He said, “You cannot see My Presence, for no man can see My Presence and live.’…'[but] you will see My Back” (Shemos 33: 19-23).

On these verses, the rabbis of the Talmud (Berachos 7a) say, “This teaches that the Holy One, Blessed is He, showed Moses the knot of the back of His tefillin.” There is so much to unpack in all of these two sections, I could write a whole series. But the biggest mystery is how could God wear tefillin? Clearly this is a metaphor… but a metaphor for what?

A Crown above Wisdom

In the map of spiritual character traits (aka the Sephiras) the top three traits are chochma (wisdom), bina (understanding), and keter (crown). Wisdom is considered one of the greatest attributes a person can have. However there is one thing that can lead a person to success more than wisdom…purpose or will. Wisdom is great for enacting action. But what happens when an obstacle comes and the person doesn’t know how to solve the problem? “I don’t see how I can possibly be successful!” But if someone is driven by purpose, if they have the will to succeed, they will press on whether they know the way or not. As the old saying goes, “If there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Keter is the corresponding spiritual attribute of will/purpose. But it also means crown. And how do we wear the head tefillin? Like a crown.

Moses wanted to see Hashem’s desire for every single thing in creation, as it was happening. To that God said it would be too overwhelming. But in retrospect, from hindsight, we can see God’s will in history. So God showed Moses the back of His tefillin.

Connected Purpose

I don’t know how tefillin work nor do I understand the ritual in depth. But it seems clear that there is a profound connection between our purpose and this mitzvah. Since dedicating myself to its observance, my writing has been greatly aided.

Is writing my purpose? I seem to think it is. However, recently I was lucky to get married to the love of my life. Upon reminiscing about our first date, it dawned on me that we met each other on… you guessed it, July 12 (2020.) Maybe it is just a coincidence that my writing career taking off and the start of my marriage happened to be on the same day. But to me, it seems apparent that this mitzvah is fundamental to the development of life’s purpose.

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