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Understanding Tefillin (phylacteries) תפילין: A Key Component of Shacharit

Tefillin, also known as phylacteries, are a set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah. They are worn during the Shacharit prayer (except on Shabbat and Jewish holidays) as a physical reminder of the covenant between God and the Jewish people. The practice of wearing tefillin is derived from the biblical commandment found in the Shema prayer: “And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes” (Deuteronomy 6:8).

phylacteries tefillin

What’s inside the Tefillin?

Inside each of the two tefillin boxes (tefillin shel yad and tefillin shel rosh) are scrolls of parchment inscribed with specific verses from the Torah. These verses are written by a qualified scribe (sofer) in Hebrew. The scrolls contain four passages:

  1. Exodus 13:1-10: This passage describes the commandment to remember the Exodus from Egypt, highlighting the sanctity of the firstborn and the importance of the festival of Passover.
  2. Exodus 13:11-16: This passage continues the theme of the Exodus and reinforces the obligation to commemorate the event through rituals and teachings.
  3. Deuteronomy 6:4-9: Known as the Shema, this passage declares the oneness of God and includes the commandment to love God with all one’s heart, soul, and might. It also introduces the mitzvah of tefillin by instructing to bind these words on the hand and place them between the eyes.
  4. Deuteronomy 11:13-21: This passage reiterates the themes of divine reward and punishment, emphasizing the importance of obeying God’s commandments. It also repeats the command to bind these words on the hand and between the eyes.

The tefillin shel yad contains one scroll with all four passages written on it, while the tefillin shel rosh contains four separate scrolls, each with one passage, placed in individual compartments within the box. These sacred texts encapsulate fundamental aspects of Jewish faith, including the remembrance of the Exodus, the declaration of God’s unity, and the commitment to follow His commandments.

what is tefillin made of?

  1. Leather: The boxes (batim) and straps (retzuot) are made from the skin of a kosher animal, usually a cow. The leather is processed and blackened according to specific traditional methods.
  2. Parchment: Inside the leather boxes are scrolls of parchment (klaf), also made from the skin of a kosher animal. These scrolls contain specific passages from the Torah written in Hebrew by a scribe (sofer) using special ink.
what is tefillin made of

The materials and the way they are prepared and assembled are governed by detailed halachic (Jewish legal) requirements to ensure they are fit for use in fulfilling the mitzvah (commandment) of wearing tefillin.

How to Place Tefillin

tefillin phylacteries
  1. Tefillin Shel Yad (Hand Tefillin):
  • Preparation: Stand and recite the blessing: “Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Haolam, Asher Kidshanu Bemitzvotav Vetzivanu Lehaniach Tefillin.”
  • Placement: Place the tefillin on the inner side of your left bicep (or right bicep if you are left-handed), so that it faces your heart.
  • Binding: Wrap the strap around your arm seven times, moving down towards the hand. Make sure the knot remains in contact with the bicep.
  1. Tefillin Shel Rosh (Head Tefillin):
  • Preparation: Recite the blessing: “Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Haolam, Asher Kidshanu Bemitzvotav Vetzivanu Al Mitzvat Tefillin.”
  • Placement: Place the box on your forehead, centered between your eyes, just above the hairline. The knot should rest on the base of the skull at the back of the head.
  • Adjusting: Ensure the straps hang down evenly over your chest.
  1. Wrapping the Hand:
  • After placing the tefillin shel rosh, return to the tefillin shel yad.
  • Wrap the strap around your middle finger three times, forming the Hebrew letter “Shin,” symbolizing one of God’s names.
  • Continue wrapping the remaining strap around your hand in a specific pattern.

The Meaning of Tefillin in Judaism

Tefillin are more than just physical objects; they are a profound expression of Jewish faith and identity. Through the act of wearing tefillin during the Shacharit morning prayer, Jews connect with centuries of tradition and fulfill a direct commandment from the Torah. The detailed process of placing tefillin on the arm and head serves as a daily reminder of God’s presence and the commitment to live a life guided by spiritual principles. By incorporating tefillin into your morning prayer routine, you deepen your connection to the divine and enhance the sanctity of your daily practice. Whether you are new to this mitzvah or have been observing it for years, understanding and embracing the significance of tefillin can bring added meaning and purpose to your spiritual journey.

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