Tefillin – A Sign and Reminder of Greater Things

וְהָיָה לְךָ לְאוֹת עַל-יָדְךָ, וּלְזִכָּרוֹן בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ, לְמַעַן תִּהְיֶה תּוֹרַת ה’, בְּפִיךָ: כִּי בְּיָד חֲזָקָה, הוֹצִאֲךָ ה’ מִמִּצְרָיִם (שמות יג,ט)

“And if shall be for you a sign on your hand and a reminder between your eyes – so that God’s Torah may be in your mouth…” (Shemot 13:9)

The classical interpretation of this verse (see Rashi and Ramban) is that the Torah is commanding us to place the Tefillin, containing the four sections from the Torah that speak about the Tefillin commandment, on our hand/arm and just before the hairline between our eyes.

In contrast, Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson) gives an allegorical interpretation to the verse in Shemot quoted above:

לאות על ידך” – לפי עומק פשוטו: יהיה לך לזכרון תמיד, כאלו כתוב על ידך. כעין, שימני כחותם על לבך

בין עיניך” – כעין תכשיט ורביד זהב שרגילין ליתן על המצח לנוי.

For a sign upon your hand” – According to its plain meaning (omek peshuto): it shall be to you for a remembrance continually just as if it were inscribed upon your hand, similar to the verse “Set me as a seal upon your heart” (Shir HaShirim 8:6). “Between your eyes” – as an adornment and a golden tiara that is worn round the head as an adornment.
Rashbam interprets the “Tefillin passage” in our parsha as an allegory which demands that we remember the Torah always and treasure it like a piece of fine jewelry. The Torah should be like a fine bracelet or necklace which we wear proudly. In other words, the Torah is supposed to be precious to us and be remembered always.

This interpretation is borne out by the use of similar metaphors employed elsewhere in Tanach:

1) God’s Torah and His commandments are “a beautiful wreath to your head and a chain/necklace about your neck…” (Mishlei 1:8-9)
א,ח שְׁמַע בְּנִי, מוּסַר אָבִיךָ; וְאַל-תִּטֹּשׁ, תּוֹרַת אִמֶּךָ.
א,ט כִּי, לִוְיַת חֵן הֵם לְרֹאשֶׁךָ; וַעֲנָקִים, לְגַרְגְּרֹתֶךָ.
2) “Bind them [kindness and truth] about your neck, inscribe them upon the tablet of your heart…” (Mishlei 6:20-21)
ו,כ נְצֹר בְּנִי, מִצְוַת אָבִיךָ; וְאַל-תִּטֹּשׁ, תּוֹרַת אִמֶּךָ.
ו,כא קָשְׁרֵם עַל-לִבְּךָ תָמִיד; עָנְדֵם, עַל-גַּרְגְּרֹתֶךָ.
3) “Bind them [the commandments] upon your fingers, write them upon the table of your heart” (Mishlei 7:2-3)
ז,ב שְׁמֹר מִצְו‍ֹתַי וֶחְיֵה; וְתוֹרָתִי, כְּאִישׁוֹן עֵינֶיךָ.
ז,ג קָשְׁרֵם עַל-אֶצְבְּעֹתֶיךָ; כָּתְבֵם, עַל-לוּחַ לִבֶּךָ.


On the words, “and a reminder between your eyes – so that God’s Torah may be in your mouth” (Shemot 13:9), the Mechilta comments: “From this the Rabbis taught that putting on Tefillin is equivalent to reading the Torah.” The analogy seems strange, for the mitzvah of Talmud Torah involves learning and understanding, performed with the intellect, while the mitzvah of Tefillin is performed through one’s body, via an object that the person places on him, with no element of study. The answer, argues R. Yaakov Nagen in a well written article in volume 10 of the Har Hevron publication, “Gulot,” is that when a person places Tefillin on his body, which contain passages from the Torah, he becomes connected to the Torah in a very tangible and direct manner. A person can cleave to Torah not only intellectually through learning the content of the mitzvot, but also in a physical manner by putting on Tefillin.
Nagen relates how, in the Tefillin discovered in the Qumran Caves, a number of passages were found, including the Ten Commandments that appear in the book of Devarim! This ancient custom would appear to be based on a literal understanding of the Shema’s words “these words which I command you this day” (Devarim 6:6), as relating to the Ten Commandments which were expounded earlier in the parsha. The Ten Commandments written on parchment constitute a condensation of the Torah, and placing them in the Tefillin transforms the Tefillin into a mini-Torah scroll!
Tefillin are literally black boxes – leather boxes painted black. But they are also figurative “black boxes,” like the device found in the cockpit of airplanes that records vital information about a flight, so that if, God forbid, a tragedy occurs, investigators will be able to determine the cause of action of the incident. We wear them on our foreheads, because we want these basic ideas about our faith to be in front of our eyes. Seeing them – in a very literal way – reminds us of the basic ideals of the Torah. But we are to see them also with our mind’s eye, internalizing their significance. And we also act on them, symbolized by binding the Tefillin around our arm. Tefillin are thus a sign and a remembrance of the need to internalize and actualize the values of the Torah in everything we do.


The verse in Devarim 6:9: וּכְתַבְתָּם עַל-מְזֻזוֹת בֵּיתֶךָ, וּבִשְׁעָרֶיךָ (“You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates”), can be understood in a similar vein. Here, too, we tend to jump to the conclusion that the verse refers solely to the duty to affix Mezuzot on our doorposts, following which act the duty ends. Yet, in fact, the verse is, first and foremost, a metaphor, to impress upon us the importance of inscribing the Torah and its values upon our homes and families.

The Torah thus cautions us against the insufficiency of simply going through the motions of donning Tefillin and davening in the morning, or affixing a Mezuzah and even kissing it as we enter and leave our house, without taking these experiences with us throughout the rest of the day. The Tefillin and Mezuzot are meant to serve as the means to a broader end, the “sign” prompting the “reminder” mentioned in our parsha. They are symbolic of the fact that our entire personalities, our lives and our homes are meant to be permeated with the Torah. Hashem’s commands should become an integral part of our very beings.

True, the Karaites also adopted an allegorical interpretation of the “Tefillin” and “Mezuzah” passages. However, this led them to the erroneous conclusion that the Torah does not command us literally to wear Tefillin and to affix a Mezuzah to our doorposts. The innovation of Chazal, in giving a literal interpretation to these passages, was to teach us that in order to achieve the lofty spiritual goal of suffusing ourselves and our families with the Torah and its values, the metaphor also needs to be performed in a literal manner – through the actual laying of Tefillin and writing of Mezuzot, for “actions shape character” (acharei ha’peulot nimshachim ha’levavot).

Wishing everyone a meaningful new year, in which we perform all of the mitzvot with added value and vigor, rather than by rote and routine!

By Simon Jackson

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Posted in: Hebrew Language Gems & Torah Insights

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