These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

What I learned at Pardes This Week #3: Tefilin

Posted on October 28, 2010 by Pious Antic

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I’ve started doing series of posts called “What I learned at Pardes This Week”  on my blog (1, 2), and I thought I’d cross-post the latest one (3) here… enjoy!

One of the strangest and yet most everyday of mitzvot (commandments) is that of laying tefilin. Every day Jewish men (and in some liberal communities, women too) tie little leather boxes containing pieces of parchment with biblical verses written on them around their left arms and their heads.

Nowhere in the bible does it say “thou shalt tie little leather boxes containing biblical verses to thine arms and wear them on top of thine head.” However, four times (twice in Exodus and twice in Deutoronomy) the bible says something along the lines of “and they shall be a sign upon your arm and a reminder between your eyes,” which the ancient Sages understood as a commandment to write the passages of Torah containing that phrase on pieces of parchment, put them in leather boxes and wear one on the arm and one on the head.

In my Halacha (Jewish law) class, we looked at the biblical sources for tefilin as well as some midrash halacha (Rabbinic legal exegesis) on the mitzvah of tefilin. I knew that the p’shat, or plainsense contextual meaning of the verses wasn’t about leather philacteries, but I’d never paid too much attention to what these verses were actually talking about before. In Exodus, we are commanded to make a sign upon our hands and between our eyes, first of the Passover sacrifice, or possibly more generally exodus from Egypt, and then of the practice of consecrating every firstborn animal to G-d, and of redeeming every first born son. In Deutoronomy it seems it’s G-d’s word and G-d’s law more generally that we are instructed to have always on our arm and between our eyes.

At first it seems like an arbitrary departure for the Rabbis to interperet this idiom, which clearly means “pay constant attention” absurdly literally (hyperliteralism is one of my favorite Rabbinic exegetical tricks), and to take the verses out of context and treat them as if they were self-referential. In fact, I’ve heard Reform rabbis who don’t believe in putting on tefilin argue exactly that point, that the whole premise of this practice is absurd. I used to think the only available counterargument was the Orthodox trope that the ancient Sages’ understanding of tefilin is part of an unbroken oral tradition that went all the way back to Moses, a hallowed and time-honored explanation but one that doesn’t satisfy the modern liberal practitioner.

However, my halacha teacher was able to show that the Rabbis’ understanding of these verses is not merely based on formal textual exegesis, but that the textual explanations they bring to the verses reflect a desire that the tefilin we wear should be physical tools for fulfilling the explicit biblical commandments in those verses to keep G-d’s word before one always. The issue isn’t whether or not the bible was “really” referring to a commandment to wear leather phylacteries. The real question is whether or not laying tefilin daily helps us fulfill the original intent of the biblical commandment.