Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 17 July 2021 / 8 Av 5781

Blessings over Tefillin: To Sit or to Stand (Part 3)

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
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“I am not emotional about being the oldest man in the world; but it does mean something to me that I have donned tefillin for longer than anyone else.”

Yisrael Kristal, 1903-2017, was officially recognized as the oldest living Holocaust survivor in 2014. In January 2016 he was recognized by the Guinness World Records as the world’s oldest man.

There is a fascinating difference of opinion about how to put on the arm tefillin. The Sephardic and Chassidic custom is to put the arm tefillin on while sitting, and to stand when putting on the head tefillin. The Ashkenazic practice is to put on both the arm tefillin and the head tefillin while standing. The source of the Sephardic and Chassidic custom is found in the Zohar HaKadosh (Parshat Chayei Sarah and Parshat Bamidbar).

The Zohar makes a connection between the arm tefillin and the head tefillin and two different types of prayers — those that are recited sitting down and those that are said standing up. Each category of prayer generates a different form of spiritual energy, an energy that corresponds to the same form of spiritual energy created by tefillin. The arm tefillin are compatible to those prayers that are said sitting down and the head tefillin to prayers that are recited standing up. Rabbi Yitzchak Luria was a famed sixteenth century Kabbalist, known as the Ari Zal (often written as Arizal). According to some opinions, the letters of Ari are an acronym for the Hebrew phrase “Adoneinu Rabbeinu Yitzchak — Our Master, Rabbi Yitzchak.” According to others, the word Ari in Hebrew means a lion and is a term of deference, attesting to the fact that his mastery over the esoteric dimensions of the Torah was unparalleled. Rabbi Luria ruled that the correct way to put on tefillin is according to the Zohar HaKadosh.

Rabbi Yaakov Chaim Sofer (1870-1939) was a dazzlingly brilliant scholar from Baghdad and Jerusalem, universally recognized and acknowledged as one of the experts in Jewish Law in his generation. He wrote in his monumental work called Kaf HaChaim that the Sephardic custom is to put on the arm tefillin while seated, and the head tefillin while standing, and then to remain standing while wrapping the straps of the arm tefillin around the hand.

In the Shulchan Aruch, Rabbi Moshe Isserles (Orach Chaim 25) cites the opinion of the Zohar, but, as previously mentioned, he rules that the correct approach for the Ashkenazic communities is to stand up while putting on both the arm tefillin and the head tefillin.

The basic difference of opinion derives from differing views as to whether the Zohar can be relied upon for deriving practical Jewish Law or not. The opinion of the Sephardic authorities and the Ari Zal is that the Zohar can be used for practical application (although not always), whereas the Ashkenazic viewpoint is to use the Zohar only very rarely as a source for practical Law.

Regardless of how one puts on tefillin — sitting or standing — where the tefillin are placed is always the same. The box of the arm tefillin is positioned so that it points towards the heart, and the head tefillin sit on the fontanelle. The fontanelle represents our intellect and our intelligence, which is found in the brain, and the heart is the center of our emotions. Rabbeinu Bachya (Kad Hakemach) writes that one of the underlying lessons that tefillin portray is that we need both our heart and our intellect to serve G-d properly. Our heart to love Him, and our intellect to recognize Him.

To be continued…

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