Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 3 July 2021 / 23 Tammuz 5781

Blessings over Tefillin: Introduction (Part 1)

by Rabbi Reuven Lauffer
Library Library Library

“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.

Each morning we are presented with the most extraordinary opportunity to connect to G-d in a way that only tefillin can accomplish. The Kabbalistic texts are replete with descriptions of the awesomeness of tefillin and the how they open up channels to the Spiritual Realms in a way that other actions we do throughout our day cannot.

As opposed to many of our morning obligations, which are rabbinically ordained, the obligation to put on tefillin is a Torah commandment. As the Torah states, “Bind them as a sign upon your arm and let them be totafot between your eyes.” (Bamidbar 15:38) This means that the mitzvah of putting on tefillin — and the blessings that are recited when doing so — are of additional significance since they are sourced in the Torah.

Accordingly, wearing tefillin is something that should be approached with the utmost gravity. The mitzvah of tefillin is so precious that we find that in Talmudic times tefillin were worn throughout the entire daylight hours. That was actually quite an undertaking, as wearing tefillin all day requires a person to remain in a state of ritual and physical purity the entire time. This includes being very careful about what one thinks about and what one says, to ensure that the tefillin are not tainted with any kind of impurity. Over the generations it became increasingly difficult to remain in such an exalted state of purity for such an extended length of time, and it became the accepted custom to wear tefillin only for the Morning Services. And yet, there are still some truly pious and righteous people nowadays who remain in their tefillin all day, even after finishing their prayers, while immersed in the study of Torah.

Every single aspect in the creation of a pair of tefillin is enormously significant. The Rabbis delve into each individual detail and reveal to us their symbolism. For example, inserted into the arm tefillin is one piece of parchment with four paragraphs from the Torah written on it. The paragraphs are: Exodus 13: 1-10, Exodus 13:11-16, Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Deuteronomy 11:13-21. The head tefillin, however, are slightly different. Even though the paragraphs from the Torah that are inserted in it are exactly the same as the arm tefillin, the way they are put inside is different. Four smaller pieces of parchment are prepared, each one with one of the above paragraphs written on it. Each individual parchment is then placed into its own separate partition within the head tefillin. When looking carefully at the head tefillin, the four different compartments are actually easy to distinguish.

What is the significance of having only one compartment for the arm tefillin and four for the head tefillin? Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher (1255-1340), one of the most brilliant and distinguished early authorities in Spain, addresses this in his fundamental philosophical treatise entitled Kad Hakemach. He writes that the four compartments of the head tefillin and the single compartment of the arm tefillin correspond to the five senses. The five senses are comprised of touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste. The sense of touch comes from the arm, whereas the other four senses — sight, hearing, smell and taste — are all centered at the head. Therefore, there is one compartment for the arm tefillin and four for the head tefillin. Rabbeinu Bachya explains that when we put on tefillin, we are binding together our five senses and dedicating them to the service of G-d. In the same way, all other details of tefillin are equally imbued with beautiful and thought-provoking concepts, which can enrich the physical dimension of putting on tefillin each morning and turn it into a spiritually uplifting and inspirational experience. Ultimately, the connection to G-d that the tefillin achieve is indescribable.

In Communist Russia there was a Rabbi who was arrested and sent to Siberia for the “heinous crime” of teaching Torah to Jewish children. One Shabbat afternoon, the Rabbi heard someone singing “Yedid Nefesh” — one of the most poignant poems sung on Shabbat. He followed the voice and found a Jew in a state of spiritual ecstasy, eyes closed, singing the poem with heart-wrenching emotion. The person singing did not realize that the Rabbi was watching him, and he continued to sing until the end of the poem. When he opened his eyes, the two people hugged each other. The man told him, “Twenty years I have been here and you are the first Jew I have seen!” The Rabbi asked him if he had any Jewish articles with him, such as a holy book, a shofar or tefillin.

“Nothing at all,” the man replied. “I tried to smuggle things in, but each time they took them away from me. All I have left is my belief in G-d and the songs that we sing on Shabbat. What about you? Do you have anything?”

The Rabbi answered, “I have arm tefillin. They confiscated my head tefillin because they saw me wearing it, but they did not know that I was also wearing tefillin under my sleeve.”

The man burst out crying. “Tomorrow I will be able to put on tefillin! Tomorrow morning will be the first time in twenty years that I will wear tefillin!” Throughout that night he prepared himself for the glorious moment. And, the next morning, in the spiritually and physically frozen wastes of Siberia, he put on the tefillin for the first time. He recited the blessing and then, with an indescribable intensity, said every word of the Shema.

To be continued…

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