Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 10 July 2021 / 1 Av 5781

Blessings over Tefillin: One Blessing or Two (Part 2)

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.

The Talmud (Brachot 60b) teaches that there are two blessings recited over tefillin. On putting on the arm tefillin, we say, “Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to put on tefillin.” And on putting on the head tefillin, we say, “Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us regarding the commandment of tefillin.” However, in Tractate Menachot (36a) a second possibility is raised: The second blessing is recited only if a person spoke in between putting on the arm tefillin and the head tefillin.

According to Jewish Law, speaking after putting on the arm tefillin and before putting on the head tefillin is a transgression. Making an unwarranted break in between makes a clear interruption between the two mitzvahs. Halachically, a disruption implies that the arm tefillin and the head tefillin are two completely independent mitzvahs. Subsequently, the first blessing no longer includes the head tefillin, and a new, separate blessing must now be recited.

In order to reconcile the two different versions in the Gemara, some commentaries say that the statement in Tractate Brachot — that two independent blessings are recited — is also referring to someone who makes an unnecessary break between putting on the two tefillin.

Rashi is of the opinion that the second blessing is recited only when a break is made between putting on the arm tefillin and the head tefillin. However, Rabbeinu Tam, one of Rashi’s grandsons, rules that two blessings are always recited over wearing tefillin, even when there is no interruption made between putting them on. The first blessing is said over the arm tefillin and the second over the head tefillin. Rabbeinu Asher (often known by the honorific title of the “Rosh”) points to an interesting divergence to be seen in these opinions of Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam. According to Rashi, it transpires that a person who can wear only head tefillin (because he has injured his arm such that it is not possible to wear the arm tefillin, or because the only tefillin available at that time are the head tefillin) will recite the first blessing: “… has commanded us to put on tefillin” although this is normally the blessing said over the arm tefillin. However, according to Rabbeinu Tam, that person would need to recite both the first blessing and the second one over the head tefillin.

The Halachic authorities who follow Rashi’s ruling are, among others, the Rif and the Rambam. This halacha is codified by Rabbi Yosef Karo in the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 25), and reciting just one blessing over both the arm tefillin and the head tefillin is the accepted practice of the Sephardic communities.

On the other hand (please excuse the pun), Rabbeinu Tam’s opinion — to make two separate blessings — is accepted, among others, by the Ba’al Halachot Gedolot and the Rosh. It is codified by Rabbi Moshe Isserles, and is the accepted ruling for the Ashkenazic communities.

Fascinatingly enough, some authorities — Rashba, Ohr Zaruah and others — in explanation of Rashi, make a connection between how many blessings are recited and whether or not the mitzvah of tefillin is considered one mitzvah with two parts, or whether it is two completely separate mitzvahs. Accordingly, they suggest that if it is one mitzvah, only one blessing should be recited. But if it is two mitzvahs, each one deserves its own blessing. However, it is clear that not all authorities who say that only one blessing is recited are also of the opinion that tefillin is only one mitzvah.

According to Rabbeinu Tam, not only are two blessings recited, but the second blessing is actually the more important one. The first blessing is recited as the mitzvah is beginning, and the second mitzvah is articulated as the mitzvah comes to its complete fulfillment. Together with that is the fact that the head tefillin are considered to be on a higher level of sanctity than the arm tefillin, which seems to indicate that the blessing over the head tefillin is also of greater holiness. Rabbeinu Tam suggests that the loftier significance of the head tefillin is reflected in its being comprised of four different compartments, and that it has the Hebrew letter “shin” embossed on two of its sides. This is unlike the arm tefillin, which has only one compartment and no “shins” embossed on its sides.

In any event, the question remains as to why only one blessing would be said if the arm tefillin and the head tefillin are regarded as being two distinct mitzvahs. As a rule, each blessing is designed specifically for its precise purpose. For this reason, there are many different blessings that exist, in general. Why, then, is it considered acceptable here to recite just one blessing? Rambam, Shitat Rabbeinu Tam and Bet Ephraim all explain that since they share the same appellative — tefillin — and since the head tefillin are put on immediately after the arm tefillin, they may share the same blessing.

Whether one blessing is recited or two, about one thing, at least, there is no disagreement among the halachic authorities: The mitzvah of tefillin contains within it the most extraordinary blessings for whoever performs it!

To be continued…

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