What is the reward for laying tefillin? How does one merit overcoming his Yetzer Hara, longevity and health, in this world and the next? What kind of tefillin should we buy our children? Why are tefillin so powerful? Why do some individuals remain adorned in tefillin all day, while most only don them during the morning prayers? Are there people that cannot retain the level of concentration required by the tefillin even during prayers? Are women permitted to lay tefillin, and why? Of this and more in the coming article.
In this week’s parasha we read: “All the peoples of the earth will see that the name of the Lord is upon you, and they will fear you” (Devarim 28:10). The Gemara learns from this pasuk that tefillin are Yisroel’s power, particularly the head-tefillin. Similarly, the Gemara (Megillah 16a) explains the pasuk (in Megillas Esther): “The Jews had light and joy, gladness and honor” (Esther 8:16) that honor refers to tefillin-tefillin are Yisroel’s honor. In this week’s article we will focus on the tefillin’s sanctity and significance, and how it obligates us.
The King’s Insignia
The Zohar writes (Zohar Chadash, Shir HaShirim 8b) that tefillin are the King’s insignia, and we are obligated to honor and safeguard it properly. The punishment for failing to do so is the same as the accepted punishment for one who fails to show proper honor to a king’s symbol.
The Smag (Ase 3) expounds on tefillin’s significance and the reason they are so beloved by Hashem: There are only three mitzvos that serve as the sign of a Jew – they signal our close relationship with Hashem as His children and servants. The three mitzvos are tefillin, bris mila, and Shabbos. A Jew must always have two signs – two witnesses – proclaiming his uniqueness, mission, and destiny. On weekdays the two signs are the bris mila and tefillin, and on Shabbos – the bris and Shabbos. This is the reason that tefillin are not donned on Shabbos.
Protection From Sin
The Gemara (Menachos 43b) writes that tefillin, tzitzis, and mezuza are three mitzvos that protect one from sin. Of these three Shlomo Hamelech writes in Koheles: “…And a three- stranded cord will not quickly tear” (4:12). One who is careful to fulfill these three mitzvos is granted special protection and added strength to overcome sin’s temptations. The Gemara also proves this from another pasuk: “An angel of the Lord is stationed around those who fear Him, and He saves them” (Tehilim 34:8) – one who is careful to fulfill these three mitzvos has a heavenly angel guarding over him and helping him to overcome his Evil Inclination’s temptations.
Shimusha Raba (cited in the Rosh, Hilchos Tefillin) writes that one who is careful with the mitzva of tefillin will be welcomed into the Next World, not be harmed by the fires of Gehenom, and all his sins will be forgiven.
Honor and Awe
The Yerushalmi (Brachos 5:1) recounts various instances where people adorned in tefillin aroused fear in the hearts of gentiles:
Rabbi Yochanan was sitting and learning Torah at the entrance of the Babylonian synagogue in Tzippori, when the local ruler passed by. Rabbi Yochanan did not stop learning to greet the ruler. The ruler’s servants wanted to hit Rabbi Yochanan for his blatant show of disrespect for their master, but the ruler told them to leave him alone because he is preoccupied with his Master’s mannerisms [i.e. Hashem’s Torah].
Rabbi Chanina and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi appeared before the governor of Caesarea. When he saw them, he rose in a public show of reverence. His servants expressed their wonder at his open display of honor to the two Jewish sages, and the governor explained, “Every time I go out to battle I see a vision of them and return victorious.”
Rabbi Abon went to meet the king. When his audience was over, he turned away and walked out just as one takes leave from a common man (while the accepted practice was to walk backwards in a show of respect). The king’s servants wanted to kill him for his impudence, but the king stopped them: “I see two bolts of lighting shining out of the nape of his neck where his tefillin are knotted.” And the servants let him leave unharmed.
The Yerushalmi writes that these are instances where the words of the pasuk: “Then all the peoples of the earth will see that the name of the Lord is called upon you, and they will fear you” (Devarim 28:10) came to fruition.
In addition, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai says that not only are people afraid of a Jew adorned in tefillin – even ghosts and sprits are frightened by him.
The above-mentioned sources are mentioned by the poskim as the reason for making an extra effort to purchase quality tefillin. Since the expense is a one-time outlay and the merits and power of quality tefillin is so great, when parents buy their son his tefillin for his bar mitzva they should make every effort to provide him with the best protection and honor he can get. As tefillin serve as a sign of their son’s Jewishness and G-d’s insignia, it is the most powerful tool available to enable their son to withstand life’s trials. When giving a bar mitzva boy this tool, it should be of the best quality available.
In addition, the Gemara (Menachos 44a) writes that in merit of laying tefillin one earns longevity and health. This is learned from the pasuk: “O Lord on them [You said] they shall live, and before all of them the life of my spirit, and You cured me and gave me life” (Yeshayahu 38:16). When Hashem’s Name is upon a person, he merits longevity, a cure, and strength. Which parent wouldn’t want this for his child?
Tefillin All Day – the Original Halacha
The Rambam writes (Hilchos Tefillin 4:25): “The holiness associated with tefillin is very great. As long as a person is wearing tefillin on his head and arm, he will be humble and G-d-fearing and will not be drawn to frivolous behavior or empty speech. He will not turn his thoughts to evil matters, but rather will direct his heart to words of truth and justice. Accordingly, a person should try to wear [tefillin] throughout the entire day, for this is the mitzvah associated with them. Among the praises conveyed upon Rav, the student of Rabbenu Hakadosh, was that he was never seen walking four cubits without [reciting words of] Torah, without tzitzit, and without tefillin.”
Nowadays, it is accepted to only lay tefillin during the morning prayers and remove them after prayers are over. Why was this mitzva limited to a short hour in the morning?
The Shulchan Aruch (Orech Chaim 37:2) explains that indeed, the basic halacha requires donning tefillin all day. However, since they require continuous sanctity of thought and cleanliness of the body, and nowadays people aren’t focused on carrying Hashem’s name all day, we only don tefillin during prayer or reciting the Shema, which is when we are fully concentrated on G-d.
The Chida (Birkei Yosef 37:3) and Mishna Brura (37:7) write that besides praying with tefillin, one should also learn a little Torah while still donning his tefillin. The Chida (Machzik Bracha 25:17) and Ben Ish Chai (Shana 1, Chayei Sarah 11) explain that it is impossible to attain spiritual perfection without learning Torah with tefillin.
The Smag (Ase #3) was asked what one should do if he find himself unable to remain focused on his tefillin even during prayers. He answers that even the most wicked person can retain awareness of tefillin just during prayers. He notes as proof that no one turns down the honor to carry the Torah scroll out of concern he may forget what he is holding. If this is true for a large Torah scroll with many passages, it is all the more so true for tefillin which contain only four Torah sections. Everyone can concentrate on tefillin for a short time.
Tefillin All Day, Nowadays
The Vilna Gaon was known to have remained adorned in his tefillin for the entire day, and his disciples wrote (Ma’ase Rav, Hilchos Tzitzis and Tefillin 18) that his practice should be seen as a public ruling – one is permitted to spend the entire day adorned in his tefillin in this day and age, even while performing mundane actions or eating a snack. They need not be removed while speaking of mundane but not frivolous matters such as discussing the news or any other non-mitzva related conversation.
The Biur Halahcha (37:2) writes that one who can fulfill this mitzva all day is praiseworthy, but only provided he is sure of his ability to exercise proper halacha-mandated caution, or at the very least refrain from laughter, frivolity, and physical uncleanliness. The Shevet Halevi (volume 9, chapter 18) warns not to encourage public full-day donning of tefillin because most people cannot meet the necessary requirements.
It seem this difference in opinion results from the Achronim’s dispute (Sha’aga Aryeh chapters 37-40; Mishna Brura 44:3) as to the kind of concentration required while donning tefillin – is it retaining full focus of carrying the King’s insignia, or only a prohibition from unnecessary speech and frivolous behavior? While the first kind of concentration is nearly impossible today beyond prayer time when one is naturally involved in speaking to G-d, the latter form – while no simple endeavor – isn’t completely impossible.
Women and Tefillin
Since time immemorial, the widely accepted practice in the Torah-observant community is that women do not wear tefillin. Historically, though, we find rare exceptions.
The Gemara (Eiruvin 96a) notes that Princess Michal, daughter of King Saul and wife of King David, used to put on tefillin. Already in Talmudic times, the rabbis disputed whether her behaviour was condoned by the sages of her era. The Yerushalmi Gemara understands that they criticized it, and the Tosefos (Eiruvin 96a quotes the Psikta, Chapter 22 and the Gra, Orech Chaim 38:3) explain that also the Babylonian Gemara seems to indicate thus.
The Maharshal explains (Kidushin 1:64) that even according to the opinions that the Sages did condone her behavior, it was due to Michal’s extraordinary piousness and the fact that she was a princess and queen, and also had no children to tend to that she was able to maintain purity of body and thought when laying tefillin. However, other women do not have this ability.
The Kolbo (21, quoted in Beis Yosef Orech Chaim 38) rules that women are explicitly prohibited from wearing tefillin. The Rama (Orech Chaim 38:3) follows this opinion. The Chida writes (Birkei Yosef 38:1) that ladies cannot retain proper concentration even during prayer, as a woman’s thoughts during prayer generally resemble a man’s daytime thoughts — which prevent him from donning tefillin all day long.
Another reason mentioned in the Chida (Shiurei Bracha, Yore Deah 182:2) refers to the biblical prohibition against crossdressing. The Torah states: “A man’s attire shall not be on a woman, nor may a man wear a woman’s garment, because whoever does these [things] is an abomination to the L‑rd, your G‑d.” (Devarim 22:5) The great Talmudic sage Rabbi Yonason ben Uziel, in his elucidated translation of the Torah, sees this as precluding a woman from wearing a tallit or tefillin, since they are male apparel.
Some Jews feel that singularizing men for tallis and tefillin wearing shows Judaism’s discrimination against females. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein addresses the issue (Igros Moshe, Orech Chaim IV, chapter 49), explaining that this exclusion does not in any way indicate a lower or lesser holiness or piety level attainable by women. While there are surely hidden reasons for obligating or excusing certain people from certain mitzvos, the obvious reasons are that women are naturally entrusted with more childcare obligations than men are, a mission essential for Jewish survival and perpetuation of Torah in the future generations. This mission requires peace of mind and removal of all external distractions. Therefore, women are excused from various mitzvos that occupy one’s time or full concentration such as Torah study.
Rabbi Feinstein adds that in the natural world most females are entrusted with the majority of childcare duties, and mankind is no different. Ladies (or men) who insist on forcing nature to accommodate their idea of equality (such as sending women out to combat service) do not believe in the Torah and have no portion in the World to Come.
A common misunderstanding of chazal’s reason for forbidding women from laying tefillin is attributed to women’s supposed flightiness. In a short space we will try to dispel some misconceptions and provide some insight on the subject. (For further reading on the subject, please refer to Circle, Arrow, Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism by Miriam Kosman. Some of the following is quoted from there.)
Judaism is invested in upholding the differences between men and women—arbitrary as they might be for particular individuals—because its goal is synthesis, for which one needs two polar opposites.
Broadly, the male energy is responsible for actively changing the world; the female energy is responsible for preserving the beauty that already exists. He is the arrow, shooting upwards towards perfection and excellence. She is the circle, maintaining, protecting, and guarding.
Males are charged with changing the world and endowed with mitzvos that require focused, direct energy and intense concentration. Females are charged with preservation and protection – attributes which require a calmer approach, ability to multitask and juggle, a less focused concentrated force.
Indeed, flightiness has its purpose – it allows the female attributes to shine. But as an antithesis to tefillin and its requirement of unrelenting focus, females are not required, or even forbidden to lay them.
G-d’s mitzvos are perfectly aligned to every human being’s need, character, and goal since they are the blueprint of creation and the instruction-book that allows for full utilization of all the characteristics Hashem has endowed us. Obviously, attempting to temper with G-d’s creation will result in destruction of both male and female forces, and with it – all of humanity.