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Tefillin, also called phylacteries, are leather objects used in Jewish prayer, containing Biblical verses. They are an essential part of morning prayer services, and are worn on a daily basis (except the Sabbath and festivals) by observant Jews.

The origin of wearing tefillin comes from the Torah (five books of Moses), in Deuteronomy vi. 8, xi. 18; Exodus xiii. 9, 16. While these passages were interpreted literally by most commentators (compare, however, Abraham ibn Ezra and Rashbam on Exodus xiii. 9), the Rabbis held that the general law only was expressed in the Bible, the application and elaboration of it being entirely matters of the oral law. The earlier tannaim (rabbis of the Mishnah) described their views of the tefillin in the Mishnah and Talmud. (Talmud references" Men. 34b; Zeb. 37b; Sanh. 4b; Rashi and Tos. ad loc. )

Table of contents

Details of Manufacture

Tefillin consist of two leather boxes, one worn on the arm and known as "shel yad", and the other worn on the head and known as "shel rosh". They are made of the skins of kosher animals (Talmud: Men. 42b; Sanh. 48b; "Yad," l.c. iii. 15).

The boxes must be square; their height may be more or less than the length or the width; and it is desirable that they be black. The boxes are fastened on the under side with square pieces of thick leather by means of twelve stitches made with threads prepared from the veins of clean animals, and are provided with loops at the ends, through which are passed leathern straps made of the skins of clean animals. They are blackened on the outside.

The strap that is passed through the head-phylactery ends at the back of the head in a knot representing the letter ד; the one that is passed through the hand-phylactery is formed into a noose near the box and fastened in a knot in the shape of the letter ש. The box containing the head-phylactery has on the outside the letter ש, both to the right (with three strokes: ש) and to the left (with four strokes: ש; Men. 35a; comp. Tos., s.v. "Shin"; probably as a reminder to ensure the correct insertion of the four Biblical passages); and this, together with the letters formed by the knots of the two straps, make up the letters of the Hebrew word "Shaddai" ( = "Almighty," one of the names of God.

The measurements of the boxes are not given; but it is recommended that they should not be smaller than the width of two fingers. The width of the straps should be equal to the length of a grain of oats. The strap that is passed through the head-phylactery should be long enough to encircle the head and to allow for the knot; and the two ends, falling in front over either shoulder, should reach the navel, or somewhat above it. The strap that is passed through the hand-phylactery should be long enough to allow for the knot, to encircle the whole length of the arm, and then to be wound three times around the middle finger.


Each box contains these Biblical passages: Exodus xiii. 1-10, 11-16; Deuteronomy vi. 4-9, xi. 13-21, written with black ink in Hebrew square characters on parchment specially prepared for the purpose, from the skin of a clean animal.

Arrangement of Passages

The hand-tefillin has only one compartment, which contains the four Biblical selections written upon a single strip of parchment in four parallel columns and in the order given in the Bible. The head-phylactery has four compartments, formed from one piece of leather, in each of which one selection written on a separate piece of parchment is deposited perpendicularly.

The pieces of parchment on which the Biblical selections are written are in either case tied round with narrow strips of parchment and fastened with the thoroughly washed hair of a clean animal, preferably of a calf. There was considerable discussion among the commentators of the Talmud as to the order in which the Biblical selections should be inserted into the head-phylactery. The chief disputants in this case were Rabbi Solomon Yitzhaki (Rashi) and Rabbi Jacob ben Mer Tam (Rabbenu Tam), although different possible arrangements have been suggested by other writers ("Shimmusha Rabba" and the Rabad).

The prevailing custom is to follow the opinion of Rashi. Some Hasidic Jews are accustomed, in order to be certain of performing their duty properly, to lay two pairs of tefillin; one pair is prepared in accordance with the view of Rashi, and the other pair in accordance with that of Rabbenu Tam. If, however, one is uncertain as to the exact position for two pairs of tefillin at the same time, one should first "lay" the tefillin prepared in accordance with Rashi's opinion, and then, removing these during the latter part of the service, without pronouncing a blessing lay those prepared in accordance with Rabbenu Tam's opinion.

Mode of Writing

The parchment on which the Biblical passages are written need not be ruled, although the custom is to rule it. A pointed instrument that leaves no blot should be used in ruling; the use of a pencil is forbidden. The scribe should be very careful in writing the selections. Before beginning to write he should pronounce the words, "I am writing this for the sake of the holiness of tefillin"; and before he begins to write any of the names of God occurring in the texts, he should say, "I am writing this for the sake of the holiness of the Name." Throughout the writing his attention must not be diverted; "even if the King of Israel should then greet him, he is forbidden to reply".

How put them on

In putting on the tefillin, the hand-tefillin is laid first. Its place is on the inner side of the left arm, just above the elbow, where the exact place is given as two fist-widths from the shoulder-blade. Similarly the head-tefillin is worn two fist-widths from the tip of the nose); and it is held in position by the noose of the strap so that when the arm is bent the phylactery may rest near the heart. If one is left-handed, he lays the hand-phylactery on the same place on his right hand. After the phylactery is thus fastened on the bare arm, the strap is wound seven times round the arm. The head-phylactery is placed so as to overhang the middle of the forehead, with the knot of the strap at the back of the head and overhanging the middle of the neck, while the two ends of the strap, with the blackened side outward, hang over the shoulders in front. On laying the hand-phylactery, before the knot is fastened, the following benediction is pronounced: "Praised art You, Lord our God, King of the Universe, who sanctifies us with His commandments and has commanded us to lay tefillin."

The Blessings

Before the head-tefillin is fastened the blessing is repeated with the substitution of the phrase "concerning the commandment of tefillin" for "to lay tefillin." Some authorities are of the opinion that the blessing on laying the head-phylactery should be pronounced only when an interruption has occurred through conversation on the part of the one engaged in performing the commandment; otherwise the one blessing pronounced on laying the hand-phylactery is sufficient. The prevailing custom, however, is to pronounce two blessings, and, after the second blessing, to say the words, "Blessed be the name of God's glorious kingdom for ever and ever," lest the second benediction be pronounced unnecessarily.

Then the strap of the hand-phylactery is wound three times around the middle finger so as to form a ש and the passages Hosea ii. 21 and 22 are recited. The seven twistings of the strap on the arm are then counted while the seven words of Deuteronomy iv. 4 are recited. After the tefillin are laid Exodus xiii. 1-16 is recited. In removing the tefillin the three twistings on the middle finger are loosened first; then the head-phylactery is removed; and finally the hand-phylactery. It is customary to lay and to remove the tefillin while standing; also to kiss them when they are taken from and returned to the tefillin-bag.

Originally tefillin were worn all day, but not during the night. Now the prevailing custom is to wear them during the daily morning service only. They are not worn on Sabbaths and holy days; for these, being in themselves "signs," render the tefillin, which are to serve as signs themselves (Ex. xiii. 9, 16), unnecessary. In those places where tefillin are worn on the week-days of the festivals (see Holy Days), and on New Moons, they are removed before the "Musaf" prayer.

Women and tefillin

The duty of laying tefillin rests upon males after the age of thirteen years and one day. Women are exempt from the obligation, as are also slaves and minors. Early Jewish law codes allow women to take on the obligation of wearing tefillin, but this custom was generally discouraged. Over time the discouragement changed into active exclusion: Later codes of Jewish law such as the Shulkhan Arukh eventually forbade women from wearing tefillin at all.

Modern Orthodox Judaism holds that it is permissible for women to wear tefillin, but generally discourage it. Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism allow women to wear tefillin. Many in Conservative Judaism encourage this practice.


A mourner during the first day of his mourning period, a bridegroom on his wedding-day, one who has been excommunicated, and a leper are exempt from wearing tefillin. A sufferer from stomach-trouble, one who is otherwise in pain and can not concentrate his mind, one who is engaged in the study of the Law, and scribes of and dealers in tefillin and mezuzot while engaged in their work if it can not be postponed, are also free from this obligation). It is not permitted to enter a cemetery or any unseemly place, or to eat a regular meal or to sleep, while wearing tefillin. The bag used for tefillin should not be used for any other purpose, unless a condition was expressly made that it might be used for any purpose.

In his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides concludes the laws of tefillin with the following exhortation :

"The sanctity of tefillin is very great. As long as the tefillin are on the head and on the arm of a man, he is modest and God-fearing and will not be attracted by hilarity or idle talk, and will have no evil thoughts, but will devote all his thoughts to truth and righteousness; Therefore, every man ought to try to have the tefillin upon him the whole day; for only in this way can he fulfil the commandment. It is related that Rav (Abba Arika), the pupil of our holy teacher (Rav Judah ha-Nasi), was never seen to walk four cubits without a Torah, without fringes on his garments (tzitzit), and without tefillin. Although the Law enjoins the wearing of tefillin the whole day, it is especially commendable to wear them during prayer. The sages say that one who reads the Shema' without tefillin is as if he testified falsely against himself. He who does not lay tefillin transgresses eight commandments; for in each of the four Biblical passages there is a commandment to wear tefillin on the head and on the arm. But he who is accustomed to wear tefillin will live long, as it is written, 'When the Lord is upon them they will live'".

Name and Origin

The only instance of the name "phylacteries" in Biblical times occurs in the New Testament (Matthew xxiii. 5), whence it has passed into the languages of Europe. In rabbinic literature it is not found even as a foreign word. The Septuagint renders "ṭoṭafot" (A. V. and R. V. "frontlets"; Ex. xiii. 16 and Deut. vi. 8) by ἀσαλευτόν (= "something immovable"); nor do Aquila and Symmachus use the word "phylacteries." The Targumim and the Peshita use "tefillin" or "ṭoṭafot".

The terms "tefillah," "tefillin" only are found in Talmudic literature, although the word "ṭoṭafah" was still current, being used with the meaning of "frontlet" (Shab. vi. 1). The conclusions in regard to the tefillin which are based on its current name "phylacteries," therefore, lack historical basis, since this name was not used in truly Jewish circles.

In regard to their origin, however, the custom of wearing protecting coverings on the head and hands must be borne in mind. Saul's way of appearing in battle, with a crown on his head and wearing bracelets, is connected with this idea. The Proverbs reflect popular conceptions, for they originated in great part with the people, or were addressed to them. Prov. i. 9, iii. 3, vi. 21, and vii. 3 (comp. Jer. xvii. 1, xxxi. 32-33) clearly indicate the custom of wearing some object, with or without inscription, around the neck or near the heart; the actual custom appears in the figure of speech. In view of these facts it may be assumed that Ex. xiii. 9, 16, and Deut. vi. 8, xi. 18 must be interpreted not figuratively but literally; therefore it must be assumed that the custom of wearing strips inscribed with Biblical passages is commanded in the Torah. "Bind them as signs on thy hand, and they shall be as ṭoṭafot between thy eyes" assumes that ṭoṭafot were at the time known and in use, but that thenceforth the words of the Torah were to serve as ṭoṭafot (on signs see also I Kings xx. 41; Ezek. ix. 4, 6; Psalms of Solomon, xv. 9; see Breast-plate of the High Priest; Cain).

Earliest Form

Tefillin resembled amulets in their earliest form, strips of parchment in a leather case, which is called either "bag" or "little house." Tefillin and "ḳeme'ot" are, in fact, often mentioned side by side (Shab. vi. 2; Miḳ. vi. 4; Kelim xxiii. 9; et al.), and were liable to be mistaken one for the other ('Er. x. 1 et al.). As in the case of the Torah roll, the only permissible material was parchment, while the "mezuzah" was made of a different kind of parchment (Shab. viii. 3 et al.); for this reason a discarded tefillah could be made into a mezuzah, but not vice versa (Men. 32a). It was made square, not round (Meg. iv. 8). The head-tefillah consisted of four strips in four compartments, while the hand-tefillah consisted of one strip. The former could be made out of the latter, but not vice versa; and they were independent of each other.

Tefillin and Magic

Although the institution of the tefillin is related in form to the custom of wearing amulets, there is not a single passage in rabbinic literature to show that they were identified with magic. Their only power of protecting is similar to that of the Torah and the Commandments, of which it is said, "They protect Israel". One of the earliest tannaim, Eliezer ben Hyrcanus (b. 70 C.E.), who laid great stress upon the tefillin, actively advocating their general use, derives the duty of wearing them from Josh. i. 8, "You shall meditate therein day and night" (treatise Tefillim, near end).

In the Diaspora and Post-Talmudic Times

Although the tefillin were worn throughout the day, not only in Palestine but also in Babylon, the custom of wearing them did not become entirely popular; and during the Diaspora they were worn nowhere during the day. But it appears from the Letter of Aristeas and from Josephus that the tefillin were known to the Jews of the Diaspora. At this time it may have become customary to wear them only during prayer, traces of this custom being found in Babylon (Men. 36b).

In France in the thirteenth century they were not generally worn even during prayer. The difference of opinion between Rashi (d. 1105) and his grandson Jacob Tam (d. 1171) in regard to the arrangement of the four sections indicates that no fixed custom in wearing them had arisen. Rashi and Tam's tefillin are referred to; scrupulously pious persons put on the tefillin of R. Tam after prayer. There were differences of opinion between the Spanish and the German Jews in regard to the knot in the strap (see illustrations in Surenhusius, cited below).

External links: Tefillin in Jewish law and tradition (http://www.ahavat-israel.com/ahavat/torat/tefillin.asp)

Tefillin in the Jewish Virtual Library (http://www.us-israel.org/jsource/Judaism/tefillin)

See also: Tallit, Siddur, Torah, Judaism

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