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The Mysterious Tefillin

by Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan

  

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Have you ever felt so close to another human being that every moment together was precious? Where every letter and memento from this person was something to be treasured? What if this person gave you a meaningful gift? Every time you looked at it or used it, would it not remind you of this special relationship?

To the best of our understanding, G-d's very act of creation was an act of chesed, giving, and of love. It was a love so immense that the human mind cannot begin to fathom it.

Tefillin are a sign of this bond between G-d and man. Faith and love are very tenuous things. We can speak of them and think about them. But unless we do something about them we tend to forget; Tefillin serve to help us remember.

If you would open a pair of Tefillin, you would find that they contain four parchments. One of these parchments consists of the famous Sh'ma -- "Listen Israel, the Lord is our G-d, G-d is One."1 Tefillin concretize for us that G-d created the universe, orchestrates world history and is intimately involved with our daily lives.

The essence of the Torah is its commandments, mitzvahs in Hebrew. The word Mitzvah comes from the root meaning "to bind." Every commandment or mitzvah serves to draw us close to G-d and strengthen this connection.2

Sometimes the door is opened all the way. A person experiences more than merely a glimpse. He hears a clear voice and receives a lucid message. This is the highest possible human bond with G-d. It is the level of the prophet
With every mitzvah we forge a spiritual bond with G-d. In the case of Tefillin, this bond is physical as well as spiritual. We literally bind G-d's love symbol to our bodies. Thus, our sages teach us that the commandment of Tefillin encompasses all others.3 Here, we can actually see and feel the bond.

Another important theme of the Tefillin is the Exodus from Egypt -- "And it shall be a sign... because with a strong hand G-d brought you out of Egypt." The Exodus took place over 3,000 years ago. But it still plays a most important role in Judaism.

To understand the reason for this, we must realize how Judaism differs from all other religions. Other religions begin with a single individual. He claims to have a special message and gradually gathers a following. His followers spread the word and gather converts, and a new religion is born. Virtually every world religion follows this pattern. The only exception is Judaism.

G-d gathered an entire people, three million strong, to the foot of Mount Sinai, and proclaimed His message. Every man, woman, and child heard G-d's voice decreeing the Ten Commandments. Thus was the bond forged between G-d and Israel. This took place just seven weeks after the Jews left Egypt. It was the climax of the drama of the Exodus.

This was an event unique in the history of mankind. It is most important not to forget...

The Torah tells us (Deut. 4:9, 10), "Be very careful and watch yourself, that you not forget the things you saw with your own eyes. Do not let them pass from your minds as long as you live. Teach them to your children, and to your children's children. The day when you stood before G-d..."

The parchments in the Tefillin speak of the Exodus.

The Tefillin thus serve to bind us to our past, especially to this unique event in our history. We can understand this on a deeper level. But first we must understand the true significance of the Exodus and Sinai. We must know what it means to say that an entire people heard G-d's voice.

Footnotes

  • 1. See Sefer Mitzvot HaGadol (S'mag), positive commandments #3; Orech Chaim 25:5.
  • 2. Lekutey Moharan 4:6. Cf. Brachot 6b, Shabbos 30b; Rashi ad loc. "Mitzvot."
  • 3. Kiddushin 35a.

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RELATED CATEGORIES

Life Cycle » Bar/Bat Mitzvah » Tefillin

Mitzvah
(pl. Mitzvot). A commandment from G-d. Mitzvah also means a connection, for a Jew connects with G–d through fulfilling His commandments.
Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Tefillin
Black leather boxes containing small scrolls with passages of the Bible written on them. Every day, aside for Sabbath and Jewish holidays, the adult Jewish male is required to wrap the Tefillin--by means of black leather straps--around the weaker arm and atop the forehead.
Chanukah
An eight day mid-winter holiday marking: 1) The miraculous defeat of the mighty Syrian-Greek armies by the undermanned Maccabis in the year 140 BCE. 2) Upon their victory, the oil in the Menorah, sufficient fuel for one night only, burned for eight days and nights.
Moses
[Hebrew pronunciation: Moshe] Greatest prophet to ever live. Led the Jews out of Egyptian bondage amidst awesome miracles; brought down the Tablets from Mount Sinai; and transmitted to us word-for-word the Torah he heard from G-d's mouth. Died in the year 1272 BCE.
Seder
Festive meal eaten on the first two nights of the holiday of Passover (In Israel, the Seder is observed only the first night of the holiday). Seder highlights include: reading the story of the Exodus, eating Matzah and bitter herbs, and drinking four cups of wine.
Exodus
1. The miraculous departure of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage in 1312 BCE. 2. The second of the Five Books of Moses. This book describes the aforementioned Exodus, the giving of the Torah, and the erection of the Tabernacle.
Shechinah
Divine Presence.
Tzadikim
Plural form of Tzadik. A Tzadik is a saint, or righteous person.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.