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What Are Tefillin?

Phylacteries in Jewish Prayer

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What Are Tefillin?

Tefillin on a man's arm

Getty Images/John Hicks

Tefillin (also called phylacteries) are two small leather boxes that contain verses from the Torah.  They are worn on the head and on one arm and are held in place by leather straps. Observant men and boys who have had their Bar Mitzvah usually wear tefillin during the morning prayer services.  Women do not usually wear tefillin, though this practice is changing.

Why Do Some Jews Wear Tefillin?

Wearing tefillin is based upon biblical law. Deuteronomy 6:5-9 states:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your might. These words that I am commanding you today must always be on your minds. Recite them to your children. Talk about them when you are sitting around your house and when you are out and about, when you are lying down and when you are getting up. Tie them on your hand as a sign. They should be on your forehead as a symbol. Write them on your house’s doorframes and on your city’s gates.”

Though many have interpreted the language of this passage as a figurative reminder to always think about God, the ancient rabbis declared that these words should be taken literally. Therefore “Tie them on your hand as a sign” and  “They should be on your forehead as a symbol” developed into the leather boxes (tefillin) worn on an individual's arm and head.

In addition to the tefillin themselves, over time customs for how to make tefillin also evolved. Kosher tefillin must be made according to an intricate set of rules that are beyond the scope of this article.

How to Wear Tefillin

Tefillin have two leather boxes, one of which is worn on the arm and the other of which is worn on the head.

If you are right-handed you should wear tefillin on the bicep of your left arm. If you are left-handed, you should wear your tefillin on the bicep of your right arm.  In either case, the leather strap holding the box in place should be wrapped around the arm seven times and then six times around the fingers. There is a specific pattern to this wrapping that you should ask your rabbi or a synagogue member who wears tefillin to show you.

The tefillin box worn on the head should be centered just above the forehead with the two leather straps wrapping around the head, then hanging down over the shoulders.

Passages Inside theTefillin

The tefillin boxes contain verses from the Torah. Each verse is handwritten by a scribe with special ink that is used only for parchment scrolls. These passages mention the commandment to wear tefillin and are Deuteronomy 6:4-8, Deuteronomy 11:13-21, Exodus 13:1-10 and Exodus 13:11-16. Excerpts from each of these passages are quoted below.

1. Deuteronomy 6:4-8: “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might…These words that I am commanding you today must always be on your minds…Tie them on your hand as a sign. They should be on your forehead as a symbol.”

2. Deuteronomy 11:13-21: “If you completely obey God’s commandments…by loving the Lord your God and by serving him with all your heart and all your being, then God will provide rain for your land at the right time… But watch yourselves! Otherwise, your heart might be led astray…Place these words…on your heart and in your very being. Tie them on your hand as a sign. They should be on your forehead as a symbol.”

3. Exodus 13:1-10: “The Lord said to Moses: Dedicate to me all your oldest children. Each first offspring from any Israelite womb belongs to me, whether human or animal…Moses said to the people, ‘Remember this day which is the day that you came out of Egypt, out of the place you were slaves, because the Lord acted with power to bring you out of there’…You should explain to your child…, ‘It’s because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ It will be a sign on your hand and a reminder on your forehead so that you will often discuss the Lord’s instruction, for the Lord brought you out of Egypt with great power.”

4. Exodus 13:11-16: “When the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites and gives it to you as promised to you and your ancestors, you should set aside for the Lord whatever comes out of the womb first. All of the first males born to your animal belong to the Lord…When in the future your child asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ you should answer, ‘The Lord brought us with great power out of Egypt, out of the place we were slaves. When Pharaoh refused to let us go, the Lord killed all the oldest offspring in the land of Egypt, from the oldest sons to the oldest male animals. That is why I offer to the Lord as a sacrifice every male that first comes out of the womb. But I ransom my oldest sons.’ It will be a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that the LORD brought us out of Egypt with great power.” (Note: ransoming the oldest son is a ritual known as Pidyon HaBen.)

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