Judaica Guide: A Complete Guide to Essential Judaica & Hebrew

Tefillin

The Tefillin are two small perfectly square black boxes (Batim) made of the leather of a Kosher hide, with black leather straps (Retsuot) attached to them. The straps and boxes must be dyed black with a special dye.

Tefillin

Tefillin

Each weekday morning (Sunday through Friday), Jewish men are required to wear Tefillin. One Tefillin Box (the "Head Tefillin") is placed upon the head, above the forehead, so as to rest upon the cerebrum. The other Tefillin box ("Hand Tefillin") is tied on the left arm so that it rests against the heart, and the suspended leather strap is wound around the left hand, and around the middle finger of that hand.

If for some reason it was impossible to wear Tefillin in the morning, one may still be put on later in the day, but not after sunset.

Tefillin are not worn on the Sabbath or on most Jewish holidays. On the fast day of Tisha Be'Av, and on that day only, they are put on during the afternoon instead of the morning service.

The English term for the Hebrew word Tefillin is "Phylacteries," although most Jews tend to use the Hebrew term (Tefillin).

Putting on Tefillin is the first Mitzvah Jewish males assume upon their Bar Mitzvah (the 13th Jewish Birthday).

The scribe inside the Tefillin

Tefillin Scribe

Tefillin Scribe

The text inserted into the two Tefillin boxes (Batim) is hand-written by a duly qualified Scribe (Sofer) on special, consecrated parchment, and consists of four sets of biblical verses (Parshiot).

The first verse in the Tefillin is the Shema verse (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), in which the Mitzvah of Tefillin is first commanded:

  1. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes:

Deuteronomy 6:8

Other verses in the Tefillin are Exodus 13:1-10 (Kadesh), Exodus 13:11-16 (Vehayah) and Deuteronomy 11:13-21 (Vehayah).

The head Tefillin has four compartments. Each contains one of four scrolls upon which one of the four different sections of the Torah relating to Tefillin are inscribed. The hand Tefillin has only one compartment, and contains all these four sections of the Torah inscribed on one scroll.

How to grade a tefillin

There are several parameters that dictate the grade of a Tefillin to be less or more "Mehudar" (higher quality):

  • The scroll - The better the writing of the Tefillin scroll or the leather on which the scroll is written, the better the Tefillin.
  • Mashuach - The word Mashuach refers to a scribal practice developed about 200 years ago in which a thin layer of paste is put on the parchment to make it easier to work with, thereby making the Tefillin less expensive.
  • Quality control (Hagahah) - The level of quality control (Hagahah) the scroll goes through before it is considered Kosher.
  • The boxes (Batim) leather - The box of the Tefillin could be defined as Tefillin Dakot (thin) which is made of sheep leather, or Tefillin Gasot (thick) which is made of Ox or cow leather. Tefillin Gasot is considered to be higher in quality.
  • The boxes (Batim) structure - The boxes that contain the scrolls may be constructed from one or more parts. If the box is made as one part, it is considered best, and is caleld in Hebrew "Or Echad" (one leather).

Putting the Tefillin on

  • The first step in putting on the Tefillin is to remove all rings and watches, and to put your Tallit on.
  • Rroll your sleeve up on your weaker arm (if you are right handed then that would be your left arm, and if you are left hander, that would be your right arm). The sleeve should be rolled to just above your bicep.
  • Now you should unwrap the straps of the Hand Tefillin (or in Hebrew Tefillin Shel Yad), and Place the box on the bicep of your weaker arm so that the leather piece is pointing twards your shoulder. The knot should be placed on the top of your bicep on the side closest to your body.
  • Now you say the following blessing:

    "Baruch ata Adonai elohanynu melech ha'olam asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu lehani'ach tefillin."

    Translation: Praised are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has made us holy with the mitzvot and instructed us to wear tefillin.

  • Pull the strap until the Tefillin are bound around the arm to keep it in place.
  • Wind the strap seven times around your arm. Note: Ashkenazic Jews wind the strap clockwise and Sephardic Jews wind it counter clock wise.
  • After the seventh wrap bring the strap to the outside of your hand and wrap it around to hold it there.
  • Unwrap the Head Tefillin (called in Hebrew Tefillin Shel Rosh) and place it on your head. It should be on top of your forehead and between your eyes. The knot should be in the back of your head.
  • Bring the straps forward and drape them over each shoulder.
  • Now say the following blessing:

    "Baruch ata Adonai elohanynu melech ha'olam asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu al mitzvat tefillin."

    Translation: Praised are you, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the Universe, who has made us holy with the mitzvot and instructed us concerning the precept of tefillin.

  • Unwind the strap on you palm.
  • Wrap the strap around your palm and three times around your middle finger, once around the lower part, one around the upper and one joining the two. This forms the letter "dalet" the second letter of "Shaddai".
  • Now say this following blessing:

    "Ve'ayrastich lee l'plam ve'ayrastich lee betzedek u'mishpat u'vcesed u'vrachamin ve'ayrastich lee be'emunah veyada'at et Adonai."

    Translation: I will betroth you to Me forever. I will betroth you to Me with righteousness, with justice, with kindness, and with compassion. I will betroth you to Me with faithfulness, and you shall know God.

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