To my delight, I have noticed an encouraging trend of people who might not be religiously observant nevertheless observing the commandment of wearing tefillin.
Why is it important for every male Jew, no matter what level of observance, to consider donning tefillin? For one, it is a mitzvah (a commandment). Every mitzvah is an act of love that binds us to God. But tefillin is the paradigm mitzvah in that we literally bind ourselves to the will of God. Tefillin represents a total dedication and union with the Almighty.
As the Torah says, “Bind [these commandments] as a sign on your arm, and as totafot [frontlets] between your eyes” (Deut. 6:8).
Tefillin consists of two black boxes, one of which is worn on the bicep, the other on the forehead. Attached to each box are black leather straps. Inside each box is parchment containing four Torah sections: The obligation to remember the Exodus (Ex. 13:1-10); the responsibility to transmit Judaism to our descendants (Ex. 11-16); the Shema, the proclamation of God’s unity and the mitzvah to love God (Deut. 6:4-9); and the implications of our fulfillment of the Torah (Deut. 11:13-21). The outer structure of the tefillin contains three Hebrew letters, which spell out one of God’s names, Shaddai.
Sometimes people won’t know about tefillin, but they know about phylacteries. This is a term used by the ancient Greeks who referred to them as “phylakterion,” which means a protection or a safeguard. Apparently, the Greeks misunderstood the tefillin to be some sort of amulet or charm. Actually, tefillin has nothing to do with superstition, but is considered as a genuine connection to God.
What’s the purpose of tefillin, of wearing a sign on your arm and on your head?
On the eve of the Exodus from Egypt, as the Israelites were about to go forth on their journey to freedom, God gave them a number of instructions. Among them was: “V’haya lecha l’eot al yad’cha, ul’zikaron ben enecha” — “It shall be to you as a sign upon your arm and a reminder between your eyes” (Ex. 13:9). Tefillin are to be an insignia on your arm and a crown upon your head, a daily reminder of what God did in redeeming us from the slavery of Egypt.
Tefillin is a daily reminder of the potential for evil within every one of us, personified by the slavery in Egypt, and a sign of our God-given potential for goodness and holiness as personified in the holy scrolls from the Torah within the tefillin boxes.
But why do we have to wear them? “le’maan tih’yeh Torat Hashem be’ficha” — “So that the word of God may be in your mouth” — so that you will be inspired to speak up about your own experiences as if you were in Egypt experiencing the evil of slavery, and help bring God’s light and goodness to the world.
The two boxes represent the two ways we serve God in this world: Thought (the head) and action (the arm). When putting on the arm tefillin, we focus on devoting our strength to the Almighty. It is placed at a level opposite the heart to teach that all our actions must be done with heart and mind. The head tefillin imbues us with the idea of subjugating our intellect for the love of God.
Dr. Steven Schram, a chiropractor and acupuncturist, wrote a fascinating article in the Journal of Chinese Medicine in October 2002 called “Tefillin: An Ancient Acupuncture Point Prescription For Mental Clarity.” Schram points out that when worn properly, the leather straps and boxes of the tefillin stimulate acupuncture points associated with improved concentration and inspiration. The contact points of tefillin are exactly those points at which acupuncture needles are inserted in order “to increase spirituality and to purify thoughts.”
Schram was not a particularly observant Jew and hadn’t worn tefillin since his Bar Mitzvah. He went to a rabbi for a refresher course. For a while, he would put tefillin on in the morning, sit on his adjustment table, say the Shema, and meditate. Schram wrote, “I hope that more people will do tefillin…I think tefillin is a tool for enhancing consciousness, and I would like to see more consciousness.”
Some have likened tefillin to a sophisticated device that receives “spiritual-electronic” signals. If one wire or transistor is faulty, the entire system does not function.
It is important that one wear tefillin in 100 percent good condition. Every letter of the parchment inserted in the tefillin boxes must be halachically acceptable, written in the right order that appears in the Torah, and not cracked or faded. The ink must be black, not faded to brown or green.
Therefore, if you have an old pair of tefillin (perhaps that you inherited from your grandfather), you should have it inspected by a scribe. In general, it is a good idea for tefillin to be checked at regular intervals. One should only purchase tefillin from a sofer, a scribe and God-fearing Jew, who knows the quality of tefillin.
Why put on tefillin? As the Torah tells us “so that the Torah of God shall be in your mouth.” So that you will be inspired and live an inspired life. Besides, what a great way to start the day.