“And so it shall be as a sign upon your hand and as a symbol on your forehead that with a mighty hand the Lord freed us from Egypt.”
–Exodus 13:16 (JPS Tanakh)
The Children of Israel are commanded to consecrate all firstborn, and to observe the anniversary of the Exodus each year by removing all leaven from their possession for seven days, eating matzah, and telling the story of their redemption to their children. They are also commanded to wear tefillin on the arm and head as a reminder of the Exodus and their resultant commitment to G‑d.
“Bo in a Nutshell”
Summary of Torah Portion Bo
It isn’t easy for most Christians to understand many aspects of Jewish religious and ritual life. We can comprehend the need to pray, to gather together in worship, and to acknowledge God as King over all, but the way that Jews express their faith is often alien to Christians, especially Protestants, since we don’t have a strong ritual component (relative to Judaism) in our private and corporate worship lives.
Take Tefillin (phylacteries) for example. Why should a man have to wrap straps around one arm and the forehead with little boxes attached in order to pray to God? In this case, modern Jews are obeying a very ancient commandment from God as quoted above.
Here’s the commandment again as expressed in scripture that is also a part of the Shema:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
–Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (ESV)
I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that this is also part of what Jesus referenced when asked about the two greatest commandments.
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the most important of all?” Jesus answered, “The most important is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
–Mark 12:28-31 (ESV)
If you put the commandment of tefillin within the context of loving God and loving your neighbor, then obeying this mitzvot is a sign of that love and adoration, not only of the Creator above, but of your fellow human being, because you cannot say you are performing the former if you do not perform the latter.
One of the First Fruits of Zion (FFOZ) commentaries for Torah Portion Vaetchanan (Deuteronomy 3:23-7:11) specifically addresses the commandment of tefillin.
There is some argument over whether the commandment of tefillin was meant to be taken literally, or if it is just a figurative language. In the Near East, it was once common for blood covenant partners to exchange amulet-like pouches which contained tokens, or even full copies, of their covenant obligations to one another. These were worn as bracelets or necklaces. The commandment of tefillin is consistent with that ancient ritual, especially when one considers the rabbinic tradition that God Himself wears tefillin with Israel’s name on them. In that sense, the tefillin are similar to wedding rings. In fact, while a Jew winds the black leather straps for tefillin of the hand about his middle finger like a ring, he recites the betrothal passage from the book of Hosea:
“I will betroth you to Me forever; Yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and in justice, in lovingkindness and in compassion, I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness. Then you will know the LORD.” (Hosea 2:19–20)
The binding on of tefillin is a tangible, ritual reminder of our obligation to bind God’s commandments on our very lives. God’s Word is to be between our eyes, filtering all that we see and think. It is to be bound on our hands, weighing all that we set our hands to do.
As you can see, the love and marital symbolism is unmistakable and in reciting the blessings for donning tefillin, the Jewish heart is drawn in affection and adoration toward God…
…and toward each other.
As we were saying goodbye, I said to the man who had been asking the questions: “I suppose that you have a special interest in tefillin; is that was why you were asking those questions about them?”
“I haven’t put on tefillin for over 20 years!” was his reply.
“But you should!” I responded.
He then said: “Everyone here is now going home to sleep, but I am going to work. I own a bakery, and we work all through the night. If you want me to put on tefillin, you can come to my bakery at about 6:30 AM. At that time we are between bakes, and I’ll put on tefillin.”
I must admit that this was not my style, but I could not refuse, so at 6:30 Wednesday morning I arrived at his bakery with tefillin, prayerbook and skullcap, and amongst the sacks of flour he put on tefillin. What surprised me was that he needed no help—he knew exactly what to do and what to say.
After he finished, I said to him: “You obviously know how to put on tefillin, and you know the blessings and the prayers. Why don’t you do it regularly?” He told me that he didn’t own a pair of tefillin, and it was not one of his priorities to buy a pair—but if someone gave him a pair of tefillin, he would put them on regularly. I answered that I was returning to England via New York, but I expected to be back in Detroit in about six weeks, and that I would bring him a pair of tefillin.
“Another Day Without Tefillin?”
This is part of a rather lengthy story about one Jew going well out of his way (much more than the segment above indicates) to make sure another Jew could fulfill the commandment of tefillin. You might ask yourself if it was so important to the baker to daven with tefillin, why didn’t he just purchase some for himself?
I don’t know. Regardless of his reasons or circumstances, once the other man became aware of the situation, he became obligated to help his fellow Jew. You can click the link I provided to read the entire article, but in short, here’s the rest of the story. The transaction between the businessman and the baker happened in Detroit. The businessman stopped in New York on his way back home to London to consult with the Rebbe in Crown Heights (Brooklyn), and the Rebbe convinced the businessman to make sure the baker had acquired tefillin immediately, before going back home rather than waiting six weeks. With great difficulty due to limited time and finances, the businessman was finally able to purchase tefillin and had them shipped to Detroit so that the baker would not go one more day without being able to pray with tefillin.
I left for London only after advising the Rebbe what had been arranged, and after waiting to hear that they had been collected and delivered in Detroit.
A few months later, I met this person again in Detroit, and asked him how he was doing with the tefillin. He told me that he had not missed a day—even walking home in the snow one day when his car broke down so that he put on the tefillin before sundown. He said: “Because of the trouble you went to in order that I should receive the tefillin the very next day, they are especially important to me.”
Again, this might seem rather a strange thing to a Christian since we do not experience any circumstance or situation that would inhibit or diminish our prayers, and certainly nothing like a physical object or device used in prayer.
Nevertheless, from a Jewish point of view, everything that happened was the performance of a single act of love in order to help one Jewish man perform another act of love…by davening with tefillin.
The results are obvious.