In this Parsha the Torah mentions Tefillin[1] for the first time. In fact it is mentioned twice in two consecutive passages. Tefillin is also mentioned in Parshiyos Vaeschanan and Ekev in the book of Devarim. Our sages thus teach that these four passages are put into Tefillin. What is the general purpose of Tefillin and why does the head Tefillin have four separate compartments while the hand one only has one?




We should first realize that any of our discussion regarding Tefillin are like a drop in the sea compared to the whole meaning of this mitzvah. Besides the fact that all mitzvos of Hashem are infinitely deep and have many layers of meaning, the positive commandments that apply every day are usually discussed in Kabalistic sources more than any other mitzvos. For instance, the Zohar does not say a lot about the laws of forbidden foods but the commandments like reading Shma, putting on Tefillin and Tzitzis and praying take very central part in Zoharic and other Kabalistic literature[2]. We will be discussing only some general ideas about Tefillin and answering the questions we posed.


There are many kinds of commandments in our Torah. There are some mitzvos that maintain law and order in the society. Many of them have to do with our dealings with others. Some in particular deal with resolving financial disputes. Others make sure we deal with one another in the most beneficial manner, helping each other, avoiding quarrels, taking care of those who need special help. Then there are various prohibitions in the Torah. Some of them are for purely spiritual reasons: the particular actions may have a negative effect on our pure souls. Others have some physical base as well. In particular, dietary laws bring many benefits to our bodies. The circumcision is the only justified surgical procedure on a healthy body[3]. The prohibitions of intimate relations for seven days after the woman’s period bring many health and psychological benefits to herself and her husband. Then there are commandments that help us achieve our intellectual potential, to be able to better serve our Creator. These include such mitzvos as learning Torah, writing the Torah scrolls, respecting scholars and clinging to them. The mitzvah of going thrice a year to the Temple when it was standing also had the benefit of meeting the greatest Torah giants and learning more. There is similarly a mitzvah for the king to read from the Torah in front of the Jewish people once in seven years.


There is one particular group of commandments that serves us as a reminder of Hashem! Such commandments as tzitzis, Tefillin and reading Shma reiterates our faith on daily basis. In particular, three types of commandments in the Torah are called signs[4]. They are Shabbos and Holidays, Tefillin and circumcision[5]. The Ramban (Shemos 13:16) writes that without this group of commandments, there is a danger of forgetting the Exodus from Egypt and ultimately forgetting Hashem himself. The Almighty will not make wonders of similar caliber ever in the Jewish history. As time will pass, the future generations will certainly begin to doubt if the events described in the Torah ever took place. The only way to guarantee the passage of tradition is to make sure the nation as a whole will remind itself daily of what happened.


Imagine for instance that a group of Holocaust survivors decided to make sure the memory of what happened needs to be preserved[6]. The only way to guarantee this would be to accept on themselves and their descendants a way of life full of constant reminders of what they went through. They would write down an accepted version of their experience and make sure many exact copies are made and exist in their possessions, wherever they live. They would institute a public reading of this book on certain occasions. They could take the main passages of this book, affix it to their doors and put them on their arms and heads pronouncing: “We will not forget!” They might want to make sure their descendants will have a similar tattoo mark on their arm, like the one the Nazis made on theirs. They may also dedicate one day a week for remembrance of what happened, and some days a year as holidays: commemorating the day the allies released them, the day they traveled on ships to the Western countries and the day their special book was written and sealed[7]. 


It is easy to guess that the above ideas underline the simple reason for many of our commandments. We have the special book – our Torah that is copied letter by letter and any inconsistency will make the entire scroll invalid. We have the crucial parts of our Torah written on small parchments and affixed to our door posts as mezuzahs. We also wear the Tefillin with four Torah passages testifying that Hashem is One and He took us out of Egypt. We say Shma every day while wearing Tefillin. We have one day a week dedicated to Hashem and the three Regalim: Pesach, Shavuos and Sukkos – the holidays commemorating our deliverance, the giving of the Torah and the traveling through the desert. 


Now one should not make a mistake thinking that the entire purpose of these commandments is to remember Hashem. We already mentioned that every mitzvah is infinitely deep and brings untold benefits. However, the simple reason for these mitzvos becomes clear. This is our way of showing that our religion is true. There could not be a generation when all these mitzvos were simply invented by a group of Jewish leaders. The people would never accept on themselves to wear Tefillin every day had they not known that their fathers also did this[8]. They would have asked: “Why are you telling us that our entire nation experienced all these miracles? We have never heard anything like this except from you. Did the Exodus from Egypt take place in a secret?”


In fact this is the reason that the other religions start from a person who supposedly experienced a revelation. There is no religion in the world that claims a national experience similar to ours, as the Torah says (Devarim 4:33): “Did a nation ever hear the voice of G-d speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard …” In particular the two large religions that spread over the world: Christianity and Islam both claim that the Jewish people received the Torah at Mount Sinai! Why wouldn’t these religions also claim that they began with a Divine Revelation witnessed by millions? The reason is simple: nobody can invent such a thing, and no nation would accept such belief system and its’ commandments had they not experienced these events personally.


Now the simple purpose of Tefillin is to subjugate our thoughts and actions to Hashem’s service. The head Tefillin is placed above our brain to dominate our thought. The hand Tefillin is positioned next to our heart – the central organ that controls proper body functions – distributes the vital blood everywhere and collects it back[9]. The GR”A explains[10] why head Tefillin have four separate compartments while the hand one only has one. The head has four different senses: seeing, hearing, smelling and tasting. The body has just one sense of touching, but four types of organs can be used to touch: hands, body, legs and the fundamental[11] organ that is sanctified on the eight day. Thus the Tefillin that’s put on the body has the four parchments, but they are all placed in the same box. When we will deserve to sanctify our minds and our bodies, the following verse will be fulfilled (Devarim 28:10): “And all people of the earth will see that you are called by the name of Hashem and they will fear you”, and we will deserve the final redemption.




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[1] In general, the word “tefillin” is of Aramaic origin, this word is used in both Targum Onkelos and Targum Yonosan. The Torah calls the hand tefillin “a sign” while the head tefillin is called “totafos” and “remembrance”. Totafos in general can be translated as an ornament, (see for example Talmud, Shabbos 57b). Today people call both “black boxes” as tefillin. This is not the only place where we are accustomed to use an Aramaic word. We similarly find that the word “esrog” that we use today is the Aramaic translation of “pri hadar”, (see Ramban Vayikra 23:4). At times we are accustomed to use Yiddish expressions without even realizing it. For instance, the words “parve” and “Yor Tzait” are of Yiddish origin, (see also Rav Poalim, Sod Yesharim 4:16).


[2] Even what seems to be trivial in regards to the Talmudic drashas contain deep secretes. For example, the Talmud (Menachos 34b) learns the four boxes of Tefillin from the word splitting the word “totafos” into two and claiming that both halves mean “two” in various languages, thus combining into four. Our sages are hinting here to an important Sod discussed in Zohar 3:228.


[3] The doctors used to believe that many organs in our bodies are “extraneous”. This idea certainly came as a direct result of the theory of evolution, according to which we are just a blind byproduct of nature. At present these ideas were proven to be wrong, the only “extra” part of our body is the male foreskin. This is why most of Americans circumcise their children. (It is also known that the ability of our blood to clot is greatest on the eight day after birth, which is when the Torah commands to do the circumcision.)  

[4] See Zohar 3:29a; 3:242b.


[5] Regarding why the women don’t wear Tefillin, see Rav Arye Kaplan’s book about Tefillin.


[6] Rav Michoel Dov Weismandel who died a few years after the Holocaust wrote in his letters: “In our very lifetimes the next generation will begin to doubt that the Holocaust took place. They will say that these old people are obviously making a mistake. Yes, there were some Jews who died during the World War II, but the old people think that there were millions while in reality there were only thousands. They think these people were purposefully annihilated but in truth they were killed accidentally during bombings etc.” As we all know his prediction came true. While thousands of Holocaust survivors are still alive, there are many scientists and lay people who believe the whole story is a hoax! Interestingly, Germany itself forbids Holocaust denial while in America, Russia and many other countries a large portion of the populace believes the whole story was an invention.


[7] This entire analogy is taken from a contemporary book written for Baaley Teshuvah.

[8] Even though an individual can decide to become observant while his father was not, this could never happen to a nation as a whole.


[9] In general the head and the body are projections of each other. The head is dominated by the brain, while the body – by the heart that is compared to the king (see Sefer Yetzirah 6:3).


[10] In his commentary to the Zohar, Hashmatos printed in the end of Bereishis.


[11] According to Kabala, this organ corresponds to the Sefira Yesod, the base. Sanctifying it brings a person to perfection.