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Imagine that you have walked in to a synagogue, right around the time that prayers are supposed to start. You see each man who walks into the synagogue carrying a bag. You see the men take out prayer shawls, place them upon themselves and then take out small leather boxes with straps attached to them, which the men then proceed to tie to their arms and place upon their heads. What you have just witnessed is the performance of one of the commandments from the Torah, that of putting on and wearing Tefillin.
What is Tefillin?
What is Tefillin? Tefillin, also known as phylacteries, are two leather boxes containing pieces of parchment with sections of the Torah on them that are attached to straps. The scene you witnessed at the synagogue was the performance of this commandment. The commandment of wearing Tefillin is upon men, who wear these boxes at the minimum during Morning Prayer services and at the maximum all day and perform the commandment by placing the Tefillin on the arm and head. The source of the commandment of Tefillin is found in the last book of the Torah, in Deuteronomy, in Hebrew called Devarim. The commandment is also found in verses in the book of Exodus, Shemot in Hebrew, but the main commandment is found in Deuteronomy. In those verses, the command is to “Bind them as a sign upon your arm and they shall be as Totafot between your eyes.” Nobody knows what the word “Totafot” means, but there are guesses.
The Tefillin boxes and straps
The Tefillin boxes and straps are made of the hide of a kosher animal. The boxes must be perfect squares, painted black and attached to a rectangular base without any dents or curves. Any curvature or intentions that affect the Tefillin’s external physical appearance invalidate the Tefillin for use. In this case, a certified scribe should be consulted to ascertain if there are any repairs that must be performed and carried out as necessary. The straps are painted black on one side and this side faces outward when wearing them. Tefillin Shel Yad, the hand-tefillin, consists of a box with long strap and a knot on the side closest to the heart.
The placement of this knot depends on the hand used for writing. The general rule is that the hand used for writing is the hand used for performing mitzvot or commandments. Based on this rule, the Tefillin is placed on the hand not used for writing. Therefore, a left-handed individual would find the Shel Yad knot on the left side while a right-handed person would find it on the right side. The Shel Rosh Tefillin which goes on the head, consists of the same materials with the difference being that there are four separate compartments for parchment and how the knot is tied. The parchment contains the exact same verses that are on the Shel Yad. There are differing opinions regarding Tefillin. One of most well known controversies is the order of the verses in the Tefillin. The two opinions are those of two leaders from France in the 1000s and 1100s – Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, known as Rashi, and his grandson Rabbi Ya’akov ben Meir, known as Rabbeinu Tam. The consensus is that Rashi Tefillin is reԛuired while Rabbeinu Tam is not. Some people actually put on both, though not simultaneously.