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Putting Signs on Our Bodies

The very last verse of this week’s Torah reading states, “And it shall be a sign on your arm and an ornament between your eyes, for with a strong hand Hashem took us out from Egypt.”(Shemot, 13:16) What are these two signs and what is the need for two seemingly identical signs? Furthermore, why are these signs placed on our bodies?

These two specific signs mentioned in this verse comprise the two mitzvot of tefillin, one tefillin for the arm, and the other tefillin for the head. They are commonly referred to as the phylacteries. A legal or halakhic consequence of these separate commands arises in one of the following situations: (1) if one’s arm is in a cast preventing the proper placement of the arm tefilin, the person should still don the tefilin for the head; (2) or should a person be wearing a head brace, such that it interferes with the proper placement of the head tefilin, the person is still obligated to affix the tefilin on his arm. Hence, they are two distinct and independent mitzvot in the count of the total, 613.

Another significant halakhic difference occurs between the arm and head tefillin. While they both contain the same four sections of the Torah, the head tefillin has the requirement that each section be written on a separate parchment. They are then placed into four separate compartments of the head tefillin in such a way that a person standing opposite the person wearing the head tefillin would read these four sections, were they visible, in order of how they are written in the Torah. In contrast, the tefillin worn on the arm has all four sections written on one parchment, placed into one compartment. Why this difference?

The Torah sets out the system of perfection for mankind designed by our Creator. In God’s infinite wisdom, He knows human beings are in constant need of reminders to His ongoing relationship with mankind in general and with the nation of Israel in specific. Constant reading and studying the Torah will accomplish this goal but exclusive involvement and immersion in that single activity is not realistic. People must live in the world and that reality requires them be involved daily, in many other activities as well. Thus by dint of the human condition, people cannot be constantly focused on learning and study. God, therefore, designed mitzvot in such a way as to serve as “signs” and reminders of these fundamental concepts.

The tefillin contain 4 discrete ideas written in separate sections of the Torah. In summary: 1. God relates to man and intervenes on his behalf so we are constantly thankful for our freedom to follow the Torah; 2. Our service is only to God, the Creator demonstrated by offering our best in the Temple service, the firstborn of our livestock and redeem our firstborn sons for His service; 3. Recognition of the unique oneness of the Creator (there is no other force or god) and we approach Him via mitzvot (our actions); 4. God of the universe relates to all mankind through a system of reward and punishment based on His infinite wisdom, justice, and mercy.

By wearing, seeing, and touching these “signs,” we are brought to a reflection, even for a moment, of valuable ideas necessary for our daily lives. Our bodies become vehicles of significant philosophic principles just as our house does by attaching a mezuzah and our clothes do by attaching tzitzit. In this way the Torah uses the most basic physical objects, our shelter, our clothing, and our bodies to constantly convey fundamental ideas about God and His relationship with us.

Why the difference in the structure between the arm and head tefillin? The answer here, I believe, can be found in the very nature of human beings. On the one hand we can see ideas, separate and distinct from one another. This notion is reflected in the design of the tefillin worn on the head. Our mind is the only tool we possess by which we have cognition and understanding. Hence, each of these fundamental ideas is placed in its own separate compartment worn on the head.

The head tefillin also has the requirement that these four sections be arranged on the inside so that an observer would, were he or she to see them, read them in the sequence in which they are written in the Torah. The head tefillin is to be visible to the onlooker precisely because these ideas are important for every person to know and reflect upon. Rabbi Eliezer the Great taught that the verse (Devarim, 28:10) “And all the nations of the earth will see that God’s name is called upon you and they will be in awe of you,” refers to the tefillin worn on the head. (Talmud Menachot 35b). The Torah is for everyone and wearer of the head tefillin, in essence, is wearing a condensed version of the Torah scroll for all to see and learn.

However, as human beings, we also possess very powerful emotions and instincts. Often they pull us in separate directions each competing for our energy and attention. Internally, we are not always a harmonious whole. These four fundamental ideas are not only true in the abstract but demand we live a unique way of life. These ideas present challenges to our internal harmony. If they are true, then God did give the Torah with a prescribed and beneficial way for man to live. This notion is reflected by the unique structure comprising the tefilin worn on the arm. For this object of mitzvah to be properly constructed, all four major ideas are written on one parchment placed in one compartment. They comprise one harmonious entity of principles to live by.

Where exactly is the physical location on the body for the arm tefilin? The Talmud tells us, it goes directly opposite the heart. Why there? The tefilin of the arm remind us that the external reality of these four ideas must also comprise the internal reality of our emotional and psychological life. Then and only then will we function on the level of humanity God has designed for us. A human being, on the highest level of living, will operate with each component in sync and in harmony with every other human component. At that time all of our actions will be truly beneficial not only to us but to others as well. Most importantly, at that time we will fulfill our purpose as human beings, to reflect the source of these ideas, God, Creator of heaven and earth.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Robert Kaplan