Parshat Ekev: The tefillin in our head

Torah from Otniel in the Hevron Hills.

Tags: Otniel
Rabbi Dr. Yakov Nagen


the internet age is characterized by the unprecedented access to limitless information. however, additional information alone is not sufficient to generate change; true change comes about through a change in consciousness. through our consciousness we contemplate and experiences reality.

The nonstop flow of information actually makes it harder to focus on what is truly important in life. For the most part, increased knowledge does not bring us to a deeper awareness of reality, but instead leaves us inundated with excess information. Likewise, we see a similar phenomenon developing in the realm of human relations in the Global Village; despite the wide variety of tools and mediums that enable us to stay in touch with so many people, people increasingly live in a state of emotional estrangement from another.

Knowledge of the heart

Parshat Ekev is the fourth and final parsha that mentions tefillin, a mitzvah whose essence is connection between knowledge and consciousness. The four parshiot of tefillin include in them the fundamental principles of Judaism: Belief in One God, loving Him, obligation to His mitzvot and recalling the exodus from Egypt. It is not enough to acknowledge the truth of these fundaments, we must also internalize them, as the pasuk says: “And you should know today and return to your hearts that HaShem is God in the heavens above and on the earth below, there is no other” (Devarim 4:39).

It is told about a young man who left his house for a few years to learn Torah from a well-known Chasidic rebbe. Upon his return, his father asked what he had learned, to which he proudly answered: “HaShem is God.” His father, disappointed, replied: “But everybody knows that HaShem is God! For that you needed to learn all these years!?” To this the enlightened son countered: “Everyone says this, but I now know this to be true.”

The purpose of tefillin is to transform external information into an active awareness, to transfer knowledge from the brain to the heart and soul: “And you shall set these words on your heart and on your soul and tie them as a sign on you hand and they should be a symbol between your eyes” (Devarim 11:22). In a similar vain, we can understand the verses that are traditionally reciting while binding the tefillin straps around the hand (Hoshea 2:21-22): “I betroth you to Me forever and I betroth you to Me in righteousness… and I betroth you to Me in faithfulness and you shall know HaShem.” There is knowledge which stems from a deep connection that is likened to engagement. This deep connection to God is expressed by donning tefillin.

Hand tefillin and head tefillin: doing and being

Every set of Tefillin has two boxes: the “hand tefillin,” which are placed on the arm, and the “head tefillin.” This duality relates to the two basic life movements that we have so often discussed: “Doing” and “Being.”

The hand is an expression of Doing. The Talmud learns from the pairing of the verses “You shall set these words on your heart,” and “You shall bind them as a sign on your arm,” that the hand tefillin must be lined up with the heart, therefore deriving the exact location at which to tie tefillin on the bicep. This teaches us that true action is drawn forth from the heart.

The head is an expression of Being. Just as there is a parallel between the hand and the heart, there is a similar connection between the head and the soul – “And you shall set these words… on your soul… and they should be a symbol between your eyes.” In reference to hand tefillin the Torah used active wording – “and you shall bind” – whereas in reference to the head tefillin, the Torah uses the passive phrase “and they shall be.”

While hand tefillin raise the question “What am I doing?” head teffilin force one to grapple with the eternal question of “Who am I?” I would like to dig deeper into the second question: What do tefillin teach us about the essence of man?

God’s Tefillin“Three levels are tied one to another,” writes the Zohar, “Hakodosh Baruch Hu, Torah and Yisrael” (Zohar Acharie Mot 73a). The Ramchal (Rav Moshe Chaim Luzatto) in his explanation to the Midrash Rabbah clarifies the nature of the deep connection between the trio: “Torah, Yisrael and Hakadosh Baruch Hu are One.” The head tefillin are an indication of this ontological connection between Man, God and Torah.

According to the Gemarah, HaShem also wears tefillin (Brochot 6a). In our tefillin it is written “ Hear Yisrael – HaShem our God is the One Hashem (Devarim 6:4), whereas in God’s tefillin it says “Who is like your nation Yisrael, one nation in the land” (Shmuel II 7:23). This aggadic teaching echoes the message of the Zohar – Yisrael wears tefillin and thus connects to HaShem, likewise HaShem wears teffilin to connect to Yisrael.

Moreover, tefillin are not simply an expression of connection to God, but rather an expression of divine revelation in man. The Talmud says about the passuk “And the nations of the world will see that God’s name is called upon you and will fear you” (Devarim 28:10) as follows: “Rebbe Eliezer Hagadol says, this is [a reference to] the head tefillin” (Menachot 35b). The deeper meaning is that one who wears tefillin holds a resemblance to God, who also wears tefillin and, thus, sees God’s name called upon him.

Tefillin and torah

In another context the the Talmud compares tefillin to a Sefer Torah and derives the laws of the Torah scroll from the laws of tefillin (Makkot 11a). At the root of this teaching is the principle that tefillin are essentially a miniature Sefer Torah; they, like a Torah scroll, are written in ink on parchment and they, too, contain written portions of the Torah. This idea is taken even further in the Mechilta: “One who wears tefillin is as if he read from the Torah, and anyone who is reading from the Torah is except from wearing tefillin” (Mechilta Bo Parsha 17).

At first glance, the idea that tefillin and reading from the Torah are interchangeable seems incomprehensible. The purpose of reading from the Torah is to learn and intellectually understand its meaning, while tefillin, on the other hand, are not at all connected to learning! The reason these two mitzvoth are considered by the Mechilta to be interchangable is that the whole purpose of tefillin to connect to Torah. With tefillin, however, we do not make an intellectual connection, but rather it is a physical bond. When a person ties tefillin, which represent a Torah scroll, to his body, he actualizes a direct, tangible connection to the Torah.

Tefillin and body

Tefillin straps envelop the upper-body. In accordance to Torah law, the straps, the boxes and the scrolls must all be made from animal hide. Thus, we see tefillin as an extension of man’s body, as if they were of his own skin. In the times of the earlier sages, they would don tefillin all day long and so they were, to a certain degree, inseparable from man himself. The Zohar writes that a man crowned in tefillin is a complete person, and only then is he called “one” (Zohar Kedoshim 81a). The connection between the tefillin and the man’s physical body demonstrates that the fundaments expressed in tefillin are not external to man, but are truly inseparable from very being. Tefillin, like God’s name, are a revelation of the internal essence of man, who was created in God’s image. Tefillin are analogous to a Sefer Torah; likewise, one of the greatest expressions of man’s sacred nature is that he is likened to a Torah scroll. This concept is the precursor to the halacha that “A stander-by at the time the soul leaves a dead person, must tear his clothing. To what is this similar? To the burning of a Sefer Torah” (Shabbat 105b). Tefillin do not change man’s inner essence; they simply raise man’s awareness as to his true essence.

Tefillin in the head

There was once a Rav whom the Czar’s police wished to arrest. When they came into his house to detain him, they found him wrapped in his tefillin. They immediately shied away and left him in peace. The Rav explained his miraculous salvation in accord to aggadic teaching: “‘The nations of the world will see that God’s name is called upon you and will fear you’ (Devarim 28:10) – Rebbe Eliezer Hagadol says, this is [a reference to] the head tefillin” (Menachot 35b).

The leader of the local band of robbers heard this story and decided that he, too, would roam the streets donning tefillin so that the police might let him go free as well. However, his plan failed, as he was quickly caught by the police. The Rav explained to him his mistake: the teaching does not refer to tefillin that our “on one’s head,” but rather to tefillin “in one’s head.”

The essence of tefillin are the internal tefillin in man himself, the inner space in which he fulfills the fundamentals which are only expressed by the external tefillin on his head.

This article was translated by Yaakov Tzemach