Tefillin: The Beautiful Blending of Art and Religion

Phylacteries remind worshipers to keep God’s Law in both their actions and thoughts. These small leather boxes are beautiful pieces of art.

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תפילין. אילוסטרציה
תפילין. אילוסטרציה
צילום: istock

Phylacteries (tefillin) remind worshipers to keep God’s Law in both their actions and thoughts. These small leather boxes are beautiful pieces of art that encapsulate small scrolls that have verses from the Torah inscribed on them. They are made with care and precision exemplifying the significant role they serve in daily prayer.

When you read this article, you can learn:

  • The Significance of tefillin
  • Standards on How to Wear tefillin
  • Components of tefillin
  • Steps to Put on teillin

The Significance of Phylacteries

The word phylactery comes from the Greek phylaktḗrion meaning amulet, safeguard, or protections. Phylacteries, tefillin in Hebrew, are small, specifically made boxes to contain Hebrew texts. They are worn as a reminder to keep God’s law and as a reminder of one’s obligation to keep the Law during daily life.

The wearing of tefilin is a practice that reminds believers that what one does and thinks throughout the day should be guided by God’s Word. The instruction to wear tefillin is found in the book of Deuteronomy.

These boxes are worn by Orthodox Jewish men, 13 years or older, during morning prayers. Wearing tefillin is not restricted to men, women choose to wear them as well.

There are days observers are exempt from wearing their tefillin. A mourner on his first day of mourning is not required to wear his tefillin. Nor is a bridegroom required to wear his on his wedding day. Also exempt is anyone in such pain that they cannot concentrate on their prayers. And finally, any scribe or dealer of the tefillin whose work cannot be postponed in order to pray.

Standards on How to Wear tefillin

The wearing of tefillin is governed by strict guidelines that dictate not only where to place them but when to wear them as well. The arm phylactery is to be worn on the arm opposite one’s dominant hand. For example, if you are right-handed, you would wear it on the left arm; if you are left-handed, you would wear it on the right arm. The placement of the arm-tefillin should be positioned so that it faces the heart. The second of the boxes is worn above the forehead, going back from the hairline and on a line with the space between the eyes,

It is worn during morning services with the exceptions of the Shabbat and festivals when it is not worn. Festivals are a time when families reflect on their spiritual practices and aspects of life and wearing tefillin would be superfluous. Nor are tefillin worn until the afternoon on Ninth of Av because this time is considered a day of mourning.

The specific manner in which the tefillin are worn represents the letters that create the name Shaddai.

Components of tefillin

Tefillin are made by specialists and the end product comes with a certification from a rabbi, guaranteeing that they have been made according to specifications. Boxes and straps must be black leather. The boxes have to be perfectly square when viewed from above. In addition, the stitches, made by halakhically acceptable thread, need to be perfectly square as well.

The arm tefillin has a single compartment that contains several texts written on one parchment. The head phylactery compartment is divided into 4 sections, each filled with one text.

The tefillin are made from a single piece of animal hide. From here, the forming of the compartments can have various levels of quality. It is considered the basic level when the inside of the head tefillin is constructed using several pieces of parchment. For a higher level of quality, a thin piece of leather is used instead of parchment. The most durable and highest quality of craftsmanship is to use a piece of animal hide in the interior.

Attached to each tefillin are long black straps used to tie the boxes to the arm and head. The straps must be made from black leather. The inside of the straps may be any color but red. Stricter regulations state that the inside of the straps also is black. Most people choose to leave the inside of the straps the same color as the leather.

Also dictated by Jewish law, the parchment used for the texts must be written in halakhically acceptable black ink. The parchment should also be halakhically acceptable, from the hide of a kosher animal. The writing utensil must also be approved. Any errors made when writing the text invalidates it and it must be discarded and started over.

Before writing the texts, the scribe must immerse in a ritual bath, mikvah, in order to purify himself. When complete there are 3,188 letters on the parchment. It takes approximately 15 hours to complete a set of texts.

Steps to put on Phylacteries

Specific steps are followed when putting on phylacteries for prayer. The arm tefillin are put on first. A blessing is recited, then the straps are wrapped around the arm 7 times to secure the box.

Next, the head tefillin is loosely fastened to the head about a centimeter above the original hairline. The original hairline is stipulated to account for receding hairlines. A blessing is then recited. Once the blessing has been given, then the straps are tightened with a knot on the back of the head. When tied, the knot of the head tefillin forms the letter ‘dalet’ or a double ‘dalet.’

Finally, the straps from the arm phylactery are wound around the middle finger three times. This is done while reciting Hosea 2:12-2. Once the straps are wrapped around a knot is tied and shapes the letter ‘yud.’ This knot, together with the head knots spells one of God’s names, Shaddai.


Tefillin are a beautiful expression of one’s faith. They serve as a gentle reminder to the worshiper to act and think according to the Law of God. No act of prayer would be complete without them.