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The Mitzvah of Tefillin

The Torah tells us "And you shall bind them as a sign on your arm, and they shall be as frontlets on your head between your eyes" (Deuteronomy 6:8). This is the Mitzvah of Tefillin, though of course the details are much more complex than that.

The Torah tells us in four places that we should put on tefillin. (The four places are: Deut.6:4-9; Deut. 11:13-21; Exodus 13:1-10; and Exodus 13:11-16.) Each of these places is a separate chapter in the Torah (according to the original chapter and paragraph system, not according to the more popular one now in use, which was created by Christians and bears no relation or similarity to the original system).

Therefore, each of these chapters are written on small pieces of parchment and placed into leather housings, which a man places on the arm and the head, along with special leather straps.

The Rabbis say many great things about the Mitzvah of Tefillin. The Sefer Hachinuch (Book of Jewish Education) says that it is one of the Mitzvos that helps protects us against sin.

I think that the best way to understand the Mitzvah of Tefillin is to read the prayer that we recite each day before putting them on.

My intention in putting on tefillin is to fulfill the will of my Creator, Who has commanded us to put on tefillin, as it says in His Torah, "And you shall bind them as a sign on your arm, and they shall be as frontlets on your head between your eyes."

They contain the four chapters from the Torah in which the Mitzvah of tefillin is stated....

Those chapters discuss how Hashem, Whose Name is blessed, is One, and only One, in the entire universe. Those chapters also discuss the miracles and wonders that Hashem did for us when He took us out of Egypt. They discuss how Hashem alone has the power and the dominion to do whatever He wants in the physical world and in the spiritual world.

Hashem commanded us to put tefillin on our arms to remember the "strong arm" (which refers to the powerful and cataclysmic changes in nature that Hashem performed for us when He took us out of Egypt).

The tefillin on our arms is near the heart to control the lusts and thoughts of our hearts and redirect them towards performing the Service we are commanded to perform for Hashem, Whose Name is blessed.

The tefillin on our heads is near the brain, so that the spiritual elements in our brains, as well as our senses and all our abilities, should should all be controlled and redirected towards performing the Service we are commanded to perform for Hashem, Whose Name is blessed.

May the performance of the Mitzvah of tefillin influence me and bestow upon me long life, Holy Influence, holy thoughts -- without even a moment's consideration of any sin or bad thing whatsoever -- and that our Evil Inclination should not be aroused, nor should it seduce us, and should let us serve Hashem the way our hearts truly desire to.

May it be Your will, Hashem our G-d, and G-d of our forefathers, that You value our performance of this Mitzvah of putting on tefillin as if we had done it absolutely perfectly, with every detail accurate, and with all the correct thoughts and intentions....

We put tefillin on once a day, usually for the morning prayers.

We may not wear tefillin at night.

The Laws of creating tefillin are very complex. It is impossible for a layperson to make them. They must be written with Halachically acceptable ink, on Halachically acceptable parchment. Each letter must be formed according to specific and exacting details. If only one point on one letter is slightly rounded off when it should be pointed, the entire pair of tefillin is invalid. The housings must be perfectly square when viewed from the top. Even the stitches that keep the housing closed must be square when viewed from above, and may be done only with Halachically acceptable kosher animal sinews.

The letters must all be written in order. If a letter has been written incorrectly, it cannot be fixed out of sequence. Sometimes one bad letter can invalidate an entire pair of tefillin.

Since there are so many Laws about tefillin, one should buy them only from an honest Jew who knows the Laws, and can be trusted to make them correctly. A dishonest man might find a problem, and fix it incorrectly, just to save money. Therefore we must be very careful from whom we buy our tefillin.

When you go to buy tefillin, be aware that there are various levels of quality in tefillin. This is not a scam. The more expensive ones are actually better, and they will also last longer. They are also more preferred, the Talmud says, because they are created with a greater adherence to various spiritual concepts. But you should get what you are ready, willing and able to buy.

Get your tefillin checked periodically -- at least once every four years, preferably once a year if possible. Any other time, if you see something wrong, such as the housings bending slightly, or paint chipping or cracking, get your tefillinchecked immediately.

Here are some of the Laws you should know about wearing tefillin.

If for some reason you have only one half of the set, whether it be only the one for the head, or only the one for the arm, put that one on and recite only the blessing for that one.

When putting on tefillin it is very important to have a clean body. In addition to general cleanliness, one must be especially careful to be clean after going to the bathroom.

Someone who has no control over what comes out of his body is forbidden to wear tefillin. Anyone in that situation should discuss it with his Rabbi to find out when and how he may wear tefillin.

One should go to the bathroom before putting on tefillin, or at least be absolutely sure he will not have to go while wearing the tefillin. If while wearing tefillin you feel the need to go to the bathroom, you must immediately remove the tefillin and go.

If you feel the need to pass gas while wearing tefillin, you must first remove your tefillin.

Never take tefillin or any holy item into a bathroom.

While wearing tefillin, one should think no thoughts at all except thoughts of Hashem, Torah or prayer. All the more so should he be careful about what he says out loud.

We may wear tefillin only during the day.

We do not put on tefillin on Shabbos.

Tefillin should be put on your weaker hand. If you are right-handed, use your right hand to put your tefillin on your left hand. If you are left-handed, use your left hand to put tefillin on your right hand. If you are ambidextrous, you must ask your Rabbi, because each case is different. If you are unable to contact a Rabbi for some reason, assume in the interim that the hand with which you write is your stronger hand (for this purpose, at least).

Always treat your tefillin with the greatest of respect and reverence. Do not remove them from the bag by shaking them out of the bag, for example. Always take them out carefully, and put them back carefully.

To show our love for the Mitzvah, we use our stronger hand to put the tefillin onto our weaker hand. We also use our stronger hand to put the tefillin on our head. When taking off the tefillin, we use our weaker hand, to show our reluctance to take off the Mitzvah.

Tefillin are made of leather. That means that you must keep them safe from things that hurt leather, like moisture and extreme temperatures.

How to Put on Your Tefillin

This is a brief guide to putting on tefillin, but it will be much easier if you have a live person showing you and helping you your first time. Words and pictures cannot equal the real thing.

You should be standing when putting on or taking off tefillin. While wearing them you may sit, but while putting them on or taking them off you should be standing.

We start with the hand. We never start with the head, so if you accidentally take out the shel rosh (the one for the head) first, you must put it back and take out the shel yad (the one for the hand).

Unwrap the straps and take the shel yad out of the box.

Open the loop very wide, and slide back the shel yad until the bayis (the housing -- i.e., the black box) sits on the center of your biceps.

The knot should be tightly touching the bayis, and should be between you and the bayis.

Recite the first blessing:

Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the universe, Who has made us holy through His commandments, and commanded us to put on tefillin.

Tighten the loop, and begin wrapping the strap around your hand. There are different customs about some of the minor details of the wrapping, so I will explain the custom that is shown in the pictures. In the picture I have included on this page, the man is wrapping the strap towards himself, but some have the custom to wrap away from themselves.

Wrap at least once around your biceps, and seven times around your lower arm. Stop at the palm, and wrap the remainder of the strap around your palm. Do not wrap the strap around your fingers just yet.

Remove the shel rosh from the bag, unwrap the straps, and take it out of the box.

Place the shel rosh on your head, with the bayis on your head just before the hairline.

The knot should be behind your head, just above your neck, and the strap should be lying loosely on your head.

Recite the blessing:

Blessed are You, Hashem our G-d, King of the universe, Who has made us holy through His commandments, and commanded us concerning the Mitzvah of tefillin.

Tighten the straps around your head by pulling them down at the sides, front and back, as necessary.

This is how it should look.

This is wrong. The shel rosh is too far forward.


Shine upon me some of Your wisdom, Hashem Who is supreme, and give me understanding from Your understanding. Do great things for me out of Your kindness. Destroy, with your power, my enemies and adversaries. Let the good oil pour down on the seven branches of the menorah, to influence all Your creation with Your goodness. You open Your hand to satisfy the desires of all living things.

Now resume wrapping the strap of the shel yad. Unwind the strap from your palm, and wrap the strap around your middle finger. There are various customs concerning this. If you have no one there to guide you, do it this way:

As the strap comes from the wrist, pass it over the back of your hand. Wrapping around to the other side, pass it between your thumb and your first finger and take the strap down to the middle finger.

Wrap it once around the base of the middle finger, then once around the middle section of the middle finger. Then wrap it once around the base of the middle finger again. This should create something resembling an X around your finger.

Next, pass it again under your finger, over to the next finger down, and around that finger, and back and over the back of your hand to the area between your thumb and fingers again.

Now take the strap down under your hand across the palm, and around and over again to the area between your thumb and fingers. If there is any strap left, continue to wrap it around your palm and hand.

Tuck the end of the strap into the palm of your hand, around and beneath some of the strap that is already there. Do this at least twice, and pass the end of the strap through the final tuck to make a loop, and tighten it, to sort of tie off the end.

Look at the picture above to see how your hand should look when you you are finished. You will see that the straps sort of spell out the Three-Letter Name of Hashem, with a "shin," a "daled," and a "yud."

Now recite:

I will betroth you to Me forever, and I will betroth you to Me with righteousness, justice, kindness, and mercy. I will betroth you to Me with faithfulness, and you shall know Me, Hashem.

Now say the prayers.

When you take off the tefillin, first unwrap the strap from your fingers, wrapping it around your palm. Then take off the shel rosh. Wrap it up and put it away. then take off your shel yad, wrap it up and put it away.

When you wrap your tefillin to put them away, do not pull the straps tightly around the boxes. Leather can stretch a little, but the paint on the straps cannot stretch without cracking. The straps must be entirely black, according to Halachah, and if the paint on them cracks the straps could become invalid.

To buy a pair of tefillin, visit Tiferes Stam Judaica. Ask them also for a good beginner's book on tefillin. One good source is Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan's booklet on Tefillin. Tell them I sent you.

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