Dvar Torah About Tefillin

Dvar Torah January 20, 2015 Part Two “About Mitzvat Tefillin and the Issue of Women Donning Tefillin” J.J.Adler (Given at Moreshet Yisrael Congregation, Yerushalayim)


            Last week I spoke on the Mitzvah of tefillin which Rabbinic Sages based on verses, in Exodus 13.9; 13:16; Deuteronomy 6:4 and 6:10.   However, these verses do not explain how tefillin should look and in what order the verses in them should be placed. (This latter issue of the order of the various texts I shall mention in a few minutes because it eventually became a source of debate.)   

            Although there is no guidance for tefillin from the Torah texts the Rabbinic Sages promulgated dozens of rules and regulations about how tefillin should look and what materials and manner they should be tied on to our hands and head.  Although archaeologists and Biblical scholars believe that the mitzvah of tefillin was a late addition to Jewish rituals not practiced till about the third or second century prior to the destruction of the Second Temple, the Rabbinic Sages themselves believed that all Jewish laws, such as tefillin, not specifically explained or referred to in the Torah were already taught by God to Moshe Rabeinu during the forty days he spent on Mt. Sinai when he received the tablets of the Aseret Hadibrot, (the Decalogue).  What our rabbinic sages believed, and is accepted by Jewish Orthodoxy, was that during the forty days Moshe spent on Mt. Sinai he received orally all types of laws and explanations which were recorded centuries later in rabbinic sources such as the Mishna, Talmud and Midrashim. .      

In these rabbinic works on the subject of tefillin we find references to Jewish individuals and sectarian groups who had their own ideas about how to fulfill the mitzvah of tefillin in a way which was different from the rulings of the rabbinic leaders. For example, there were individuals who donned round rather than square tefillin or  donned gold covered rather than black tefillin, and who on the inside of the  tefillin inserted verses from the Aseret Hadibrot, (the Decalogue) which are not included in the Rabbinic tefillin. 

According to the rabbinic tradition tefillin are square shaped, made of kosher animal skin, painted black and contain the  four Torah paragraphs I cited earlier.  The tefilla for the hand contains these verses from Exodus and Deuteronomy on a single small handwritten scroll while the tefilla of the head (bordering on the hairline and not literally between one’s eyes) contains separate handwritten scrolls and placed in four sections inside the tefilla.  

The order in which these verses are written in the tefilla of the hand and in the placement of the four smaller scrolls in the tefilla of the head was the subject of a twelfth century debate between Rashi and his grandson Rabeinu Tam.  They disagreed about the order of the paragraphs and the order in which the four smaller scrolls were placed in the tefillah of the head.  (Personally I cannot understand how in the 12th century they could debate this issue unless there existed two versions of tefillin with some being according to the order of Rashi and others in the order of his grandson.)  What is interesting is that in almost every generation since Rashi and Rabeinu Tam that there were individuals who not only wore tefillin in conjunction with Rashi’s view but then donned another pair of tefillin to conform with the view of Rabeinu Tam. (My brother Steve after giving my talk informed me that his son-in-law and grandson do observe the donning of Rashi’s and then Rabeinu Tam’s tefillin.)

As to women donning tefillin  we find that at least one of the rabbinic sages in the Babylonian Talmud  believed that women could  observe the mitzvah of donning tefillin and cited  as a precedent the tradition that Michal the daughter of King Saul used to don tefillin and that the Sages did not object to her practice.  (TB Eruvin 96a).  What I found most interesting in this Talmudic discussion was that none of the other rabbis challenged the truth of the colleague who made the assertion about the daughter of Saul donning tefillin.  The other rabbis simply ignored Michal’s donning of tefillin and in the ensuing discussion only brought up the objection to women donning tefillin because of the fact that the mitzvah of tefillin is limited to daytime hours (zman grama, which exempts women from many mitzvoth involving time). But that objection was easily overcome by the fact that women did observe many of such mitzvoth though they were violations of the zman grama principle; so why not permit women to don tefillin even if the mitzvah is limited to daytimes? 

The rabbis who opposed women donning tefillin then raised a more serious objection, the issue of bodily cleanliness.   It was this latter issue which was debated not only in the Talmudic discussion in Eruvin but became an issue throughout the centuries by leading rabbis. The issue of bodily cleanliness was not limited to a woman’s menstrual cycle but included her other tasks which often cause her to be unclean such as cleaning up after her babies, washing the dirty clothes of her household and in general cleaning of her home.  I should note that there were rabbis throughout the centuries who felt that not only women but men too, who were physically unclean or dirty, that they too should not don tefillin.  We should also remember that until modern times it was difficult for a woman to keep herself physically clean without the benefit of convenient showers, baths and modern hygienic products.

After studying the views of various rabbis since the days of the Talmud I found that most, though not all, were opposed to women donning tefillin with Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna, among those opposed. It is interesting that those who were not opposed were rabbis who lived in the earlier centuries and were willing to accept women donning tefillin probably on the basis of the example of Michal found in the Babylonian Talmud and in the report that the Sages then did not object to her practice.

Today several modern Orthodox rabbis and respected learned laymen feel that the cleanliness argument, at least in Western countries,  should no longer be used as an excuse to prevent women from donning tefillin because of modern hygienic products, ample showers, throw away diapers and washing machines.   I recently read that in some Orthodox girl’s schools in New York, such as Ramaz, they do allow (but do not encourage) girls to don tefillin and wear a tallit at the schools daily religious services.  Apparently this was a change in the former school policy which did not permit girls in tallit and tefillin to be part of the school’s religious services; to me this is a hopeful sign of an increasing liberal trend among the Orthodox in the USA.   

Let me close my dvar Torah -which was a very brief survey on the mitzvah of tefillin- with the famous remark once made by the Sage Hillel to a man who wanted to learn all of Judaism while standing on one foot: “ Go out and learn the rest.”

     Ahd kahn