Jewish Tefillin


The prayer straps of the tefillin literally bind the Commandments of God (written on parchment scrolls contained in cuboid leather batim boxes) to the arm and the head. This act demonstrates humility in serving God by disciplining and sublimating the desires of the heart, body and mind. When a Jew repeats sacred passages while wearing these boxes and straps, he or she is metaphorically following what is known as a sutra in Sanskrit, at once a "thread" (like the straps) and a "commandment of wisdom" (like those written on parchment inside the boxes). In the words of King Solomon, "Bind them upon thy fingers, write them upon the table of thine heart" (Proverbs 7:3).

Understanding the Jewish Tefillin

Judaic practice focuses not on counting rosary beads like other religions, but on wearing the tefillin, composed of two sets of leather batim boxes (containing passages from the Torah) tied to the head and the arm by means of leather retzuos straps. Pious Jews bind these tefillin boxes, considered to be like prayers, to the body: one is worn on the forehead (the head tefillin) and the other around the left arm (the arm tefillin), very close to the heart. Finally, the strap is coiled around the fingers and palm in such a way as to make it form the letter yod, which stands for the Ineffable Name, and the letter esh, which represents Shaddai, the Eternal One.

Two Batim Boxes

The first leather box, the bayis shel yad, is strapped around the arm and contains four verses from the Torah—two from Exodus, two from Deuteronomy—written on a single piece of parchment. Because it is traditionally believed that it is harder to discipline the body than the mind, it is bound on first and needs to stay in place for longer. The arm tefillin sits as close as possible to the heart and prompts the wearer to remember to keep physical temptation in check, the hands representing the ability to take action as well as being associated with the sense of touch, or sensuality.

The second case, the bayis shel rosh, is bound to the head and contains four inscriptions from the Torah written out on individual pieces of parchment kept in separate compartments. It assists the wearer in harnessing the intellect as well as the senses. Because it is secured with a knot that sits at the top of the spine, this part of the tefillin provides a prompt with each movement to bring every part of the body into consciousness of God.

Binding on the two types of batim boxes serves as a symbolic ceremonial route by which to overwhelm the pull of the body and intellect, the senses and the desire for action. In centering the worshipper inside the heart and head, wearing the tefillin helps to focus within, enabling a humble and uninterrupted contemplation of God's Commandments.

Retzuos Straps

Retzuos are cords made of leather, 10-11mm in width, cut at an angle at the ends and colored black with paint or ink. Black is a significant color because it does not alter, just as the pious remain constant and steadfast in their devotions. The straps stretch and crack with use and, as it is vital that no raw leather is exposed by cracks, they are usually replaced every five to 10 years. When wrapped, retzuos straps must stay in immediate contact with the skin. Clothing, even spectacles, would interrupt this direct line to God. When hanging, the longer right-hand strap reaches to the point of circumcision while the left-hand strap touches the navel, both reminders of the need to sublimate physical pleasures to the will of God.

Obeying God's Commandments

The word tefillin is related to the Hebrew tefilah, or "prayer," and derives from the root pe-lamed-lamed and the word l'hitpalel, meaning "to judge oneself." By entering through prayer, the devout Jew judges himself or herself against Holy Law.

Word of God

The verses placed in the protective leather cases of the tefillin are taken from verses in the Torah—the first five books of the Bible—that refer to God's Commandment to hear His Divine words. They serve as a reminder that God freed the Jews from bondage and commanded, "And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might," (Deuteronomy 6:5) and "Therefore shall ye lay up these My words in your heart and in your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand, that they may be as frontlets between your eyes" (Deuteronomy 11:18). It is said that because all the materials forming the tefillin are technically edible—leather, parchment wrapped in calf's tail hair—these words of God could literally be "absorbed" by the devout.

Wearing the tefillin thus places the devotee in a state of constant awareness of God's presence. Known as "the Glory of Israel," the leather cases and straps serve as both a visual and tactile sign that one is heeding God's Commandments, seeking to conquer the temptation of worldly pleasure and, through contemplative prayer, deepen spiritual practice.

Venerating the Divine

The aim of spiritual practice in Judaism is kedushah, or holiness, and it is a way of life. It is commonly believed that every life experience offers an opportunity to increase awareness of God and engender spirituality through prayer. The possibilities are endless: everyday activities such as eating, working, getting dressed, going to bed and getting up can all take on a spiritual dimension.

By uttering traditional blessings at these times, known as berakot, any Jew can ignite in everyday habitual actions and events the spark of the Divine that lies within them—for instance, on hearing thunder, one might proclaim, "Blessed are you, O Lord, our God! King of the Universe, whose power and might fill the universe."

Jewish mystical thought holds that God's presence lies hidden inside every part of the physical universe. Indeed, the Hebrew word for "universe" derives from an etymological root meaning "to conceal." The numerous blessings release the Divine within, bridging heaven and earth and helping to reveal God's presence in the world. Such quotidian acts present opportunities to approach and glorify the Divine. Residing within, transcending the moment and individual desires, and looking at oneself objectively with a view to rectifying mistakes are part of this way of experiencing the connectedness and sanctity of all forms of life. Such constant prayerful attention, or kavanah, is a prerequisite for meaningful prayer.

Inside the Tefillin

Tefillin are regarded as one of the principal symbols of Judaism and are one of just three objects considered to be holy by their very nature. The other two sacred objects are the Torah scrolls and the mezzuzah parchments attached to the thresholds of dwellings. Like all the holy symbols and ritual objects of Judaism, tefillin compass, in their very being, the history and symbolism of the Jews for the Jewish Diaspora—the Judaic community around the world. Simply to look upon such sacred objects is a reminder of the spiritual path and entices the mind and emotions to engage on a sacred journey towards a more profound awareness of the world. In many of the world's great religions, the mind uses such physical objects as intermediaries in its quest for ineffable truths and the intangible.

Folk Mythology

Tefillin are reputed in Jewish folklore to offer Divine protection to both body and soul. Jewish men with financial or relationship problems, or difficulties in the workplace, are readily advised to have the state of their tefillin verified by a tefillin-checker. Numerous word-of-mouth stories tell of miraculous resolutions to problems occurring once cracked prayer straps or damaged paintwork on the tefillin have been restored.

Sacred Numbers

Numerology in Judaism is greatly significant. Within the tefillin, the five hollow chalalim, or compartments for parchment inscriptions—four in the leather head box, one in the arm box—represent the number of senses which must be subdued to become closer to God. The 12 stitches threaded through each box recall the number of angels surrounding the throne of heaven and the tribes of Israel which gathered around the temple of Jerusalem. Calculations based on the number of parts belonging to the two types of cases total 613—the number of mitzvos, or Commandments, in the Torah. Tefillin represent in very physical form what God wills for the human soul.

Verifying the Scriptures

Every part of the tefillin is subjected to exacting checks to verify that each is indeed "kosher." Particular attention is paid to the state of the parchment inscriptions—two verses from Exodus, two from Deuteronomy—handwritten by a master sofer (scribe) on parshios (parchment), usually made of lambskin rolled up and inserted into the batim leather boxes in a prescribed order. Although different Jewish traditions, such as the Sephardic (Spanish and Portuguese) and Ashkenazic (Central and Eastern European), use varying forms of script, the laws governing all lettering are stringent. If any of the obligatory 1,594 characters are missing, incorrectly written or touching, the tefillin is declared posul, or invalid, by the tefillin-checker.

Beads of Faith: Pathways to Meditation and Spirituality Using Rosaries, Prayer Beads and Sacred Words
Gray Henry and Susannah Marriott (2008) Fons Vitae Publishing

Beads of Faith: Pathways to Meditation and Spirituality

Beads of Faith: Pathways to Meditation and Spirituality Using Rosaries, Prayer Beads and Sacred Words

Gray Henry and Susannah Marriott (2008) Fons Vitae Publishing

The practice of the rosary in various faiths is thoroughly covered in this stunning book and its accompanying DVD. For background, the commentary explains that the word "bead" has an interfaith origin: it comes from both the Sanskrit "Buddh," which refers to self-realization (the Buddha is the "Enlightened One"); and it also derives from the Saxon verb "bidden," meaning to pray. The rosaries pictured are made from such materials as rose petals, chunks of Tibetan amber, exquisitely carved Italian coral, and silken Turkish tassels. One simple mantra or prayer for each faith is also presented, as is a prize-winning DVD that takes the viewer into various world cultures where the recitation and method can be heard and seen.