For our site visitors who would like an introduction to the basics of the mitzvah of tefillin, we are posting an excerpt from a book by the late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan.
“There is no description of tefillin [in the Torah], nor any hints as to how they must be made. The Torah merely outlines their contents and tells us nothing more.
“It is most important to realize that God gave us the Torah in two parts. There is the Written Torah, which we keep in the ark. However, there is also the Unwritten or Oral Torah, consisting of the oral tradition handed down from Sinai. The Torah was not meant to be a mere book, lying on the shelf. It was meant to be part of the everyday life of the entire people. As such, it could only be transmitted by word of mouth.
“The Oral Torah was handed down from teacher to disciple for almost 1,500 years, until the harsh Roman persecutions finally threatened to extinguish it completely. Finally, some 1,700 years ago, it was written down to form the Talmud.
“The Talmud itself cites tefillin as a prime example of a case where the full description of the commandment is found only in the Oral Torah. If you think about it, you will realize that it was not necessary to write a description of Tefillin in the Torah. One need simply look at an older pair. Tefillin were worn by virtually every adult male throughout Jewish history, and they themselves provided as permanent a record as any book.”
Rabbi Kaplan also explains the effect tefillin have on the wearer: “Have you ever felt so close to another human being that every moment together was precious? Where every letter and memento from this person was something to be treasured? What if this person gave you a meaningful gift? Every time you looked at it or used it, would it not remind you of this special relationship?
“To the best of our understanding, God’s very act of creation was an act of chessed (giving) and of love. It was a love so immense that the human mind cannot begin to fathom it. Tefillin are a sign of this bond between God and man. Faith and love are very tenuous things. We can speak of them and think about them. But unless we do something about them we tend to forget; tefillin serve to help us remember…
“The essence of the Torah is its commandments, mitzvot in Hebrew. The word mitzvah comes from the root meaning ‘to bind.’ Every commandment or mitzvah serves to draw us close to God and strengthen this connection. With every mitzvah we forge a spiritual bond with God. In the case of tefillin, this bond is physical as well as spiritual. We literally bind God’s love symbol to our bodies. Thus, our Sages teach us that the commandment of tefillin encompasses all others. Here, we can actually see and feel the bond.”
The late Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan wrote a booklet entitled Tefillin (NCSY/OU, New York, 1986), which has become a classic and is highly recommended.