The Hebrew word תפילין (Tefillin or phylacteries in Greek) which is also referred in the Torah as טוֹטָפוֹת (totafot) describes a set of two small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from four sections of the Torah. These boxes are attached to leather straps. The word Tefillin is derived from the same root as the Hebrew word Tefilah (prayer) and these are worn by Jewish men during weekday morning prayers.
One of the boxes is placed on the left arm against the heart - the seat of emotions, and the attached leather strap is wound around the left hand, and around its middle finger. The other box is placed above the forehead -the seat of reason.
“In this manner,” according to Alexander Cowen, “our attention is directed to the head, heart and hand. It teaches us to dedicate ourselves to the service of G‑d in all that we think, feel and do. It is also to teach us not to be governed solely by the impulse of the heart, lest that lead us into error and transgression. Nor are we to be governed by reason alone, for that may lead to harsh materialism.
Placed on the arm opposite the heart, and on the head, the Tefillin signify the submission of one's mind, heart and actions to the Almighty, as well as the rule of intellect over emotion.”
Why have I decided to write about this subject now, you may ask?
A few days ago, I returned on an El Al flight from New York to Yisrael. As always, observant Jewish passengers perform this very important and several millennia old Mitzvah, one we are commanded in Devarim (Deuteronomy 6:8) “And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for ornaments between your eyes.”
Watching them filled my Jewish heart with joy and my cup of Jewish pride overflowed.
Sweet memories of my late father always surface before my eyes when I witness such scenes. They reconnect me with the beautiful days of my childhood when I would wake up to my father’s soft recitation of the morning prayer. His melodious chant was always filled with so much earnestness and sincerity. I would listen to him as he repeated the following verses from Hosea 2:21-22 while winding the leather strap around the middle finger of the left hand:
"וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי לְעוֹלָם וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בְּצֶדֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּט וּבְחֶסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בֶּאֱמוּנָה וְיָדַעַתְּ אֶת יְהוָה."
“And I will betroth you unto Me forever; and I will betroth you unto Me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in loving-kindness, and in compassion. And I will betroth you unto Me in faithfulness and you shall know The Lord.”
This particular verse, which is the second reason I elected to put my sentiments on paper, bears a great significance for me, as a Jew. It encapsulates the eternal covenant between G-d, Am Yisrael and our Jewish People. It allows us to get closer to satisfying our aspirations to know G-d, the One and Only G-d of Yisrael and His benevolence towards us.
This daily renewal of the vow of betrothal and the eternal love story between G-d and Am Yisrael coupled with its subsequent commitment and rewards is what the gift of being Jewish is all about. How many of us avow, daily, our alliances, loyalties or sacred covenants be they with partners, siblings or just friends and dear or loved ones?
Furthermore, the marks of the straps that are left on the skin of those who perform this Mitzvah remain for much longer after they are removed. They continue serve as a constant reminder of that which has kept us Jews and Am Yisrael the Eternal People.
This verse from Hosea and the Mitzvah of putting on Tefillin are also a reaffirmation that my unshakable Motto, נֵצַח יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא יְשַׁקֵּר” )Samuel 1 15:29 The Eternal of Yisrael shall never lie), is not merely another verse. It is a living proof that Jews are the People of Eternity and that G-d will never forsake us.
For as long as ONE Jew, yes ONE Jew only still performs it, just like in the words of Hatikvah, our Hope is not lost.