THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Bo – פרשת בא
January 12, 2019 – ו שבט תשעט
This essay is sponsored by Honey & Sol Neier and Claire & Sam Krumper in memory of Roslyn Levine Z”L; and by David Tantleff in memory of Estelle Tantleff Z”L.
Phylacteries: From Pietistic Costume to Common Liturgical Accoutrement
In contemporary Judaism, phylacteries (tefillin) are associated with the weekday morning prayer service. Males over the age of bar mitzvah are expected to don phylacteries for the duration of Shacharit. Yet the notion that phylacteries are supposed to be worn by all such congregants as liturgical accoutrements is a relatively late concept in Judaism. A careful reading of Talmudic and post-Talmudic halakhic literature indicates that attitudes and practices evolved with respect to who should wear tefillin and when. What began as a marginal practice by a small group of pietists eventually was on the one hand made less demanding but on the other was expanded to a much wider population.
Four verses serve as the Scriptural basis for the commandment to wear tefillin. “And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder between your eyes (Exodus 13:9).” “And so it shall be as a sign upon your hand and as a frontlet between your eyes (13:16).” “Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a frontlet between your eyes (Deuteronomy 6:8 and 11:18).” The sages interpreted these verses literally, understanding there to be a practical commandment to bind a tangible item to one’s arm and forehead. Rabbinic tradition asserts that the details governing the manufacture of tefillin were originally taught as “Laws to Moses from Sinai” (Shabbat 28b).
Yet there is scant evidence that in deep antiquity these verses were interpreted literally or that Jews wore phylacteries. The author of Proverbs, borrowing from and refashioning Deuteronomy 6, presented a figurative and metaphorical version of the exhortation to remain loyal to the religious heritage. “Tie them over your heart always; bind them around your throat (Proverbs 6:21).” The Septuagint’s translation of Exodus 13:9 seems to indicate that the sign and memorial are not physical items. The Samaritans interpreted the tefillin verses metaphorically and never incorporated phylacteries into their religious praxis. [A millennium later, the same would also hold for the Karaites.] Philo does not explicitly mention tangible phylacteries in his commentary on Deuteronomy 6:8 and almost certainly never saw the practice observed among Alexandrian Jews (Special Laws 4:137).
Rashbam, who was committed to interpreting the Pentateuch according to its plain meaning even when inconsistent with halakhah, understood Exodus 13:9 to mean that one must perpetually remember the commandments as if the reminder were written on one’s hand. He compared the verse to another figurative expression “Let me be a seal upon your heart (Song of Songs 8:6).” Ibn Ezra acknowledged that Exodus 13:9 could be interpreted literally, as do the rabbis in mandating the use of phylacteries, or instead only figuratively. Support for the latter view could be marshaled from the verse “Let fidelity and steadfastness not leave you; bind them about your throat, write them on the tablet of your mind (Proverbs 3:3).” Yet Ibn Ezra falls back on the traditional rabbinic position for two reasons: 1) Proverbs opens with the caveat that it is just a collection of proverbs. The Torah, in contrast, is intended as a book of practical laws. 2) The literalist interpretation of Exodus 13:9 can muster support from the Oral Law and the living experience of the Jewish people; the figurative approach can boast of no such reliable support.
The earliest unambiguous reference to tefillin is found in the late 2nd century BCE Letter of Aristeas: “And upon our hands, too, He expressly orders the symbol to be fastened (159).” Interestingly, reference is made only to the hand tefillin and not to the frontlet worn on the forehead. The earliest tefillin reference in rabbinic literature is to a pair of phylacteries that Shammai the Elder inherited from his maternal grandfather (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Ishmael Bo Pischa 17). Shammai lived at the turn of the Common Era. His grandfather would have lived in the early first century BCE. Many scholars conclude that the wearing of phylacteries emerged as Pharisaic practice in the Land of Israel during the late Second Temple period, likely in the second century BCE.
The sages of the Tannaitic and Amoraic periods were well aware that most Jews did not wear tefillin. Rabbi Joshua defined an Am Ha-Aretz as one who does not wear tefillin (Berakhot 47b). Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar noted that those commandments to which Jews adhered firmly during the Hadrianic persecution were still widely observed in the post-persecution era, whereas those commandments that were forsaken during Israel’s hour of distress remained largely forgotten even during peacetime. The primary example of the latter category was the mitzvah of tefillin (Shabbat 130a). The Midrash recounts how Jews were sent to the gallows by the Roman authorities for having unlawfully maintained Judaic observances. One Jew circumcised his son, another read Torah, another ate matzah on Passover, and another waved a lulav on Sukkot. No mention is made of donning tefillin (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Ishmael Bachodesh 6). Rav Sheshet put himself forward as someone who scrupulously fulfills the mitzvah of tefillin (Shabbat 118b). That boast makes sense only if the practice was not widespread.
The Amoraim suggested two reasons why the practice of wearing tefillin ought to be restricted to the spiritual elite:
1) Tefillin require a clean body. While wearing the sacred boxes, one must guard against flatulence or falling asleep (Shabbat 49a). After suffering from a bout of intestinal illness, Rabbi Yannai waited three days before resuming his tefillin observance (Yerushalmi Berakhot 4c). The Talmud records a story about Elisha Baal Kenafayim. Legend has it that Elisha was caught wearing tefillin during the Roman persecution. To evade punishment, he covered his tefillin and claimed they were dove’s wings. Upon inspection, the tefillin miraculously turned into dove’s wings. The commentators struggled to find a connection between the legendary tale and the halakhic matter of bodily cleanliness for wearing phylacteries. Saul Lieberman pointed out that the supernatural aspect of the story was a later reinterpretation of the word כנפים. Originally, כנפים meant that one accepted upon oneself the requirement to maintain the ritual purity of one’s hands by, among other things, refraining from eating food or touching Terumah without first washing the hands to remove rabbinically-promulgated secondary impurity status (Tosefta Demai 2:11). Understood in this way, the Talmud was amplifying the need for ritual and hygienic cleanliness among those who wear phylacteries.
2) Tefillin require a clean soul. The Midrash tells the story of a man who came to town shortly before the Sabbath and needed to deposit his money for safekeeping. Not knowing the trustworthiness of those present, he gave his wallet to someone wearing tefillin on the assumption that a tefillin-wearer must be a pious and honest person. After the Sabbath, the tefillin-wearer denied having been given the wallet. The outraged and defrauded visitor exclaimed, “I trusted you only because the Name of God was on your forehead.” Lest deceivers give Judaism a bad name, the general public did not embrace tefillin observance. Instead, it remained the province of the truly righteous. Rav Bibi offered an ingenious interpretation of the third commandment of the Decalogue “You shall not take in vain the Name of the Lord your God (Exodus 20:6).” He applied the verse to a person who dons tallit and tefillin – literally wearing the Name of God and projecting an image of saintliness – yet transgresses (Pesikta Rabbati 22).
Other Talmudic passages, however, stress the importance of fulfilling the mitzvah of tefillin and do not distinguish among the various levels of personal piety or cleanliness. Rav identified the “bodily sinners of Israel” as skulls that never wore tefillin (Rosh Hashanah 17a). Rav Sheshet claimed that anyone who does not wear tefillin violates eight commandments. Resh Lakish said that anyone who wears tefillin is blessed with longevity (Menahot 44a). Ulla taught that anyone who recites the morning Shema without wearing tefillin has, in effect, offered false testimony (Berakhot 14b). The purportedly Amoraic material found in Shimusha Rabba promises glorious rewards for tefillin-wearers. Those who wear tallit and tefillin and recite Shema are promised a goodly portion in the hereafter and are spared from the fires of hell. Rabbi Yochanan taught that tefillin is a greater commandment than prayer, because the former is God’s law and the latter only an enactment by the sages (see Hilkhot Ketanot la-Rosh, Menahot). The Mishnah clearly states that the ordinary Jew is obligated and expected to wear tefillin and that an oath not to do so is automatically invalid because it contradicts religious law (Mishnah Nedarim 2:2).
When did the ancient pietists wear phylacteries? The question cannot be answered without first understanding the purpose of phylacteries. While they were supposed to be reminders of the Divine covenant with Israel and eternally binding character of the Mosaic Code, they were also protective charms. [The Mishnah repeatedly links, for halakhic purposes, amulets and tefillin. See Shabbat 6:2, Shekalim 3:2, Keilim 23:1, and Mikvaot 10:1.] The parchment inside the phylacteries includes the verse: “To the end that you and your children may endure, in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to assign to them, as long as there is heaven over the earth (Deuteronomy 11:21).” While at home, the Jew could rely on the protection afforded by the mezuzah affixed to his gate. Accordingly, women, slaves, and minor children, who were assumed to be homebound, were exempted from wearing tefillin (Mishnah Berakhot 3:3). Even grown men return home at night. Thus, according to the normative Tannaitic opinion “night is not a time for tefillin” (Zevahim 19a). On the Sabbath and holidays all are effectively homebound. Hence, the Tannaitic dictum: “The Sabbath is not a time for tefillin” (Shabbat 61a). That leaves the daylight hours of weekdays.
The extremely pious wore tefillin all day long, six days a week. It was said about Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai that he never walked four cubits unadorned with tefillin (Sukkah 28a). Even when engaged in mundane activities, the pietist was expected to wear his tefillin or keep them close at hand. While feasting in a banquet hall, one’s tefillin were to be kept on the table and restored to arm and head before the recitation of Grace after Meals (Berakhot 23b). Rabbi Eliezer kept his tefillin on until after Sabbath candles were lit on Friday night (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 25). Rabbi Yochanan wore both head and hand tefillin all day during the winter, though during the summer, when he perspired heavily and felt faint, he only wore hand tefillin (Yerushalmi Berakhot 4c). In Babylonian Academies of the Geonic period, it was customary to keep on one’s tefillin until nightfall and remove them during the evening prayer service upon concluding the second paragraph of Shema (Teshuvot Ha-Geonim, Shaarei Teshuvah 153).
In the Geonic period, wearing tefillin was largely a practice limited to the learned and pious elite. Yet, it was conceded that the ordinary Jew was also required to wear tefillin; God’s commandments cannot be disregarded. The absolute need to fulfill the mitzvah of tefillin, even if circumstances necessitated that it be done in a socially frowned-upon manner, is evident from the following responsum: In the yeshivot, the students wore small phylacteries and the rabbis wore large phylacteries (compare with Matthew 23:5). What if, on a given day, a student had access only to large phylacteries? Should he fulfill the mitzvah, or should he refrain from doing so lest it seem as though he was being presumptuous about his academic and spiritual standing? Answer: Wear the tefillin because honoring God and fulfilling His commands is paramount (Teshuvot Ha-Geonim Mussafia 3).
The Tosafists (12th century France) admitted that many Jews in their generation did not wear tefillin (Tosafot Shabbat 49a). Rabbenu Tam posited that only those Jews who neglect the mitzvah out of disdain are to be reckoned as “bodily sinners of Israel” (Tosafot Rosh Hashanah 17a). Those who avoid the mitzvah out of concern for the required level of cleanliness are in the wrong – as it is easy to keep oneself clean for the short duration of Shema and Amida – but are not stigmatized as bodily sinners (Tosafot Pesahim 113b, Rabbenu Asher Rosh Hashanah 1). Judah Ha-Hasid (Regensburg, Germany 1150-1217) complained that many people who sincerely wanted to wear tallit and tefillin nonetheless refrained from doing so because they were embarrassed to put on ritual garb in the presence of other Jews who would mock them for their piety (Sefer Hasidim 10, 40). Isaac ben Moses (Vienna 1200-1270) strongly encouraged all Jews, irrespective of their intellectual attainments or religious reputation, to wear tefillin daily (Or Zarua 1:531). Moses of Coucy (1200-1260) travelled around the Jewish communities of Provence and Spain. He found the practice of wearing tallit and tefillin had fallen into desuetude. Though his efforts, thousands returned to proper observance (Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, Esin 3).
The author of the Sefer Ha-Chinukh (late 13th century Spain) recounted that some religious leaders discouraged rank-and-file Jews from wearing phylacteries on the grounds that the common folk are physically unclean and insufficiently pious. They also cited Talmudic passages about “deceivers” wearing phylacteries and giving the religion a bad name. Sefer Ha-Chinukh debunked those arguments, citing another Talmudic passage that even minors capable of safeguarding their phylacteries are to be trained in the performance of the mitzvah (Sukkah 42a). He further argued that the very act of wearing tefillin is a bulwark against sin, as people are embarrassed to behave indecently while wearing a religious article. Moreover, the observance of one mitzvah leads to the observance of another (Avot 4:2), and so introducing tefillin to the impious can be the start of a positive religious transformation (Sefer Ha-Chinukh 421).
Jacob ben Moses Levi Moelin (Germany 1365-1427) recounted similar arguments in favor of restricting the use of phylacteries. Some rabbis complained that unmarried men were wearing tefillin. Others objected even to young married men’s wearing tefillin, arguing that members of that demographic group have irrepressible libidinous urges and are unable to block such thoughts from their minds while wearing the sacred items (Sefer Minhagim Hilkhot Tzitzit u’Tefillin 10).
By the 14th century, however, it was common practice for male Jews – including those of low spiritual rank – to wear tefillin during morning prayers. Jacob ben Asher codified the practice (Tur Orach Chaim 37), as did Rabbi Joseph Karo in the 16thcentury Shulhan Arukh. It became extremely rare for people to wear tefillin all day, though in every generation there were individual pietists and yeshiva students who continued to do so. Some Acharonim encouraged the wearing of tefillin at afternoon prayer services, too, though that practice was never widespread (Magen Avraham Orach Chaim 37:2). [Today, it is not uncommon to find people wearing tefillin at Mincha, though they are doing so not out of supreme piety but because they woke up too late for Shacharit.]
The historical evolution of religious practice traced above shows that the democratization of the mitzvah of tefillin was a prolonged process. Forces that had to be overcome included the religious indifference of lay people, snooty elitism of the learned classes, fear of inadvertent physical sacrilege, and the emotional distress of being mocked for adopting a religious lifestyle. Simultaneous with the commoners’ intensifying their ritual commitments, the pietists downscaled their observance of tefillin, conceding that phylacteries were merely liturgical accoutrements and not a fixed part of their attire.
Resultantly, the synagogue experience is a beautiful reminder that we are all equally servants of God. The thirteen-year-old bar mitzvah boy, the middle-aged father, and the pious and saintly grandfather, despite their differences in age, learning, and spiritual convictions, all unwrap their tefillin before the Morning Benedictions and rewrap and put away their tefillin after the final Kaddish.