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What are the Tefillin?

The purpose of the Tefillin

Tefillin Pshutot

The Tefillin are also called phylacteries. They are two black boxes made of leather and contain scrolls of parchments with biblical verses. Traditionally Jewish men wear them during the Morning Prayer services. One of them, the ‘Tefillin shel Yad’, is worn on the upper arm and the other one, the Tefillin shel Rosh’, on the forehead. They are meant to serve as a sign of remembrance that God brought Israel out of Egypt.
One of the biblical sources for wearing the Tefillin can be found in the verse ‘Shema’, which is regularly said during prayers: And you shall bind them as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as totafot between your eyes" (Deuteronomy 6:8). A verse in Exodus (13:9) states: "And it shall be for a sign for you upon your hand, and for a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the LORD may be in your mouth; for with a strong hand did the LORD bring you out of Egypt"
Further explanation in the Jewish Oral law gives details on how this law has to be followed practically.
Excavations in the Judean Desert revealed that the Tefillin were widely used during the Second Temple period. The dig of Qumran revealed the earliest remains of Tefillin

Tefillin and Sofer

The person who writes the scrolls of the Tefillin is called a Sofer. He has to write them with a specific intent to fulfill the commandment of writing the Tefillin. The scrolls have to be made of parchment and the letters have to be written with ink in a certain Ashuri script, which slightly varies according to Sephardic or Ashkenazi or Hassidic custom. The boxes have to be perfectly square and stitched with a sinew of a kosher animal. The straps have to be perfectly black and made of leather (the skin of a kosher animal) just like the Tefillin boxes themselves. The straps of the Tefillin shel Rosh have to be knotted in the shape of the Hebrew letter dalet and of the Tefillin shel Yad in the shape of the letter yodh. The box of the Tefillin shel Rosh (for the head) has to have the letter shin both on the right as well as the left side.
The arm-Tefillin has one compartment with four biblical verses written on one parchment. The head-Tefillin has four compartments for the verses, which are written on four separate parchments. The scribe has to be meticulous and the words have to be written in order of how they appear in the Torah.
The various types of the lettering on the Tefillin scrolls are called Beit Yosef, generally used by Ashkenazim, Arizal used by Hasidim and Velish used by Sephardim.

Rashi Tefillin and Rabeinu Tam Tefillin

There are several opinions as to the order of the passages in the Tefillin. Most people use the order based on the opinion of Rashi, but some wear an additional second set of Tefillin based on the opinion of Rabeinu Tam. They either lay them one after the other or at the same time.
The binding of the Tefillin on the arm varies according to different traditions. It is put on the biceps of the arm. Right-handed people put it on their left arm, left handed people on the right arm. The head-Tefillin is always put on the center top of the forehead, ‘between the eyes’, but not under the hairline.
Traditionally the Tefillin were worn all day long, but because they have to be taken off in unclean places such as the bathroom, nowadays they are generally worn only for Morning Prayer services. A small minority of Jews still make an effort to wear them all day long. Lubavitcher Hasidim are known for their Tefillin stands in public gatherings or on the street in order give secular Jews the opportunity to lay Tefillin.
The Tefillin are not laid on Shabbat and major festivals such as Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Pessach. These holidays are considered a sign for remembering that God brought Israel out of Egypt and therefore no further sign in the form of the Tefillin is required. There are several opinions whether the Tefillin should be worn on the Chol Hamoed, the intermediate days of Sukkot and Pessach. On Tisha B’Av the Tefillin are generally worn during the afternoon service.
In Orthodox Judaism the Tefillin are worn by men from the age of 13. There are conflicting views on weather women may wear Tefillin. The Talmud mentions several women who were Tefillin such as Michal, the daughter of King Saul.

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