Tefillin – A Sign and Reminder of Greater Things – World Mizrachi

By Simon M. Jackson, Adv.

“And if shall be for you a sign on your hand and a reminder between your eyes – so that God’s Torah may be in your mouth…” (Shemot 13:9)

The classical interpretation of this verse (see Rashi and Ramban) is that the Torah is commanding us to place the Tefillin, containing the four sections from the Torah that speak about the Tefillin commandment, on our hand/arm and just before the hairline between our eyes.

In contrast, Rashbam (Rashi’s grandson) based the actual observance of Tefillin on Devarim 6:8 – “You shall bind them for a sign.” This enabled the Rashbam to give an allegorical interpretation to the verse in Shemot quoted above:

For a sign upon your hand” – According to its plain meaning (omek peshuto): it shall be to you for a remembrance continually just as if it were inscribed upon your hand, similar to the verse “Set me as a seal upon your heart” (Shir HaShirim 8:6). “Between your eyes” – as an adornment and a golden tiara that is worn round the head as an adornment.

Rashbam interprets the “Tefillin passage” in our parsha as an allegory which demands that we remember the Torah always and treasure it like a piece of fine jewelry. The Torah should be like a fine bracelet or necklace which we wear proudly. In other words, the Torah is supposed to be precious to us and be remembered always.

This interpretation is borne out by the use of similar metaphors employed elsewhere in Tanach: God’s Torah and His commandments are “a beautiful wreath to your head and a chain/necklace about your neck… Bind them [kindness and truth] about your neck, inscribe them upon the tablet of your heart… Tie them [the teaching of your father and mother] upon your heart always, tie them about your neck… Bind them [the commandments] upon your fingers, write them upon the table of your heart” (Mishlei 1:9, 3:3, 6:21, 7:3).

The verse, “You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Devarim 6:9), can be understood in a similar vein. Here, too, we tend to jump to the conclusion that the verse refers solely to the duty to affix Mezuzot on our doorposts, following which act the duty ends. In fact, the verse is, first and foremost, a metaphor equivalent to inscribing the Torah and its values upon our homes and families.

The Torah thus impresses upon us the insufficiency of simply going through the motions of donning Tefillin and davening in the morning, or affixing a Mezuzah and even kissing it as we enter and leave our house, unless we take these experiences with us throughout the rest of the day. The Tefillin and Mezuzot are meant to serve as the means to a broader end, the “sign” prompting the remembrance mentioned in our parsha. They are symbolic of the fact that our entire personalities, our lives and our homes are meant to be permeated with the Torah. Hashem’s commands should become an integral part of our very beings.

True, the Karaites also adopted an allegorical interpretation of the “Tefillin” and “Mezuzah” passages. However, this led them to the erroneous conclusion that the Torah does not command us to wear Tefillin and to affix a Mezuzah to our doorposts. The innovation of Chazal, in giving a literal interpretation to these passages, was to teach us that in order to achieve the lofty spiritual goal of suffusing ourselves and our families with the Torah and its values, the metaphor also needs to be performed in a literal manner – the actual laying of Tefillin and writing of Mezuzot, for actions shape character. The Ramban at the end of the parsha alludes to this dual aspect of the Mitzvot:

The multitude of Mitzvot that refer to the Exodus ensure that we constantly testify to the existence and power of Hashem. An individual who places a Mezuzah on his door – and concentrates upon the concept of the Mezuzah – acknowledges the creation of the world, the Absolute Knowledge of Hashem, the concept of prophecy and the kindness of Hashem in removing us from Egypt. Indeed, we must be vigilant in the performance of all Mitzvot (Avot 1:2)…

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