Tefillin as a Symbol

In this lesson, the symbolism of the mitzvah of Tefillin will be examined, through looking at the biblical source for the mitzvah, exploring a national symbolism of Tefillin in a medieval commentary on the Torah, and a more personal approach taken by a modern thinker and a teen author.

Resource Ages: 15-18


Devarim 6:4-9

Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.

You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.

Take to heart these instructions with which I charge you this day.

Impress them upon your children. Recite them when you stay at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you get up.

Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead;

Inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל ה’ אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ ה’ ׀ אֶחָֽד׃

וְאָ֣הַבְתָּ֔ אֵ֖ת ה’ אֱלֹהֶ֑יךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ֥ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ֖ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶֽךָ׃

וְהָי֞וּ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם עַל־לְבָבֶֽךָ׃

וְשִׁנַּנְתָּ֣ם לְבָנֶ֔יךָ וְדִבַּרְתָּ֖ בָּ֑ם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ֤ בְּבֵיתֶ֙ךָ֙ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ֣ בַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וּֽבְשָׁכְבְּךָ֖ וּבְקוּמֶֽךָ׃

וּקְשַׁרְתָּ֥ם לְא֖וֹת עַל־יָדֶ֑ךָ וְהָי֥וּ לְטֹטָפֹ֖ת בֵּ֥ין עֵינֶֽיךָ׃

וּכְתַבְתָּ֛ם עַל־מְזוּזֹ֥ת בֵּיתֶ֖ךָ וּבִשְׁעָרֶֽיךָ׃

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Foundations for Planning

Essential Questions

  • Why are holidays, rituals, customs, important to me, my family, and my community?
  • How do Jewish practices reflect Jewish values?
  • How do Jewish rituals and practices enrich the way I experience my life and the world?
  • Why/how might Jewish practices be meaningful for me even if I don’t define myself as “religious”?
  • How can I experience moments of connection to God?

Content Questions Related to the Essential Questions

  • How can mitzvot that function as “symbols” impact the way I am a Jew?
  • What Jewish ideas/values are contained in the symbolism of the ritual object Tefillin?
  • What is my own personal connection to the mitzvah of Tefillin?
  • How can Tefillin help me develop a relationship with God? 
  • How can I approach the mitzvah of tefillin in the context of my opinions on gender and Judaism?

Background for Teacher

Devarim 6:4-9 Context of the verses: This is the famous first paragraph of the Shema. It is a call to the Jewish people to recognize the oneness of God, and to love God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with...

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Devarim 6:4-9

Context of the verses: This is the famous first paragraph of the Shema. It is a call to the Jewish people to recognize the oneness of God, and to love God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” The Rabbis of the Talmud derived from these verses the obligation to recite these words twice daily, when going to bed and when rising in the morning, and to impress them upon the children, the next generation. The verses also speak of taking the words of the biblical text and “[binding] them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead” – a repetition and a paraphrase of a concept mentioned earlier in Shemot (Exodus) 13:9 and 16. There, the sign and symbol is to remind the Israelites of the Egyptian bondage and Exodus, powerfully conducted by God. They are instructed to remember this at all times and to communicate it to future generations (see the comments of Ramban in the third text here).

Purpose according to these verses: Here, in this Devarim context, the sign and symbol play a more general role, serving to remind the Israelites of the responsibility to love God and to follow God’s commandments. They are to uphold their part of the Covenant with God – to obey God’s commandments, and to serve God with heart and soul, and in action, viz., the commandments, the mitzvot. Because God redeemed the Israelites and deemed them the chosen people, they are told to choose God and to live their lives according to God’s will. This is referred to in rabbinic literature as kabbalat ol mitzvot ( קַבָּלַת עוֹל מִצְוֹת ) – the acceptance of the yoke of the commandments.

Verses that appear to be metaphors in the biblical text are concretized by tradition and by the Rabbis in the mitzvah of tefillin.

Some background on Tefillin:

  • The traditional tefillin consist of two small, cube-like, blackened leather boxes (battim-בתִָּים , sing. bayit, בּיַתִ , lit., “house”) containing biblical passages written on parchment. 
  • These two battim become wider at the bottom with a hollow projection at the back through which a strap (retzua-רצועה) is passed. 
  • One is worn on the forehead and the other on the upper arm (with the straps wrapped around the lower arm) slightly inclined toward the heart. 
  • Inside the battim are the four verses from the Torah where Tefillin are mentioned, written on parchment (Shemot 13:1-10; Shemot 13:11-16; Devarim 6:4-9; Devarim 11:13-21). 

Ramban (Nachmanides) on Shemot 13:16

Purpose of Tefillin: Why is it so important to have physical, tangible objects to serve as reminders of the Exodus? Ramban explains that the Exodus taught several critical lessons about God and His interaction with humans. The miracles performed on behalf of the Israelites proved that there is a Creator who can manipulate the laws of nature as desired, and that God supervises the affairs of the world and intervenes when necessary. According to Ramban, the entire Torah is confirmed by the Exodus. However, as miracles of this type are seldom performed, the Israelites are told to ensure that the lessons derived from them will be maximized.

Ramban is commenting on the passage in Shemot that speaks to the importance of remembering and retelling the story of the Exodus from Egypt. By celebrating that event annually and by transmitting a recollection of that experience to the children and grandchildren, Jews are reminded of God, God’s power, and God’s providence. Further, by wearing tefillin on the arm and forehead daily, one deepens and perpetuates an awareness of these lessons. 

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Tefillin

Purpose of Tefillin: It is not enough to acknowledge God’s active role in history, to thank God for all that God has done and does, and to reaffirm a commitment to the mitzvot. Jews are also instructed to build a relationship with God based on love and commitment that persists throughout a lifetime. Jews are asked to be conscious of God’s presence at all times and to feel God in the heart and soul. This process is referred to in rabbinic literature as kabbalat ol malkhut shamayim קַבָּלַת ע ֹ ול מַלְכותּ שָׁמַיִם) ), the “acceptance of the yoke of Heaven (God).” According to Kaplan, binding the tefillin upon one’s arm and head is meant to help remind one of this special relationship. He writes that it is not enough to merely speak of or think about faith in and love of God. One needs some physical manifestation in order not to forget. Tefillin fills this purpose.

Symbolism of Tefillin: Kaplan’s description fits well with the traditional biblical verses recited by many upon winding the leather tefillin straps around one’s fingers (Hoshea 2:21–22):

וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי לְעולָֹם וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בְּצֶדֶק וּבְמִשְׁפָּט וּבְחֶסֶד וּבְרַחֲמִים. וְאֵרַשְׂתִּיךְ לִי בֶּאֱמוּנָה וְיָדַעַתְּ אֶת ה’.

And I will betroth you unto Me forever; And I will betroth you unto Me in righteousness, and in justice, and in loving-kindness, and in compassion. And I will betroth you unto Me in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord.

As one wraps oneself with the tefillin, these verses may bring to mind a betrothal ceremony, and it is as if the tefillin on the arm and hand is like a wedding ring: a physical reminder of a strong love relationship. Tefillin, thus, may have a twofold purpose. They remind a Jew of the obligation to observe the mitzvot and they bring the Jew closer to God as well.

Note that this text was written by an Orthodox Jew for whom donning tefillin was traditionally a mitzvah only performed by men. While the language of this text is male-centered, the metaphor and the experience described can be taken to apply to anyone who wears tefillin.

Hannah Landau, On the Sanctity of My Tefillin

Historical development of women wearing Tefillin: While it has become more common to see women bearing a kippah ( כפִּּהָ ) or wearing a tallit (טַלִיּת), it has also become more common to see women in the Conservative and Reform movements take upon themselves the mitzvah of tefillin. The Conservative Movement, in a 1984 responsa on the Status of Women, addressed the issue of women wearing tefillin. While by the early 80’s this practice was accepted according to rabbinic rulings, Landau’s fuller text attests to the reality that among her female peers at her Camp Ramah it is still the exception to wear tefillin. 

Precedence for women wearing Tefillin: In 2014, at least two Orthodox day schools in America decided to support some female students’ choice to lay tefillin, opening the way for other schools to follow.  Although it might seem to be a groundbreaking decision, Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Aderet (1235–1310; Rashba; in his responsa 1:123) had already affirmed that although women are exempt from the mitzvah of tefillin, it was his opinion that if they desired to do so, they were certainly allowed. 

Finding personal meaning for wearing Tefillin: Landau, who chose to wear tefillin, explains her decision both as a means of feeling connected to her Jewish roots and of piecing together different parts of her identity as a young  woman, a feminist, and a Jew.

Optional Hooks
In-Depth Discussion
Suggested Activities

Before jumping in to the texts that explore the meaning behind the mitzvah of tefillin, it is worthwhile making sure all your students are familiar with what Tefillin are, how they are made, and how and when they are used. Here follows three possible hooks that present this information you may wish to use (you can use all three together if you have time or choose to select from them):

  • A short video trigger of a sofer writing the verses about tefillin that are to be inserted into a new set of tefillin.

Background information to  be discussed following the viewing of the video: 

  • Tefillin (and Mezuza) parchments (the Hebrew for the type of parchment used is קְלףָ , klaf), are handwritten by a sofer, just like a Torah scroll. 
  • Safrut (the work of a sofer) is a very specific kind of art, which requires precision and care, and is quite time consuming. A sofer goes through special training and is knowledgeable of all the laws involved. 
  • There are rules governing the parchment, the quill, the ink, and the material used to sew the different panels together. The parchment, for example, must come from the skin of a kosher animal. 
  • In recent centuries, a turkey feather provides the quill, while the stitches for sewing the panels comes from animal veins. 
  • The ink, too, is specially prepared for this purpose, deriving from all natural vegetable sources.  
  • Many refer to a sofer as a sofer stam, stam ( סתְַ”ם ) being an acronym for sefer Torah ספֵרֶ תּורֹהָ) ), tefillin ( תְּפלִיִּן ), and mezuzah ( מְזוזּהָ ). 
 (check out https://edpuzzle.com/home for a great Edtech platform to incorporate videos into your lessons)
  • You could use the photographs below (in the appendix) as a trigger for a brainstorm on what the students know and understand about the mitzvah of Tefillin
  • You could bring in a pair of Tefillin yourself (or ask a guest speaker to come and bring their Tefillin – someone else who regularly use Tefillin) and share with the students what they are (allowing them to touch and feel them if they are not familiar with them) and demonstrate how they are worn (and when).
  • You could use one of these three tutorial videos, entitles “All Genders Wrap” that demonstrate how to lay tefillin, with a diverse group of Jews:

Click here to view our consolidated list of suggested interactive pedagogies for classroom discussion.

The Shema is a central text to Judaism belief and practice, and although it is not a prayer in the classic definition (rather it is three texts from the Torah describing our relationship with God and with the Torah), when the rabbis canonized the prayer services, they placed the Shema  as central to the Shacharit (morning) and Arvit/Ma’ariv (evening) prayer services. Here we have the first paragraph of the Shema, which mentions the mitzvah of Tefillin (and Mezuza which is discussed in a later lesson). A good place to start this lesson, after your students have seen the text (either together or in chavrutot/study pairs), would be discussing why the Shema is so important in Judaism, and why Tefillin is mentioned. 

  • How do you know the shema is a central text in Judaism?
  • What does it say that is so important?
  • How many “beliefs” in Judaism can you find in the first paragraph of the Shema?
  • Why do you think Tefillin (and Mezuza) also features?

The next text is Ramban’s commentary on the verses in the book of Shemot that follow the Exodus narrative, where God commands the Israelites several mitzvot to ensure they remember the miracles of the Exodus. These include the festival of Pesach, telling the story on Seder night, and the mitzvot of Tefillin and Mezuza. It is important here to understand  what the relationship between Tefillin and the Exodus is:

  • What does Ramban explain was the purpose of the miracles of the Exodus story?
  • Ramban says that God doesn’t perform miracles like this in every generation. What  concern does this bring up for him/the rabbis?
  • How can Tefillin (and Mezuza) help address this concern?

For Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, Tefillin is a precious object gifted to the Jewish people that represents God’s love for them. A powerful way for your students to connect to this concept is through considering objects they may have that were given to them from people they love.

  • Do you have any items of deep sentimental value that someone you love gave to you? What and why is it so meaningful to you?
  • How does it make you feel when you look at it or hold it in your hand?
  • Do you have any items of clothing that belong to someone you love? How does it feel when you wear them/envelope yourself in them?
  • Can you imagine what it must feel like to feel “in love” with God?
  • How do you think it must feel to wear Tefillin for someone who feels “in love” with God?
  • Do you think wearing Tefillin can bring you closer to this state? How?
  • Why do you think we need physical objects to connect to the love we have for others?

Traditionally, Tefillin was a mitzvah that only men do. But in recent years more progressive communities have encouraged women to participate in this mitzvah also if they so wish to (including in some Orthodox communities). The author of the last text here describes her struggles with both Judaism and feminism, and how Tefillin represents both. Although gender and Judaism is not the main topic of this lesson, it often enters the conversation, because of what Tefillin represent and how they have traditionally been the preserve of just male Jews. This text is a good outlet for this conversation if it is one you wish to bring into your classroom at this point.

  • Why do you think Hannah feels the need to reconcile two important parts of her life – feminism and Judaism?
  • Why do you think she feels a conflict (and “struggle”) between the two?
  • How does Tefillin represent this conflict?
  • What do you think of the way she tries to solve this in her life, through wearing Tefillin?
  • What do you think about women wearing Tefillin?
  • Rabbi Kaplan compares the symbolism of tefillin to a wedding ceremony. You could show your students a jewish wedding ceremony, and ask them to identify which aspects remind them of the mitzvah of tefillin, as described by Rabbi Kaplan (for example the ring, the bride encircling the groom, are both symbolic of the couple enveloping each other with love)
  • If your students are not familiar with the experience of laying Tefillin (or if only the male students are) you could arrange to borrow a number of sets so that every student can have this experience, and discuss what it feels like to do this mitzvah and if the sources they have learned in this lesson resonate.
  • Debate: Tefillin has traditionally been a mitzvah that men only do, but in recent years there have been some women who have decided to take it upon themselves to also perform this mitzvah (and this is expressed in the last source in this lesson). You could use this as an opportunity to have a debate in your class about gender and Judaism through the prism of this mitzvah. The debate topic could be: “This house believes that men and women should only keep the mitzvot that tradition has allocated them”. If you need/wish your debate to be online, you may find the following online platforms useful for managing online debates: