Tefillin: Portable Time Sanctifiers | Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes

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This piece is part of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch Notes series.


Chapter, Siman 10: Tefillin

Chapter 10 of Kitzur Shulchan Aruch concerns the construction, meaning, and use of the tefillin. For those unacquainted with tefillin (or “phylacteries” — though I’ve never heard a Jewish person call them this), they are the materialization of the verse in Deuteronomy 6 – “Take to heart these instructions which I charge you this day…Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead…”

Literally or Poetically?

Many outside of mainstream Judaism have argued that this is a poetic verse, not intended to be taken literally — much like the instruction to “circumcise the foreskin of your heart” in Deuteronomy 10:16. While it’s true that open-heart surgery would have proved tricky in the dessert, the practice of binding instructions to your hand and making symbols between your eyes or on your forehead is something that can be done.

Basic Summary of Tefillin

Tefillin are two small black leather boxes that contain tiny rolled up pieces of parchment containing select verses from the Torah. Today, these boxes are typically only worn during morning prayers on weekdays (Sunday – Friday) that are not holy days (Yom Kippur, Rosh HaShanah, Passover, etc.). One of the boxes is attached to a long black leather strap containing a loop. The loop is tightened around the bicep of the non-dominant arm, wrapped seven times around the forearm, around the knuckles of the middle finger, with the excess strap length wrapped around the hand. This is known as the tefillin shel yad — or the hand tefillin. The other tefillin box has a similar long black leather strap attached to it that wraps around the head— the tefillin shel rosh (head tefillin). The back is tied with a particular style slip knot that sits where he skull meets the neck near the brain stem. The box sites right at where the hairline usually starts. Though upon the forehead where a baby’s skull is soft, it is aligned to be directly between the eyes. The excess straps lay down the chest like brained pigtails.

boy wearing tefillin

Tefillin As Time Sanctifiers

Despite being a part of Jewish movements in the past that did not believe that Deuteronomy 6 was to be taken literally, I’ve understood tefillin as a physical embodiment of a mental and spiritual act — to bind the instructions of my Creator to my hand (representing my actions) and make them symbols between my eyes (representing my focus). One of the first reasons I was drawn to Judaism as a teenager was the idea that positive actions could stabilize my fleeting attention and focus. The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch states that tefillin can help us preserve our focus as well.

“As long as you are wearing tefillin your attention must not be diverted from them even for a moment, except while praying the Amidah and while studying Torah. It is forbidden to eat a regular meal while wearing tefillin, but eating a snack [while wearing] tefillin is permissible; but taking even a short nap while wearing tefillin is forbidden.”

When I don tefillin every weekday morning, I feel like they help project a temple I can visit. This is not a temple of bricks and mortar but instead constructed of time. I know that if I’m wearing my tefillin, my focus is on the weightier matters — interaction with the Holiness of the Creator, His Torah, my own gratitude towards all of the gifts He provides and asking for help. Any place I put on tefillin becomes my morning phone booth — from my neighborhood synagogue to my living room, an Airbnb or the bank of a river on a camping trip. Any of these places can become the Beit HaMikdash (the Holy Temple) in my mind and heart with the help of tefillin.

ken lane's tefillin


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Ken Lane

Intentional Living & Pragmatic Spirituality writer by night and early morning. Marketing writer by day. Musician. Family man. Jew. Okie. Meat popsicle.
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