At the conclusion of Parashat Bo, we encounter the commandment to wear tefillin twice. The two passages in which the mitsvah appears are actually included in the tefillin themselves. In other words, they - together with the other two references to tefillin found in the Parashot of Vaetchanan and Eqev, respectively - are written by a scribe on parchment and inserted into the leather boxes that we bind to our arms and place between our eyes each morning.
It is well known that there is a classic dispute regarding the proper order in which these passages should be placed into the tefillin boxes. Rashi and the Rambam both maintain that the order of the Tefillin is supposed to follow the order in which those passages actually appear in the Torah.
Rabbenu Tam, following the lead of many of the Geonim, agrees that the two paragraphs in this week's parasha (referred to as "Qadesh Lee" and "V'haya Kee") should be inserted according to the order in which they are written in the Torah. However, he argues that the other two sections ("Shema" and "V'haya Im") should be inverted. He bases his position on the language of the Talmud in Masechet Menahot that describes the four passages in the tefillin in this way:
Qadesh Lee and V'haya from the right, and Shema and V'haya Im Shamoa from the left.
Rabbenu Tam interprets this statement as an indication that, inside the tefillin, the two sets of passages are, so to speak, "facing each other". If all four sections were supposed to be placed in the tefillin in the order of their appearance in the Torah, the Talmud would have described them in a single, chronologically accurate list, rather than separating them into pairs and assigning one pair to the left and the other to the right.
The dispute between Rashi and Rabbenu Tam results in the following two possible arrangements:
1. Qadesh-Lee 2. V'haya Kee 3. Shema 4. V'haya Im
1. Qadesh-Lee 2. V'haya Kee 3. V'haya Im 4. Shema
Rabbenu Tam adds one further caveat. Although parshiyot 3 and 4 wind up being "out of order" in the tefillin, they still must be written in order. This means that according to Rabbenu Tam, the Sofer, or scribe, must compose the fourth parasha in the tefillin sequence prior to the third, since the fourth actually precedes the third in the Torah itself. On the surface, this seems like a bizarre procedure. After all, if the tefillin have their own "order" which is independent of the Scriptural sequence, why should they have to be written according to the Torah's order?
I believe that the argument between these Rishonim can be understood in light of a number of intrinsic problems with the Torah's presentation of tefillin, and that a closer analysis of their positions will offer us a profound insight into the nature of the mitsvah. In order to appreciate the difficulties that our Rabbis were grapppling with, we must first note that, in our parasha, the commandment of tefillin is introduced, but only two of the necessary "sections" are provided. It is not until the Book of Deuteronomy that all four passages of tefillin are made available to us.
This immediately presents us with a major difficulty. Are the tefillin referenced in Parashat Bo the same as the tefillin discussed in Vaetchanan and Eqev? Or are they separate entities altogether? If we assume that both sources deal with the same tefillin, a different problem arises: How could the generation of Jews in the wilderness, who had not yet received the Book of Deuteronomy, possibly have fulfilled the commandment of tefillin without having all of the Torah passages that must be inserted in them? Alternatively, if we assume that the first generation of Jews did not wear tefillin at all and that the mitsvah began only after the occupation of Eretz Yisrael, we still must wonder - why would Moshe Rabbenu present the Jews with only half of a mitsvah upon their Exodus from Egypt, only to fill them in on the rest of the details forty years later?
Rashi and Rambam answer that, in fact, the commandment of tefillin in Parashat Bo establishes a mitsvah which is extended and amplified much later, in the Book of Deuteronomy. The passages in Vaetchanan and Eqev were appended to the original tefillin of our Parasha, and serve as extensions of those tefillin.
Examination of the content of the passages in question can help us appreciate how Rashi and the Rambam can interpret them this way. The first two passages in tefillin deal with the commemoration of the Exodus, while the final two focus upon our obligation to discuss Torah constantly. The common theme of these passages is the imperative to internalize an abiding awareness of God. We accomplish this primary goal from two angles - through reflection on Hashem's intervention in history as well as through reflection on the wisdom He revealed to us in His Torah. We can adduce a hint to this view from the text of the Torah itself, in Parashat Bo:
And you shall bind it as a sign upon your arm, and as a reminder between your eyes - so that the Torah of Hashem will be in your mouth - that with a strong arm did Hashem take you out of Egypt.
We see here that reminiscing about the Exodus and involving ourselves in Torah study are intertwined, even from the very beginning. This suggests that the two ultimately share one purpose - namely, reinforcing our recognition of God's existence and providence.
The first two passages of tefillin were sufficient for the generation of the wilderness who were in the presence of Moshe Rabbenu and hence regularly immersed in Torah study at the highest level. However, subsequent generations had to incorporate the two paragraphs of the Shema into their tefillin so that their awareness of Hashem would embrace both aspects of His providence. Because all four passages in the tefillin are organized around a single purpose, they follow a single, chronological order.
By contrast, Rabbenu Tam sees the tefillin as the combination of two separate "reminders", one established in Parashat Bo and one formulated in Vaetchanan-Eqev. The tefillin of our Parasha commemorate the Exodus, whereas those of the Book of Deuteronomy remind us to study the Torah. Unlike Rashi and Rambam, Rabbenu Tam does not subsume these reminders under a single heading, i.e., "awareness of Hashem". Instead, he maintains that each pair of passages serves a separate function - either helping us to recall God's intervention in history or encouraging us to reflect upon the beauty and depth of the Torah. Each objective is crucial for Jewish life in its own right and each could have generated its own commandment of "tefillin". However, when the Torah was finally complete, these two units - the Exodus-commemorating tefillin of Parashat Bo and the Torah-comemmorating tefillin of Parashot Vaetchanan and Eqev - were merged into a single entity of tefillin for all future generations.
Rabbenu Tam's prescription for the order of tefillin reflects this concept beautifully. Despite the integration of all four sections, the two pairs of passages are not inserted in the tefillin according to one principle of order that would blur their independence from one another. Instead, two are situated "to the left" and two are situated "to the right", as an indication of the fact that their underlying identities remain separate. Although they have been fused together into one mitsvah-object, the unique message represented by each pair of parshiyot is allowed to shine through.
This explains Rabbenu Tam's unusual requirement that the Parashot be composed in the proper order, even as they will ultimately be situated in the tefillin in the "incorrect" order. The first two passages are written by the scribe, from right to left, as one unit. He must then skip over a section of parchment and write the Parasha of "Shema" on the left, only later returning to the blank area to fill in "V'haya Im". In this way, he manages to write the two parshiyot of Deuteronomy in order, and as a separate unit, that begins, as it were, from the opposite side of the parchment! This special scribal maneuver required by Rabbenu Tam highlights his general theory - that the tefillin are actually composed of two separate units that are effectively combined into one. (Note: This example refers primarily to the hand tefillin, in which all of the parashot are written on one piece of parchment. The same rules of composition and placement apply to the head tefillin, although the passages in the head tefillin are actually written on separate pieces of parchment.)
Thus we see that what appears to be nothing more than an argument over Talmudic semantics actually has its roots in a deep analysis of the Written Torah. The Rabbis were grappling with the duality that is inherent in tefillin, and were attempting to clarify whether they embody two separate objectives or serve a single, overarching purpose.