Sunday, January 21, 2007

Tefillin of Rashi and Rabbenu Tam

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

Rabbenu Tam/Geonim
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.


Yehuda said...

I know that I could look this up, but, does the sofer have to write the tefillin shel rosh in order? That doesn't seem to make much sense - all that seems to matter is how they are placed as opposed to the shel yad. Also you might want to make a correction - the sofer doesn't "write the Parasha of "Shema" on the left" - the shel yad is written from top to bottom (after parasha #2 is written space is skipped for parasha #4 and then parasha #3 is written at the bottom of the parchment then the sofer goes "back up" and writes #4).

Additionally, you say that the machloket has its roots in a deep analysis of the Written Torah. Do you mean that these rishonim actually interpreted these verses as you say and that their understanding of this piece in the Talmud was rooted in that analysis? Although I love your analysis I am not as convinced that this was necessarily how these rishonim understood these verses. It would be nice if you had some more proof.

Chaim B. said...

This is an amazing analysis - the way you extract the Torah sheba'al peh from the parsha is reminiscent of R' Mordechai Breur's Pirkei Moadot where he uses the same type technique.

David Guttmann said...

In Shiurei Hagrid (RYBS) - Tefillin - Stam - Tztztit Chapter 1 discusses just this issue. A similar approach but different details.

Shavua Tov.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Yehuda, the parshiyot of the shel yad are definitely written from right to left on a single long piece of parchment. A Google Image search for "tefillin shel yad parshiyot" can confirm this.

The argument could definitely be chalked up to differences in nuanced readings of the Talmud. However, the fact that the two positions dovetail so perfectly with the way tefillin are presented in the Written Torah makes it hard for me to believe that this was not the initial basis for the alternative views.

This is especially true regarding Rabbenu Tam's opinion, which appears thoroughly counterintuitive, yet is accepted by a vast array of Geonim and Rishonim. There must have been really compelling evidence for his take on tefillin, and the ideas I presented in this post seem to support him beautifully.

The fact that the theory I offered seems to account so elegantly for the dispute is what convinces me that it is correct. What other standard do we really have for evaluating the appeal of a theoretical explanation?

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Chaim, thank you for the feedback...I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

David, I don't remember seeing a similar approach there...I will have to revisit that sefer when I return home from my two day vacation in NY.

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

Yehuda, I neglected to answer one of your questions - it was an oversight!

I don't have any pertinent sefarim with me right now, but you are correct in noting that the requirement to write the parshiyot of the shel rosh in order is unusual. It is brought down in halacha but the problematic character of the obligation is discussed in Rishonim and Acharonim, if memory serves...Since they don't form one entity, the idea of an "order" seems strange.

Yehuda said...

Woops, I got confused about the tefillin. What bothers me about your theory is not its elegance. You are claiming that Rishonim/Geonim who interpreted the Talmud a certain way also have the same analysis of Torah Sh'bichtav. This is certainly possible but seems more tenuous than you suggest. I like your approach but it is a big step to say that these Rishonim also took your approach. I see how these Rishonim would explain the difference between the parashot in D'varim vs. the parashot in Sh'mot as more up in the air.

avakesh said...

Very nice conceptual anlysis.
Perhaps one can link the Kabalistic concept that tefillin of R"T are for the time of redemption and of Rashi are for golus. Tefillin of the incomplete midbar and tefillin of completed Torah. Some sources are found in R. Reuven Margolios' SHUT Min Hashemayim and in a long footnote by Meir Levin in the just published Rabbis' Advocate (translation of R. David Nieto's Matteh Dan, Yashar Books).

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...


I had always understood the Kabbalistic teaching on Tefillin of Rabbenu Tam as follows:

Rashi and Rambam see the recognition of Hashem's providence as having its roots in Yetsiat Mitsrayim but reaching beyond that and culminating, as it were, in the experience of Torah study.

Rabbenu Tam separates these elements and accords Torah study its own 'tefillin', separate and apart from the tefillin that commemorate the Exodus.

The Prophets tell us that in Messianic times, the Exodus will no longer be our primary point of reference insofar as Providence is concerned, because the ultimate redemption's magnitude will eclipse it.

Therefore, in the future, it will be possible to "separate" the appreciation of Torah from the commemoration of Yetsiat Mitsrayim, exactly as reflected in Rabbenu Tam's tefillin.

This would also explain why R"T tefillin are considered more transcendent according to the Arizal, who claims that this is the reason we don't make a beracha on them - they are too lofty for us.

He gives the same explanation for why we (Sephardim) don't make a beracha on the Shel Rosh (i.e., its holiness is too great for our beracha to relate to it), which is interesting because the Shel Rosh also embodies the concept of separateness - the parashiyot are written on physically separate pieces of parchment.

The shel Rosh represents our understanding and contemplation of the ideas that the parshiyot reflect, so the parshiyot must be separate from one another. Our minds address each parasha independently, and we study them closely and in depth.

By contrast, the shel yad represents the mastery of the evil inclination precipitated by our reflection on Hashem's greatness, and this is a single, unitary act - hence the physical linkage of the parshiyot. Here, the parshiyot are the cause of our submission to the Yoke of Heaven, rather than serving as the stimulus to further intellectual investigation like those of the Shel Rosh.

As I'm sure you know, the superiority of the Shel Rosh is not just a kabbalistic idea - it manifests itself halachically as well.

Of course, this is highly speculative and assumes that the Zohar and the Arizal agree with my analysis of the machloket.

I believe the Aruch Hashulchan presents a brief discussion of the Kabbalistic approach to Rabbenu Tam tefillin too. He has a different take on it, I believe he connects it to the Shem Havaya.

Yehuda said...

Great explanation!

Anonymous said...


I think I remember (actually I am pretty sure) that the Ben Ish Chai has a different story about when this Rashi - Rabbenu Tam Tefillin discussion started. My Chavruta showed me that when we studied the Tefillin pages in Massechet Menachot.
If I remember correctly, the Ben Ish Chai claims that in the desert EVERYBODY used both sets of Tefillin daily, and that the Machloket between Rashi and Rabbenu Tam was about which set was "Ikar" and which one was "Tafel". That would probably mean that both of them used both stes.
I can't remember now if it was in Benayahu or in Ben Yehoyada, but certainly in one of them. I will check that bli neder.

Joels W. said...

Interesting and very well written. Why the cessation of blogging?

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