I lay tefillin each morning. The ancient blessings, the visceral feeling of tightening the leather straps, the weight of the batim (leather boxes containing verses from Torah) offer powerful moments of contemplation before I head into the world. Having not encountered tefillin until adulthood, I am often struck by how otherworldly they seem. Their strangeness elicits a moment each morning, beyond the known — a glimpse perhaps, however fleeting, of the divine.
In this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tissa, we find Moses at the top of his game. Having spent significant time in the presence of God, having arg-ued convincingly against destroying the Jewish people in the wake of the golden calf incident, Moses decides to press his luck.
“Oh, let me behold Your glory!” he pleads (Ex. 33:18). God responds that such a thing is not possible for humans, but instead: “Then I will take My hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen” (Ibid. 33:23). What exactly does Moses witness? Rashi offers: “He showed him the knot of His tefillin.” Maimonides is clear that anthropomorphic imagery for God is not meant to be understood literally. Surely God does not have a face, a hand or a back! And tefillin?!
What could God’s tefillin possibly represent? Twice daily in Shema/Ve’ahavtah, we say, “Bind them as a sign upon your arm and let them serve as a symbol between your eyes” (Deut. 6:8). Tefillin are a sign, but of what? Our parashah may hold the secret.
In Chapter 31 (v. 16), we read: “The Israelite people shall keep the Sabbath … it shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people Israel.” Two things are prominently offered as an “ot,” a sign from heaven: tefillin and Shabbat. And each is considered to be so powerful that Jewish tradition requires the two observances remain separate and apart. The Shulchan Aruch states: “On Shabbat and Yom Tov, one does not wrap tefillin, because they themselves are a ‘sign,’ and … the additional ‘sign’ would cheapen the [other].”
What might be the meaning of Rashi’s interpretation, that Moses saw the knot of God’s tefillin? Jewish living affords us two primary modalities for discovering meaning in the world: physical and temporal. Tefillin is physical, a way of tangibly dedicating our bodies to God (and therefore sacred
living). Shabbat, however, is that which A.J. Heschel called a “palace in time,” a pause from the demands of daily living, time to focus on the renewal of the self.
There is a tendency to think God
is beyond us, accessible only to the most elevated of prophets. In witnessing God’s tefillin, even Moses is brought down to reality. God’s glory is in Jewish doing and Jewish being. And just as we emulate the Holy One each Shabbat by pausing from our own creative endeavors, the other six days of the week
we bind ourselves to holy living through ritual, finding the otherworldly in the realm of the physical.
The term tefillin is usually translated as phylacteries, based on the Greek word phylassein (“to protect”) of the Christian Bible. The etymology of the term, however, is probably connected with the Hebrew word tefilah (prayer), or a Hebrew root meaning “to att-ach” or “to distinguish.” Thus, tefillin likely means either “attachments” for one’s body or something that should distinguish Jews from other people.
Rabbi Daniel Cotzin Burg serves Beth Am Congrgation in Reservoir Hill.