Thursday, February 11, 2010

Four notes about Tefillin

[This week’s Toronto Torah is here!]

Wow, what a trip today. We drove from Toronto to Long Island, 532 miles, with one stop along the way. Great weather, great traffic, kids were great, thank Gd – but still grueling. I don’t plan on doing that drive in one go again, if I can at all avoid it.

Along the way, I decided to write this post on common Tefillin errors; feel free to write in with other mistakes you have noticed:

1. The knots matter
The batim [boxes] are the most eye-catching part of the tefillin. Certainly, they are the “holiest” part in that they contain the parchment sections on which we write the Torah’s Tefillin prescription. Nonetheless, the Torah also says וקשרתם, that you shall tie these boxes to your arm and head, and so the knots are also significant.

Specifically, placement of the knots is significant:

The arm knot is supposed to sit immediately beside the box, closer to the heart (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 27:2). The Aruch haShulchan noted that Ashkenazim, who wrap the tefillin toward themselves, have a difficult time keeping the knot flush with the box; we pull it away from the box as we tug the strap tight. Sofrim often use gidin [sinew] to attach it, but those snap after a while. For years I used a rubber band to hold it to the box; I have now find a way to do the same, but in a cleaner way, with a string.

The head knot is supposed to sit in the middle of the back of one’s head, at the upper part of the soft spot, just below the base of the cranium (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 27:10). People often forget to check that this is centered, focused as they are on the box in front.

2. Lefty/Righty switching
This follows from Item 1. I have heard Lefties say they can use a Righty’s tefillin and just shift the box around. Be careful; make sure the knot is upright, and between the box and the heart.

3. Bandages, rings and watches
People are often very careful about avoiding interruptions between the tefillin and their skin. This is good, but sometimes people go overboard.

The rule is that there may be no interruption between the box and the skin, and we are strict regarding the straps that fasten the box to the skin as well, and regarding the knots (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 27:4; Mishneh Berurah 27:16); make sure your yarmulka is not under the knot of the head tefillin.

However, we do not apply this to the rest of the straps, such as the seven loops around the arm. Certainly, one should not remove bandages on his arm or hand, and potentially dirty the tefillin or, worse, cause infection, in order to keep those straps flush with the skin!

4. Checking tefillin
It is popular to suggest that tefillin should be checked once or twice in seven years. In fact, though, tefillin which are worn regularly and which are kept in moderate temperature and humidity require no checking at all. (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 39:10; Mishneh Berurah 39:26).

One should regularly examine the exterior of the tefillin boxes to ensure that they retain their integrity, blackness and shape. One should check the straps to ensure that they retain their blackness. One must never leave tefillin in extreme or cold, or in very humid spaces.

One should have the parchments of his tefillin checked if the tefillin were left in very humid areas or in extreme temperature. I cannot give specific numbers; as the Mishneh Berurah writes, you know it when you see it.


  1. Enjoy your first official "Family day" vacation!

  2. common error-how about (from the aish website)
    Thus, while wearing Tefillin, one must be careful not to think unclean thoughts, or to act in a light-headed or frivolous manner. Beyond this, because the name of God is written on the parchments, a person should not divert his attention from this fact while wearing the Tefillin. Given that this level of concentration is extremely difficult to fulfill, Tefillin are typically not worn all day.

    Joel Rich

  3. Laya:

    So is the error that people wear them all day...?

  4. Halivai - it's an interesting commentary and raises the question of whether this is a case of nitkatnu hadorot.
    Joel Rich

  5. Rabbi-

    Is it that the rules of chatzitza don't apply to the arm straps, or also that bandages, and things that you'd specifically want in a specific place might not constitute a chatzitza (nafka mina for under the box itself)?

  6. Good post! Of course, I'm a bit sensitive to the topic...

    A nice way to keep the knot of the arm tefilla touching the box/bayit is with a bit of gid. Using the same sort of sinew that was used to make the tefillin is, I think, aesthetically nicer. Sort of fits in better than a rubber band. ;-)

    Thanks for the comment about checking. People seem really disturbed at times when they ask me to check tefillin, and I respond with 'why?'. I adamantly oppose opening tefillin unnecessarily.

    I hope you were safe on that long drive. I've done many days of over 500 miles, but rarely with only one stop. For that matter, doing it on a motorbike keeps me awake more easily. ;-D

  7. Jeremy-
    I believe you may be thinking of the rule that certain items become nullified to the skin, when we intend to leave them there, for certain halachos. However, I don't recall that applying to tefillin straps. The sources I cited state explicitly that chatzitzah doesn't apply to the straps, beyond the box and knot, and the straps that hold the box to the skin.

    Yes, the motorbike would be good, but the kids might be a bit unwieldy...

  8. Do you have any sources that it is OK to use any material (like a rubber band) to keep the knot of the shel yad to the box

  9. Anonymous 11:03 AM-
    What's the logic in requiring that it be a gid?

  10. I dont know. I assumed there must be a reason they use a gid even though it's not so strong and eventually falls apart. I started using a black hair band. Very tight and barely noticeable

    1. I do find it interesting that the sources note that sofrim use gidin, but I can't see a halachic reason why this should be necessary. This isn't about a halachic requirement for tying - and even if it were, I don't see why that should require gid. But I would be happy to learn otherwise.