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 Bar Mitzvah Preparations: The Tefillin (Phylacteries)
Orthodox Perspective by Rivka C. Berman

Tefillin – Phylacteries
With mysterious black boxes and long flowing leather straps, tefillin have an otherworldly look about them. Even their origins are cloaked in mystery. No specific instructions are given in the Torah as to the look or content of the tefillin. The distinctive box and strap combination is a tradition extending all the way back to Moses at Mt. Sinai

Wearing tefillin is a mitzvah derived from the words: “And you should bind them as a sign on your hand and they should be as ‘frontlets’ between your eyes.” (Deuteronomy 6:8). Tefillin are a sign of our obligation to love God; a commandment that appears a verse or two before the tefillin instructions. (The whole sequence is part of the shema prayer.) What are frontlets? Webster’s Dictionary defines them as a “band or phylactery worn on the forehead.”

What’s Inside Tefillin?
Each of the four compartment in a tefillin box contains a small piece of parchment inscribed with a few Torah verses. Most tefillin follow the parchment order set out by Rashi, a medieval commentator. His grandson, Rabbeinu Tam, established a different order. Some people put on tefillin twice, once with Rashi tefillin and once with Rabbeinu Tam tefillin.

Regardless of which type of tefillin you use, the Rashi approach is most common, the verses will be the same.

One compartment contains the Shema from Deuteronomy 6:4-9. “Here O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is one. And you should love the Lord, your God with all of your hearts and with all of your soul and with all of your ability. And these words that I am commanding you today should be in your heart.”

Compartment two is from Deuteronomy 11:13-21. The verses elaborate on the reward that awaits those who love and serve God, and then hints to the punishment allotted to those who don’t.

“And it will be is you listen to My commandments that I am commanding you today, to love the Lord, your God, and to serve God with all of your hearts and with all of your souls, then I will give you rain for your land in its season, the early and late rains, and you will gather your grain, your wine and your oil. And I will give you grass in your fields for your animals and you will eat and you will be satisfied. Guard yourself lest your heart becomes deceived and you turn away and worship other gods, bowing down to them….”

Compartment three has verses from Exodus 13:1-10. “…And Moses said to the People remember this when you went out of Egypt from the house of bondage, because it was with a strong hand that God removed you from there…” The Torah goes on to command the Jewish people to celebrate Passover in the spring as a remembrance of the spring exodus. Matza eating and not having leavened products in the home are specified as part of the holiday. “And you should tell your children on that day saying: This [Passover] is done because of that which the Lord did to me when I came out of Egypt.” Then tefillin are hinted to with the words “And it should be for you a sign on your hand and a memorial between your eye so that the Torah of God should be in your mouth.”

Compartment four furthers this theme with Exodus 13:11-16. God’s role in freeing the Jews from Egypt is to be recalled whenever the tefillin are worn.

What are Tefillin Made Of?
Scribes write all the tefillin verses with black ink on parchment from a kosher animal. A special dye is used to turn the outer leather boxes black, and the best tefillin boxes are shaped out of one piece of leather. The long leather straps are painted black.

Buying Tefillin
Take time to find a reliable, well-regarded scribe to write your tefillin. One basic requirement is for the scribe to believe in and observe the mitzvot. Scrupulously written tefillin can last for decades.

Putting on Tefillin
A set of tefillin includes two boxes, each attached to straps.

One is called the tefillin shel yad, hand tefillin. Tefillin shel yad is tightened around the left biceps (but lefties wear them around their right biceps) about heart level. Straps from the shel yad are wound down the arm and across the hand and fingers in a very specific way.

The second is called tefillin shel rosh and is worn just above the forehead, but not lower than the hairline. Straps below the knot are left to dangle around the shoulders.

Two blessings are pronounced during the tefillin winding. First, the shel yad is strapped onto the biceps. Nothing, such as a shirt sleeve, should come between the tefillin and the skin. Once the straps are wound to wrist level, the first blessing is said.

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Haolam asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’haniach tefillin.

Blessed are You, God, Our God, Sovereign of the world who has made us holy with the commandments and commanded us to lay tefillin.

Then the tefillin shel rosh are tightened around the head, and the second blessing is said. (Some Sephardim say just the first blessing.)

Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech Haolam asher kidishanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al mitzvat tefillin.

Blessed are You, God, Our God, Ruler of the world who has made us holy with the commandments and commanded us regarding the tefillin.

Afterward, the leftover length of the tefillin shel yad straps are wound around the palm and fingers.

When to Begin Wearing Tefillin
Some time before their bar mitzvah boys begin practicing the mitzvah of tefillin. How much in advance of age thirteen this practice is begun is a matter of custom. Some Ashkenazi Jews allow six months of lead time, but a more common practice is to start month before.

Sephardic customs vary. Syrian boys first strap on their tefillin in a special ceremony held a week before they will be called up to the Torah. Grandfathers, the father, uncles and other male relatives wind the tefillin around the boy’s arm before the morning prayer services begin. A celebratory breakfast follows and the festivities continue throughout the day as visitors come by to offer their congratulations and blessings.

Individual maturity determines when boys following the Moroccan Sephardic customs will begin observing the mitzvah of tefillin. For some it can be as early as ages ten or eleven. A ceremony similar to the Syrian observance mentioned above is held to celebrate the first day of wearing tefillin minus the house party.

Boys from Judeo-Spanish families begin wearing tefillin at age twelve and a half, but they start saying the blessing over them a month before their bar mitzvah. Some within this community have their sons begin wearing tefillin and saying the tefillin blessing from their twelfth birthday onward.

The community of Spanish-Portuguese Jews tend to start their sons on tefillin close to their bar mitzvahs, and generally celebrate the first day of tefillin close to the Shabbat when the bar mitzvah boy will receive his first aliyah.

According to some opinions, a boy who lost a parent would be eligible to begin wearing tefillin and be called up to the Torah anytime after his twelfth birthday. A child who loses a parent reckons with adulthood early on. (Syrian Jews do not tend to follow this custom.)

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