The Letters of Tefillin

  • Rav Moshe Taragin

The gemara in Shabbat (62a) discusses the violation of carrying tefillin into a bathhouse. Typically, sacred items may be carried into a bathhouse if they are covered, but tefillin may not be brought inside even though the texts are covered by the tefillin boxes. The gemara explains that this is because of the “shin” of the tefillin shel rosh. There is a Halakha Le-Moshe Mi-Sinai requiring that a shin be engraved on the boxes housing the tefillin. Since it is exposed to the surroundings, the tefillin cannot be brought into a bathhouse.

 

The text of our gemara lists two other “exposed” parts of the tefillin that are required due to a Halakha Le-Moshe Mi-Sinai and cannot be brought into a bathhouse – the daled shaped leather strap by which the tefillin shel rosh is affixed and the small yud shaped strap that is nestled aside the tefillin shel yad. Together with the shin engraved on the tefillin shel rosh, these letters form the holy name Sha-ddai. Since these letters are all exposed, the tefillin cannot be brought into bathhouse.

 

Throughout his commentary to Shas, Rashi equates all three letters – the shin, daled, and yud. This is evident in his interpretation of an interesting statement of R. Eliezer (Berakhot 57a; Megilla 16b) that highlights the unique status of tefillin shel rosh. Several gemarot cite the verse in Devarim (28:10) that describes foreign nations beholding the manner in which the name of Hashem “appears” upon a Jew. The simple reading of the verse is that this is a metaphor – our behavior and identity is closely affiliated with Hashem, and this is (or at least one day will be) noticed by all. However, R. Eliezer took this verse literally as well – by donning TEFILLIN SHEL ROSH, a Jew literally fastens the name of Hashem to himself. Why did R. Eliezer highlight the head tefillin as possessing the name of Hashem, as opposed to the hand tefillin? Rashi explains that the head tefillin contains the shin engraved upon its box and the daled shaped strap that secures the tefillin, thus containing TWOof the three letters comprising the name Sha-ddai. Hence, it is specifically the tefillin shel rosh that showcases the essential name of Sha-ddai. Rashi equates all three letters, giving the “nod” to the tefillin that contains the majority of the letters.

 

A different gemara differentiates between the shin and the other two letters. Logically, this distinction stems from the fact that the daled and yud are shaped with leather straps, whereas the shin is actually engraved on the leather housing of the tefillin. The context of this distinction is a discussion in the gemara in Shabbat (28) as to whether hides for tefillin can be taken from non-kosher animals. The gemara cites a pasuk that instructs that all TORAH be written on items that are legally consumable. Applying this to the skins used to construct the housing of tefillin, the gemara insists that even these must be taken from kosher animals. Since the tefillin shel rosh feature the shin of the name Sha-ddai, the boxes are considered Torah and kosher hides are mandated. The leather straps of the tefillin, however, are not considered Torah texts and are not included in the principle that Torah texts must be inscribed upon kosher skins.

 

The gemara here only refers to the shin, ignoring the daled and yud! This serves as the source for Tosafot’s position that ONLY the shin is an actual Halakha Le-Moshe Mi-Sinai; the daled and the yud are not. Based on this distinction, Tosafot emends the gemara in Shabbat 62a to omit the mention of daled and yud as a Halakha Le-Moshe Mi-Sinai.

 

Reconciling Rashi’s position with the gemara’s distinction is a bit challenging. He obviously equates the daled and yud to the shin by classifying each as a Halakha Le-Moshe Mi-Sinai, whereas the gemara that demands kosher skins based on the status of Torah texts only discusses the tefillin shel rosh housing and not the leather straps used to create a daled and yud.

 

The simplest approach is to distinguish between the status of a Halakha Le-Moshe Mi-Sinai and the status of Torah texts. Indeed, the daled and yud shaped straps possess the status of Halakha Le-Moshe Mi-Sinai. However, leather straps cannot be considered “text” and are therefore not limited by the kosher hide clause that governs all Torah texts. This position is cited by the Chiddushei HaRan in his commentsto the Rif (Shabbat 62a).

 

The possible flaw in this approach is the prohibition of bringing tefillin into a bathhouse, which (at least according to Rashi’s version of the gemara in Shabbat 62) applies equally to the shin and the daled and yud. Evidently according to the Ran’s logic, any component of tefillin that stems from a Halakha Le-Moshe Mi-Sinai cannot be exposed in a bathhouse, even though only the shin is considered actual halakhic text and the daled and yud do not enjoy that status.

 

The alternate approach to that of the Ran is to assume that Rashi granted FULL text status to the daled and yud shaped leather straps. Perhaps in formal contexts, such as the melakha of writing on Shabbat, these leather based shapes would not constitute actual halakhic text. However, for tefillin purposes, they are considered text because they represent the letters of Sha-ddai. Since they are considered text, they cannot be brought into a bathhouse. However, for some reason, the rule of employing kosher hides for Torah texts does not apply in this case.

 

The Ramban (Shabbat 28) suggests that although the straps may be considered texts, since these straps can be untied, they do not possess the typical kedusha status of Torah texts. Absent this KEDUSHA, they do not demand kosher skins in the same manner as the parchment upon which the actual portions of tefillin are written or the skins of the outer housing of the shel rosh. The latter texts possess full kedusha status and mandate kosher hides.

 

R. Soloveitchik noted that this Ramban may parallel the case of a different Scriptural text that does not accord with the typical guidelines because it is not a permanent object. The Yerushalmi in Sota claims that the text used for the sota ceremony (which is taken from Parashat Naso) may be written on non-kosher hides since it will ultimately be erased. Presumably, the fact that it will be erased as part of the sota ceremony strips the text of its kedusha and, bereft of the kedusha status that normally applies to Scriptural texts, it can be written on non-kosher hides. Similarly, the letter shaped straps of the tefillin may become unraveled, and therefore do not possess kedusha status.

 

To be sure, tefillin is slightly different from a sota text. The latter will definitely be erased as PART of the sota ceremony, whereas the daled and yud leather shapes MAY become unraveled. Rabbenu Eliyahu (one of the Tosafists) indeed claimed that tefillin must be reformatted on a daily basis and the various leather strap letters must be reconstructed, but most opinions reject this demand and allow the leather strap letter to remain permanently. Presumably, according to the Ramban, the very fact that these letters MAY unravel entails that there is no kedusha and permits non-kosher hides to be employed.

 

A different solution is asserted by the Ohr Sameach in his comments on the Rambam. Even if the daled and yud are considered halakhic texts similar to the shin, they are not considered Torah texts because they do not reflect the name Sha-ddai in the same way the shin does. Since the shin is the first letter of the name Sha-ddai, it symbolically denotes the name. Letters can only be considered a Torah text requiring kosher hides if they signify one of the names of Hashem.