The Order of Tefillin and its Message

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion


PARASHAT BO

SICHA OF HARAV AHARON LICHTENSTEIN SHLIT"A

 

Dedicated in loving memory of
Shmuel Nachamu ben Shlomo Moshe HaKohen (whose yahrtzeit falls on 10 Tevet),
Chaya bat Yitzchak Dovid (whose yahrtzeit falls on 15 Tevet),
and Shimon ben Moshe (whose yahrtzeit falls on 16 Tevet).

 

The Order of Tefillin and its Message

Translated by Kaeren Fish

 

 

            The Rishonim disagree regarding the proper order of the biblical excerpts (parshiot) that are contained in tefillin. The best-known opinions are those of Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam. Rashi maintains that the order of the parshiot in the tefillin should follow the order of their appearance in the Torah: first "Kadesh," then "Vehaya ki veviakha," then "Shema," and then "Vehaya im shamoa." Rabbeinu Tam argues that "Vehaya im shamoa" should be placed before "Shema."

 

Seemingly, Rashi's opinion makes more sense. Why does Rabbeinu Tam maintain otherwise? Rav Soloveitchik explained Rabbeinu Tam's position as follows. The Gemara (Menachot 34b) cites a beraita which states that the order of the parshiot from left to right is as Rashi states. The Gemara then notes that there is another beraita that teaches exactly the opposite. Abaye explains:

 

There is no contradiction. One beraita is talking about the order from the "right side" of the reader (i.e., a person standing opposite the person who is putting on tefillin), while the other beraita is talking about the "right side" of the person who is putting on the tefillin, such that the reader would read them in the correct order.

 

In other words, both beraitot are actually describing the same order, but from two different perspectives. The person putting on tefillin sees the order as going in one direction, while for the person opposite him (the "reader"), the order is reversed. Rashi understands that the reader must read the parshiot in their proper order, and therefore he maintains that "Shema" comes before "Vehaya im shamoa." Rabbeinu Tam agrees with the principle that the parshiot must appear in order, but he argues that the order is not the same for the various parshiot. The first two parshiot must be "in order" from the perspective of the person putting on tefillin, while the last two parshiot must be "in order" from the perspective of the reader.

 

            The parshiot of "Shema" and "Vahaya im shamoa" speak about acceptance of the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven and the yoke of the commandments, about man’s unique connection with God, and about the Oneness of God and faith in Him. The parshiot of "Kadesh Li" and "Vehaya ki yeviakha" serve to publicize the miracle of the Exodus from Egypt and all of the wonders that were performed there, in order to show Bnei Yisrael and the rest of the world the greatness and power of God. Rabbeinu Tam's distinction is logical: the parshiot that are meant to publicize the miracle of the Exodus to the world are ordered in such a way that the reader can read them in order. The parshiot that are meant to inculcate the fundamentals of faith and the commandments within the individual are ordered in such a way that the person putting on the tefillin reads them, as it were, in order. Thus, there is no real disagreement between Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam as to whether the parshiot should be ordered in accordance with their appearance in the Torah. The question is simply according to which perspective they should be ordered.

 

            According to both Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam, both groups of parshiot ("Kadesh" and "Vehaya ki yeviakha," on the one hand, and "Shema" and "Vehaya im shamoa" on the other) appear in the order of their appearance in the Torah. Does the ordering of these two groups have additional significance that goes beyond the order of the text?

 

            Concerning the first group – "Shema" and "Vehaya im shamoa" – the Mishna (Berakhot 13a) cites the opinion of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha:

 

Why does the parasha of "Shema" precede "Vehaya im shamoa"? In order that a person will first accept upon himself the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven, and then accept upon himself the yoke of the commandments.

 

The Gemara (14b) brings a beraita in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who provides a different reason:

 

It is proper that "Shema" should precede "Vehaya im shamoa," since the former concerns studying, teaching and performing… while the latter concerns [only] teaching and performing.

 

The Gemara asks why the beraita fails to mention the reason offered by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha, and answers that both reasons are correct.

 

            In order to understand the fundamental difference between the two answers, let us consider the Rambam's words (Hilkhot Keriat Shema 1:2):

 

The parasha of "Shema" is recited first, since it concerns the Oneness of God, love for Him and study of His words, which is the main principle upon which everything else depends. Afterwards we recite "Vehaya im shamoa," which commands regarding all the other commandments.

 

            The Rambam's explanation is akin to that of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai: we weigh up the importance of each parasha based on its substance and messages, and on this basis we arrive at which parsha should come first. We conclude that "Shema," which conveys the principle "upon which everything else depends," should precede "Vehaya im shamoa."

 

            The explanation offered by Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha is a completely different one. He does not weigh up the parshiot in relation to each other, but rather argues for an a priori precedence of one over the other. His explanation is reminiscent of the famous parable of a newly crowned king, who responds to with the following words to his subjects’ request that he set down laws for them: "First accept my kingship; thereafter I will set down laws." Clearly, without prior acceptance of the king's sovereignty and monarchy, there is no significance to any laws that he legislates – since there is no obligation to abide by them. Hence, the parasha of "Shema" – including the acceptance of the yoke of God's Kingdom - must necessarily precede the parasha of "Vehaya im shamoa" – which includes the acceptance of the commandments.

 

            Thus, we have two different explanations for the order of the first two parshiot. According to one opinion, "Shema" comes first because it is relatively more fundamental and significant, while according to the second opinion "Shema" comes first because logically it must.

 

            When we come to the second pair of parshiot, we once again have two possibilities for explaining the precedence of "Kadesh" over "Vehaya ki yeviakha." We do not presume to decide which parasha is more important and fundamental, but a general review suffices to demonstrate that "Kadesh" contains a wide-ranging elaboration of the Exodus from Egypt and its aim, namely, bringing Am Yisrael to Eretz Yisrael. Furthermore, the commandment of Pesach is also addressed here at greater length. Thus, the inherent value of this parasha, so to speak, may outweigh that of "Vehaya ki yeviakha," which is more concise.

 

However, we may also apply the second principle that we discussed above. There is a clear difference between the commandment of tefillin as it appears in the parasha of "Kadesh" and as it appears in the parasha of "Vehaya ki yeviakha." In the former, we read: "And it shall be a sign for you upon your arm… for with a strong arm God took you out of Egypt." In the parasha of "Vehaya ki yeviakha," we read: "And it shall be a sign for you upon your arm… for with arm's strength God took us out of Egypt." The difference arises from the fact that in the parasha of "Kadesh," the command is addressed to the father, and therefore God tells him, "Put on tefillin – because God took you out of Egypt." In the parasha of "Vehaya ki yeviakha," the command is addressed to the son, via his father. In other words, the father must teach his son to put on tefillin, and therefore he is commanded to tell him: "Put on tefillin – because God took us out of Egypt." Based on this difference, it is clear why "Kadesh" comes before "Vehaya ki yeviakha," in keeping with Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha's explanation above. In order for a person to go out and influence others, he must first internalize the idea that he is trying to teach. Only afterwards can he go and pass it on to others. Only when a person has built himself, in a sufficiently well-rooted and proper manner, can he proceed to influence those around him.

 

            The message is clear. There are no fixed rules when it comes to deciding when a person may shift his focus from self-development to influencing others. There are instances of great need, in which case a person might attend to the spiritual needs of others even though he has not reached the requisite level himself. However, we must always keep this consideration in mind. We should try not to move out of the closed world of Torah, in which we develop and mold our Torah personality, towards "regular" life, before we are certain that we have developed and built ourselves up in the fullest and most complete way possible. Only when we are certain of this can we go out to influence others.