The Parshiyot of Tefillin of Rabbeinu Tam

  • Rav Moshe Taragin
Dedicated by the Wise and Etshalom families
in memory of Rabbi Aaron M. Wise,
whose yahrzeit is 21 Tammuz. Yehi zikhro barukh.
The mitzva of tefillin is mentioned in four different sections in the Torah, mandating that tefillin boxes should house these four relevant sections: Kadesh, Ve-haya ki yeviacha, Shema and Ve-haya im shamo’a. What is less clear is the sequence of these sections in tefillin. Since tefillin shel rosh include separate chambers for each parasha, the sequencing of these sections profoundly affects the nature of these tefillin. The gemara (Menachot 34b) discusses the sequence, but the conclusion is ambiguous.
Rashi assumes that the tefillin sequence of parashiyot mirrors the Torah’s sequence. Thus, Kadesh should precede Ve-haya ki yeviacha, since it appears earlier in Parashat Bo (Shemot 13; 1-10 followed by 13:11-16). Subsequently, Shema, which appears in Devarim 6, is inserted, followed by the section of Ve-haya im shamo’a, which appears in Devarim 11. These sections are aligned in a right-to-left fashion from the vantage point of someone who is looking at the tefillin, not the person actually wearing the tefillin. To summarize, the parashiyot are sequenced from left-to-right from the vantage point of the person wearing the tefillin. This alignment based upon a person looking at someone else’s tefillin is somewhat surprising, and the Ra’avad indeed questions this logic. However, the basic sequence follows the Torah’s progression and seems intuitive.
Rabbeinu Tam famously disagreed with Rashi and created a novel sequence. As seen from the vantage point of an onlooker, the progression begins from the right with Kadesh and Vehaya ki yeviacha, but continues with Ve-haya im shamoa and finally Shema.
There are two different models toward understanding the sequence of Rabbeinu Tam. Perhaps tefillin demand a new and distinctive sequencing which differs from the Torah’s listing; the “message” of tefillin demands a different narrative, which is rendered through a different order of parashiyot. Alternatively, Rabbeinu Tam may maintain the Torah’s sequencing while structuring this sequencing in a creative fashion. Perhaps the Rabenu Tam choreographed the Torah’s sequence in a creative fashion. The first two sections are aligned based on the Torah’s sequence from right to left based upon the perspective of the onlooker. The next two sections (Shema and Ve-haya im shamoa), in contrast, are ordered based upon the Torah’s sequence from right to left based on the vantage point of the person wearing tefillin. It only appears as if the sections deviate from the Torah’s order, but in reality they retain the original sequencing while implementing this sequencing from different angles. However, a more nuanced understanding of the tefillin yields two series of two parashiyot sequenced according to the Torah’s order.
These two models of understanding Rabbeinu Tam’s novel sequencing yield interesting differences. Chief among them is the issue of whether the tefillin narrative is identical to the Torah’s story as told by these four sections. According to the first model, the tefillin sequence is distinct from the Torah’s sequence, and presumably tefillin does not directly copy the Torah’s text. Tefillin merely lifts several sections of the Torah and reformulates them in a different sequence and with a different narrative. R. Soloveitchik asserted several “other” deviations between the composition of these sections in the Torah and the crafting of tefillin. For example, while Torah must be written with sirtut (outlining the parchment with engraved boundaries for the text), tefillin does not require sirtut. This might reinforce the idea of a distinction between composition of a Torah text and creation of tefillin texts, which are based upon but not identical to Torah texts. According to the second model of understanding Rabbeinu Tam, tefillin however, does maintain the Torah’s textual sequence, but positions these sections in a creative alignment. If the Torah’s sequence is maintained, perhaps the tefillin texts are not significantly disparate from the Torah and they indeed entail a direct copying from the Torah to tefillin.
A second ramification concerns the structuring of tefillin. Should they be seen as one unit containing four constituent sections or as a fusion of two units of two sections each? Rashi appears to view the tefillin as one unit containing four elements, and the first model of Rabbeinu Tam assumes as much as well. Rashi’s four-element tefillin was structured based upon the Torah’s progression, while the Rabbeinu Tam employed a novel tefillin-oriented sequence.
The second model toward understanding Rabbeinu Tam casts tefillin in a very different light. They are not structured as four connected elements, but rather as two units of two parshiyot. The first unit commences with the first two sections organized in a right to left fashion from the vantage point of the onlooker; the next unit contains the sections of Devarim sequenced based upon the Torah’s progression but aligned to enable a right to left progression from the vantage point of the person wearing the tefillin.
This question of structuring tefillin was apparently already addressed by the Tanna’im who explored the dynamic of four parshiyot (and consequently four housings). R. Yishmael based the number of four parshiyot based on the number of iterations of the word totafot (a nickname for tefillin in the Torah). By contrast, R. Akiva interpreted totafot as a conjugation of two foreign words: “tat” and “fot.” In this foreign language, “tat” refers to the number two and “fot” also refers to the number two; thus, the conjugation is a verbal reference to the number four. According to R. Akiva, the four-parasha “contraption” of tefillin, is in reality, a fusion of two units of two. This may reflect Rabbeinu Tam’s alignment of tefillin as two units each containing two parshiyot.
The question as to whether Rabbeinu Tam creates a new tefillin-based sequence or maintains the Torah’s sequence but merely aligns them uniquely, may impact two additional halakhic issues. Although the parshiyot are inserted in this novel fashion, should they be manufactured based upon the Torah’s sequencing? Tosafot (Menachot 34b) claim that despite the novel method of housing, the parshiyot should be written based upon the Torah’s sequence. Evidently, Rabbeinu Tam also maintains that the Torah’s sequence shapes the tefillin sequence, and the parshiyot must therefore be written in a sequence that reflects the Torah’s progression. However, several Rishonim (for example, the Mordechai) claim that Rabbeinu Tam would not necessarily impose the Torah’s progression for the sequence of composition. According to this view, tefillin are apparently driven by a completely different order from the Torah; both the positioning as well as the method of composition are discrepant with the Torah’s sequence.
A related question concerns Rabbeinu Tam’s position regarding tefillin shel yad. Should his novel sequencing apply only to tefillin shel rosh or to tefillin shel yad as well? This question can potentially affect both the composition of tefillin shel yad as well as the positioning. Even though the parshiyot of tefillin shel yad are written on one parchment, the question of their positioning upon the parchment is still relevant.
The Rosh assumes that this unique sequence also applies to tefillin shel yad, whereas the Semak and the Rambam claim that it does not. If Rabbeinu Tam established a new pattern for tefillin and an autonomous sequence, presumably this would apply equally to tefillin shel yad. Alternatively, the Rabenu Tam may be maintaining the Torah’s sequence but positioning the parshiyot in the housing of tefillin shel rosh in a manner that allows right to left Torah-sequenced reading from different angles. This aim of multiple angles may be unique to tefillin shel rosh, meant to elicit a response from onlookers. Tefilin shel yad is a more personal experience and is not oriented toward possible responses of onlookers. As such, its sequence may strictly follow the Torah’s progression in one continuous array. Perhaps tefillin shel yad demands the Torah’s sequence in a continuous string, yielding an order that is single vectored and follows the Torah’s uncomplicated order of Kadesh, Ve-haya ki yeviacha, Shema, and Ve-haya im shmoa.