Shiur #49: The Yoke of Mitzvot The Mitzva of Tefillin – Part III

  • Harav Baruch Gigi
I. The Connection Between Prayer and Tefillin – Submission and Closeness
We saw in the previous shiur that tefillin have the power to refine the needs and pleasures of the body and direct them to the worship of God. In today's shiur, we will argue that tefillin can also illuminate the paths of man's spiritual work.
While fundamentally it would be right for a person to don tefillin all day long, the customary practice is not to do so owing to their exceptional sanctity and because of the concern that they will be mishandled, God forbid.
The prevalent custom is to don tefillin primarily during the morning prayers. The reason for this appears to be that the time when a person stands before his Creator and speaks to Him is the most fitting time to concentrate his thoughts upon his tefillin and not become distracted from them.
It is possible, however, to suggest another connection between prayer and tefillin. Since the hour of prayer is the appropriate time for realizing one's desire for closeness and devotion through emotion-filled and joyous service of the heart, there is a possibility that barriers will be breached and boundaries forgotten. Lest one "break through to come up to the Lord" and see what one has not been authorized to see, the Sages instruct us:
One should not stand up to pray unless he is in a reverent state of mind. (Berakhot 30b)
The gemara brings a source for this ruling:
What is the [Scriptural] source of this rule? R. Elazar said: The verse states: "And she was in bitterness of soul" (I Shemuel 1:10). But how can you learn from this? Perhaps Chana was different because she was exceptionally bitter at heart! Rather, R. Yose ben R. Chanina said: We learn it from here: "But as for me, in the abundance of Your lovingkindness will I come into Your house, I will bow down toward Your holy temple in the fear of You" (Tehillim 5:8). But how can we learn from this? Perhaps David was different, because he was exceptionally self-tormenting in prayer! Rather, R. Yehoshua ben Levi said: It is from here: "Worship the Lord in the hadrat [beauty] of holiness" (Tehillim 29:2). Read not hadrat, but rather cherdat [trembling]. But how can you learn from here? Perhaps I can after all say that the word hadrat is to be taken literally, after the manner of R. Yehuda, who used to dress himself up before he prayed! Rather, R. Nachman bar Yitzchak said: We learn it from here: "Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling" (Tehillim 2:11). What is meant by "rejoice with trembling"? R. Ada bar Matana said in the name of Rabba: In the place where there is rejoicing, there should also be trembling. (Berakhot 30b)
The "founding fathers" of our liturgy are Chana[1] and David, the sweet singer of Israel, who often expressed his thirst and yearning to see the face of God. Nevertheless, the gemara is not willing to see in their feelings and in their standing in prayer out of bitterness and self-torment a model that is appropriate for the community at large. Fear was appropriate for David, since he always acted piously before his Creator and because his sin was always before his eyes. Similarly, bitterness was appropriate for Chana, as her heart was always filled with a sense of terrible want. Thus, we cannot learn from them regarding this particular matter, as the Maharsha explains (ad loc.):
Even though many aspects of prayer are derived below from Chana's prayer, this matter of reverence cannot be derived from it, as it is explicitly stated: "And she was in bitterness of soul," which is not the case regarding ordinary people who pray. And so with David, as we find that he was especially self-tormenting in prayer, and this was an act of special piety, as it stated: "[Keep my soul,] for I am pious" (Tehillim 86:2), and so one can derive nothing from him. (Maharsha, ad loc.)
In the end, the gemara finds a source in the verse, "Rejoice with trembling," which teaches that in the place where there is rejoicing there should also be trembling. Rabbeinu Yona explains this as follows:
What this means is that in order that one not be drawn by the joy to the pleasures of the world and forget matters pertaining to the Creator, one must mix the one with the other, so that one be in the middle. This is the plain meaning of the verse. Even though among men of flesh and blood fear and joy are opposites – for when a person fears his fellow, he stands frightened and worried – regarding the Holy One, blessed is He, this is not so. On the contrary, when a person contemplates His greatness and fears Him, he is happy and joyful in that fear, for through it he is stirred to fulfill the mitzvot and he rejoices when he does so, since he knows that he will be rewarded and recompensed. Regarding such joy we find that it is stated in the same verse: "Serve the Lord with fear, etc."; and in another verse: "Serve the Lord with happiness." That is to say, serve the Lord with fear, and with that very fear, be glad and rejoice, as we have explained. (Talmidei Rabbeinu Yona, 21b in Alfasi)
Regarding this danger of breaching boundaries because of the exceptional joy experienced when cleaving to God, the gemara states:
R. Yirmeya was sitting before R. Zera, who saw that he seemed very merry. He said to him: Is it not written: "In all sorrow there is profit" (Mishlei 14:23)? He answered: I am wearing tefillin. (Berakhot 30b)
This means as follow: Tefillin, which indicate acceptance of the yoke of God's kingdom,[2] constitute a fitting barrier that will prevent a person from breaching boundaries in his service of God, and coming, God forbid, to a rejection of that yoke. Man's desire for closeness to God demands thought, caution, balance, and brakes – in the form of a process of to and fro between love and fear.
This balance is the product of the service of the heart and the soul. The tefillin that rest on a person's head and arm cause him to submit himself to God, but at the same time they bring him all that much closer to Him.
II. Tefillin and the Torah: Directing One’s Desires
R. Kook points to another connection between a person's prayer and his Torah, based on a passage in tractate Shabbat:
R. Yirmeya was sitting before R. Zera engaged in study; as it was growing late for the service, R. Yirmeya was making haste [to adjourn]. Thereupon R. Zera applied to him [the verse]: "He that turns away from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination" (Mishlei 28:9). (Shabbat 10a)
R. Kook comments on this passage in his Ein Aya as follows:
Man by his very nature turns to holy feelings, for which to quiet and to complete and to actualize from the depths of his soul outwards, he needs prayer. A person can, however, err about this regarding one general matter. For just as he has spiritual inclinations owing to the nature of his rational soul, so he also has many different feelings for various material objects and desires. Every person should know that the expansion of the stormy emotions in one's heart to material matters and everything connected to them is only good for the person when they are guided by the law of the Torah, which does justice in all its ways and guides a person along a good and straight path. But when a man abandons his soul to its natural material aspirations and everything depending on them without the Torah's tradition, he will fall and take the path to death and perdition. However, with regard to spiritual aspirations, which include the love of God and delight in His goodness and the majesty of His glory, and the many branches that issue forth from the depths of these feelings, a person might think that in relation to these tendencies one does not have to pave for them a path of learning, but rather he can leave his soul on its own, letting it love the Rock of the worlds, and yearn, and desire… If so, for these spiritual feelings, which are branches of prayer, there is no need for Torah instruction. Therefore, when the time for prayer arrives, one should speedily leave his Torah study in order to raise the banner of prayer. But this is not what the wisest of all men teaches, for in truth a person must give weight to everything; needless to say to his material aspirations regarding which he is likened to a beast, so that he needs the Torah's fences to limit and organize them; but also for his lofty aspirations, the foundations and branches of prayer, a person needs limits and the Torah's assessment so that he not cross any boundaries. Therefore a person should not rush to leave Torah study for the sake of prayer, so that he engrave in his heart that even for the lofty side in him, the side of holy and noble emotion from which prayer follows, he must draw measures and limitations from the Torah… Therefore, one who removes his ear from listening to Torah, not only will his material feelings turn to abomination, without a guide and leader along the path of life and light, but also his prayer, even though it is directed upwards, nevertheless, in the absence of rational Divine guidance to limit it, can turn to corruption, and it will not give its good and desired fruit, and even his prayer will be an abomination. (Ein Aya, Shabbat 10a)
According to R. Kook, the Torah refines and directs the desires and yearnings of the body, but no less does it direct and balance a person's spiritual aspirations and set appropriate boundaries for them. Therefore, one who prays, aspiring to ascend to the heights of love and devotion, must draw his strength from the springs of his Torah learning.
We would like to add that tefillin, which represent the entire Torah and with which we adorn ourselves, direct all of our pure and holy aspirations to closeness to God along the correct path and within appropriate boundaries.
We have already mentioned above that the essence of tefillin is a deep spiritual connection to the word of God and His Torah. Thus, all a person's activity, whether in matters of this world or in spiritual aspirations, should be seen as deriving from this connection to the Torah. Within the feeling of "I am putting on tefillin" (Berakhot 30a), with proper and delicate regulation, one can produce the good and desirable fruit of a fulfilled life before God.
III. The Tefillin of the People of Beitar
In the Aggadot concerning the destruction of the Temple in tractate Gittin, it is stated:
Rabba bar Bar Chana said in the name of R. Yochanan: Forty se'as of phylactery boxes were found on the heads of the victims of Beitar. (Gittin 57b-58a)
The Maharal of Prague, in his Netzach Yisrael, notes the significance of emphasizing the destruction of Beitar by way of an account of the quantities of tefillin boxes found there after the destruction:
Because man is in fact a tree of the field, as it is written: "For man is the tree of the field" (Devarim 20:19), but he is an upside-down tree, because a tree is rooted down, stuck in the earth, whereas man is rooted above, because the soul is his root, and it is from heaven. And the arms are the branches of the tree, and the legs are branches of branches, and his body is the main trunk of the tree. And why is he an upside-down tree? Because a tree is rooted down, since the tree's vitality is from the ground, whereas the vitality of a man's soul is from heaven. And the whole matter of Beitar with this planting, is to show the devotion to God, which is the strength and force of man. Because the city is not the cause, but rather the connection and planting with God causes the strength. And this is the matter of tefillin, to plant a person with God. And therefore the tefillin are set on the brain, which houses the root of vitality, and against the heart, which is also a root of vitality, so that they are planted high with God. And when the punishment arrived, they were destroyed. And there it was precisely tefillin that were found on the heads of those killed in Beitar. Because tefillin were appropriate for the people of Beitar in accordance with their standing and level, since they are on the brain, and through tefillin the name of God is called upon him, as it is written: "And all the peoples of the earth shall see that the name of the Lord is called upon you; and they shall be afraid of you" (Devarim 28:10). And that which is stated: "Forty se'as of tefillin boxes" is a profound matter. It is known that forty se'as is the measure for a ritual bath (Eiruvin 4b), every ritual bath being of living water. And these tefilin receive a man's bounty of life, and therefore they have the status of a ritual bath, which is living water. From this you can understand what the Sages said (Menachot 44a): "Whoever dons tefillin lives long, as it is stated (Yeshayahu 38:16): "O Lord, by these things men live." And from the things that were explained to you, you can understand the matter, that by way of tefillin, the soul cleaves to God, and this is life. (Netzach Yisrael, 7)
Later in that passage in Gittin it is stated:
[It is written]: "The precious sons of Zion, comparable to fine gold" (Eikha 4:2). What is meant by "comparable to fine gold"? Shall l say it means that they were covered with gold? [This can hardly be] seeing that in the school of R. Shila it was stated that two state weights of fine gold came down into the world, one of which went to Rome and the other to the rest of the world! No, what it means is that they used to eclipse fine gold with their beauty. (Gittin 58a)
The Maharal explains:
This is the meaning of what is stated afterwards: They used to eclipse fine gold with their beauty. This too is brought here, because this was especially true in Beitar. This is an amazing matter, and it testifies to everything that we told you above. Beitar was especially fit for tefillin, because tefillin are also glory and majesty, as it is explicitly written (Yechezkel 24:17): "Your glory is bound upon you." But nothing more can be said about this, because one must delve deep into these things, and then one will reach the level of Beitar and their beauty, to the point that they would eclipse fine gold with their beauty. All of these things follow from the level of Beitar, where they were removed from the murky body, and they had clarity and beauty. Know that anything that is more material is murky, as you find that the earth which is the most material is dense and absolutely murky. And water which is a finer matter has greater clarity. And air is the finest matter, and even more clear. And so always as is well-known. And Beitar had this virtue, as they were removed from dense matter. This is why Beitar merited the level of tefillin, which are majesty on the body of a person who is clean and pure and clear of the material, because tefillin are a mitzva connected to the body. And the Sages said (Shabbat 49a): "Tefillin require a clean body." This level was the level of Beitar, as was explained, that they were removed from material density, and therefore they had beauty and majesty. This is the very reason that tefillin are called "majesty," for anything that is holy to God is removed from the material, as was explained above. (Netzach Yisrael, ibid.).
The connection of the people of Beitar to wisdom and Torah, and their desire and aspiration to cleave to the source of life, finds uniquely intense expression in their Torah study and in the mitzva of tefillin. These mitzvot express and complement their spiritual connection to the source of life.
The lives of the people of Beitar were dedicated to restoring the kingdom of heaven to Eretz Yisrael, the land of the Shekhina, with a refined material nature, and drawing from the source of the supernal spirit. Even the bodies of the people of Beitar, which were adorned with tefillin, which symbolize majesty, were refined and purified in the pursuit of cleaving to the revelation of His kingdom in this world.
This is the meaning of the midrash concerning the beauty of the people of Beitar. Earthly eyes see paz, "fine gold," as the pinnacle of beauty and perfection, since paz is the choicest of gold. However, the eyes of the people of Beitar, which were lifted up to heaven and true spiritual beauty, eclipse the beauty of fine gold. The value of gold is entirely earthly and transient, as opposed to the personalities and aspirations of these people: "The precious sons of Zion, comparable to fine gold."
Tefillin, the majesty that is bound to the head, raises Israel up from the earthly and brings them to the majesty of eternal life:
"And all the peoples of the earth shall see that the name of the Lord is called upon you, and they shall be afraid of you" (Devarim 28:10). R. Eliezer the Great says: This refers to the tefillin of the head. (Megilla 16b)
(Translated by David Strauss)

[1] So it is stated in tractate Berakhot:
R. Hamnuna said: How many most important laws can be learned from these verses relating to Chana! "Now Chana, she spoke in her heart" – from this we learn that one who prays must direct his heart. "Only her lips moved" – from this we learn that he who prays must frame the words distinctly with his lips. "But her voice could not be heard" – from this, it is forbidden to raise one's voice during prayer. (Berakhot 31)
Regarding the Amida prayer of the Musaf service of Rosh Hashana, in the center of which stand the blessings of Malkhuyot, Zikhronot, and Shofarot, see our article: "Hani Tesha De-Rosh Hashana Keneged Ma," Be'er Mayim Le-Rosh Hashana, where we demonstrate that Chana is the mother of this prayer.
[2] See Rashi, ad loc.