Maintaining Tefillin Awareness
The gemara in Menachot (36b) equates tefillin to the tzitz worn by the Kohen Gadol on his forehead. Although they are not juxtaposed textually, their function and form are very similar – they each contain the name of Hashem and are worn on the head area. In fact, the gemara senses a kal ve-chomer correspondence: the tzitz contains the name of Hashem once, whereas the tefillin contain multiple names of Hashem (in the parshiyot contained in the tefillin). The Torah demands continuous focus upon the tzitz; while he wears the gold plate, the Kohen Gadol must constantly be aware of its presence and not lapse into hesach ha-da’at. The kal ve-chomer relationship between the tzitz and tefillin extends this requirement to tefillin as well.
On the surface, this halakha of not disrupting consciousness of the tefillin appears to be an EXTERNAL requirement. The MITZVA of tefillin is unaffected by the person’s awareness. However, the tzitz-like kedusha of the tefillin demands that their presence be recognized. An interesting Rambam however, indicates that awareness of tefillin is indeed a central component of the base mitzva of tefillin (even though the halakha seems IMPORTED from tzitz). The Rambam (Tefillin 4:13) claims that a person who cannot maintain tefillin awareness is EXEMPT from performing the mitzva. If this awareness were merely an additional component, inability to maintain this mindset would not be grounds for exemption from the mitzva! Evidently, the Rambam believed that keeping focused upon the tefillin is an inherent element of the mitzva performance and inability to execute this element leads to a total exemption.
Similar sentiments emerge from an interesting practice recorded by the gemara in Sukka (46a), which details the practice of the students of R. Ashi, who would recite an actual BERAKHA every time they would jostle their tefillin. The aforementioned gemara in Menachot suggested lightly jostling or touching tefillin as a means to AVOID FORGETTING. If tefillin awareness were merely an added value, it would be difficult to conceive of a berakha upon jostling. Evidently, these rabbis viewed tefillin awareness as an essential element of the mitzva performance – so much so that the act warranted a berakha.
Not all Rishonim explain that gemara in Sukka in this fashion, however. Several believed that even the students of R. Ashi would only recite a berakha if the tefillin became dislodged from the center of their heads and they were forced to reposition them in their accurate location. This type of jostling to REPOSITION the tefillin would indeed warrant a berakha, since their dislodgment disrupted the continuity of the mitzva. Repositioning through jostling would be considered as if the tefillin were donned anew and would certainly demand a berakha. This explanation would not warrant a berakha for mere jostling to maintain tefillin awareness.
A final indicator that tefillin awareness is an inherent element of the mitzva and not merely an additive stems from an interesting question cited by the Shita Mekubezet in Menachot (36b) in the name of Rabbenu Simcha. He questions the practicality of wearing tefillin during tefilla; during kriyat shema and amida, a person must focus upon the respective sections of tefilla and cannot maintain tefillin awareness. The obvious answer to his question is that the prohibition of hesach ha-da’at derived from the tzitz–tefillin association merely prohibits “trivial” or “lightheaded” thoughts while wearing tefillin. As the Rambam himself articulates (Tefillin 4), “While wearing tefillin, a person should be humble and oriented toward yirat shamayim. He should not be drawn into hilarity or kalut rosh. He should not ponder evil intent but should focus exclusively upon religious truths.” Since the content of a person’s thoughts during prayer are identical, to the religious thought surrounding tefillin, there should be no contradiction between wearing tefillin and reciting kriyat shema or praying!
Evidently Rabbenu Simcha’s question is premised upon the notion that tefillin awareness demands not merely general religious consciousness but a SPECIFIC attention to tefillin per se - a consciousness which is challenged by the focus upon tefilla or kriyat shema. By requiring a SPECIFIC tefillin focus and not merely a GENERAL religious orientation, Rabbenu Simcha indicates that he too viewed the tefillin awareness as an inherent element of the mitzva and not merely an added general feature comparable to tzitz.
Interestingly, establishing tefillin awareness as an inherent element of the mitzva and not merely an additive may not REQUIRE the aforementioned comparison to tzitz. Several halakhot of tefillin demonstrate that this awareness is an essential element of the mitzva. The fact that tefillin are not worn at night (and are even forbidden to be worn at night) stems, in part, from the identification of night as a time of sleep and a time in which tefillin awareness is impossible. Similarly, the delay in training a katan to wear tefillin is also unique. Typically, chinukh for mitzvot begins as soon as the katan can physically perform the mitzva. For example when he learns to speak, Torah chinukh begins; when he is old enough to wear garments, tzizit chinukh begins. Yet regarding tefillin, chinukh is delayed until he can maintain physical cleanliness (typically a few weeks prior to becoming 13). This delay in chinukh would also demonstrate the fact that tefillin awareness and a corresponding physical state are requisite elements of the basic mitzva of tefillin. In situation in which this awareness is compromised, the mitzva is inherently flawed. In fact, the Shulchan Arukh (Orach Chaim 25:5) describes the proper kavanot while donning tefillin. Typically, the Shulchan Arukh DOES NOT cite kavanot, as they are unrelated to the elementary halakhic performance of a mitzva. Yet in this instance, as the mental awareness is inherent to the mitzva, it IS CITED in the Shulchan Arukh.
It is therefore intriguing that the gemara derived tefillin awareness from the tzitz comparison. If tefillin awareness is inherent to tefillin, it should have been derived from internal tefillin logic or pesukim. By comparing tefillin to tzitz (based on the presence of Hashem’s name), isn’t the gemara indicating that this awareness is not inherent to tefillin but merely INCIDENTAL TO TEFILLIN? Inasmuch as tefillin contain the name of Hashem, awareness must be maintained similarly to the maintenance of awareness for the tzitz!