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Daf 6a-b - God's Tefillin and Ours

Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan


Ein Yaakov - The World of Talmudic Aggada

By Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan


Lecture 21:  Daf 6a-b

God’s Tefillin and Ours



The Gemara now presents one of the most famous and striking images of God in rabbinic literature: the depiction of God wearing tefillin.  This discussion illuminates both the meaning of the commandment to wear tefillin, and the nature of God Himself and His relationship with His people.


The passage begins as follows:


R. Abin son of R. Ada in the name of R. Yitzchak says [further]:

How do you know that the Holy One, blessed be He, puts on tefillin?

For it is said:

‘The Lord hath sworn by His right hand,

and by the arm of His strength (Yishayahu 62:8).

'By His right hand': this is the Torah;

for it is said:

‘At His right hand was a fiery law unto them’ (Devarim 33:2).

'And by the arm of his strength': this is the tefillin;

as it is said:

‘The Lord will give strength unto His people’ (Tehillim 29:11). 

And how do you know that the tefillin are a strength to Israel?

For it is written:

‘And all the peoples of the earth shall see

that the name of the Lord is called upon thee,

and they shall be afraid of thee,’ (Devarim 28:10)

and it has been taught:

R. Eliezer the Great says:

This refers to the tefillin of the head.


In the previous discussion about the Divine presence in the synagogue, the Gemara cited a statement of R. Abin son of R. Ada in the name of R. Yitzchak. The Gemara now goes on to present and discuss a series of other statements transmitted by the same rabbis.  The first of these is this rather intricate and unusual proof from Scripture that God wears tefillin.  The central verse in this proof, from the end of the book of Yishayahu, is part of a famous messianic prophecy which is read as the haftara for Parashat Nitzavim: ‘The Lord hath sworn by His right hand, and by the arm of His strength… The simple meaning of the verse does not suggest anything about tefillin.  God swearing by his right hand reflects the common biblical practice of raising one’s hand to heaven while taking an oath (still done in American court rooms).  Alternatively, it may refer to an oath along the lines of “may my right hand be forgotten." 


How then does this verse refer to God’s tefillin? Before proceeding to the Gemara’s more intricate explanation, I would like to note that Steinsaltz suggests a more straightforward explanation that may underlie the Gemara’s elaborate one.  The laws of oaths include the concept of taking an oath be-nikatat chefetz, while holding a holy object such as a Torah scroll or tefillin.  (Once again, this concept has its parallel in the contemporary American practice of swearing on a Bible.)  I don’t think that the biblical practice of raising one’s arm in an oath was common in the rabbinic period.  Hence, it would make sense that when the rabbis saw a reference to someone “swearing by his arm,” they would understand this as swearing by that which is on his arm, namely his tefillin.  Thus they would have interpreted this verse as referring to tefillin.


However, another factor may be involved here.  Another verse in this very passage from Yishayahu seems to refer to God wearing tefillin.   Just five verses previously in 62:3, the prophet declares to Zion,


You shall be a glorious crown

In the hand of the Lord,

And a royal diadem

In the palm of your God.


This verse actually refers to God having a glorious piece of jewelry on His arm which is associated with Israel.  Furthermore, the terms atarah, crown,and tznif, “diadem,” both generally refer to adornments worn on the head.  It would thus be very logical to interpret this verse as referring to God’s tefillin, both of the hand and the head, which symbolize God’s relationship with Israel, just as Israel’s tefillin symbolize their relationship with Him.  Furthermore, this entire passage is full of images comparing God’s relationship with Israel to that between a husband and wife, a theme that will reappear later on in the Gemara’s discussion.  I do not really know what to do with these verses, which are so suggestive yet are never actually cited in the Gemara.


The Gemara offers a more intricate interpretation which requires a string of biblical citations and interpretations.  The Gemara identifies the words “right hand” as referring to the Torah, and the term zeroah uzo as referring to the tefillin.  Zeroah uzo is generally translated as “arm of His strength,” but here I think the rabbis understand it as “strength of His arm,” referring not to the arm itself, but to something associated with it, namely tefillin.  One of the results of explaining the “right hand’ in the first clause of the verse as referring to Torah, is that the “arm” of the second half of the verse, related to tefillin, can now be understood as the left arm.  The left arm is the most appropriate because this is where God (presuming He is right-handed) places his tefillin. 


The Gemara then goes on to show that just as God’s tefillin are referred to as oz, strength, so too, tefillin are referred to as the “strength” of Israel.  The Gemara cites the verse in Devarim,


‘And all the peoples of the earth shall see

that the name of the Lord is called upon thee,

and they shall be afraid of thee,’ (Devarim 28:10)


The general gist of this proof is clear when followed by R. Eliezer’s gloss on it, interpreting the verse as referring to the tefillin worn on the head (tefillin shel rosh).  This verse, understood in light of R. Eliezer, describes the tefillin as symbolic or as an embodiment of Divine strength, which shall cause Israel’s enemies to run in fear when they see them.  However, it is interesting to note that this verse does not actually contain the term in question, oz, “strength."  This absence is most unusual, considering the literal and linguistic nature of rabbinic interpretation.  It is important to note, however, that R. Eliezer’s interpretation of this verse appears no less than six times in the Talmud and is probably the most often sighted homiletical interpretation regarding tefillin.  The Gemara here may well have wanted to work it into this sugya as well, because of its fame and centrality, and may have done so even at the expense of creating an un-orthodox midrashic proof.


R, Eliezer’s interpretation adds something particular to our conversation here.  The first verse cited, from Yishayahu, talking about God’s arm, appears to refer only to tefillin of the arm, tefillin shel yad.  In R. Eliezer’s interpretation, the verse from Devarim refers specifically to the tefillin shel rosh.  By bringing these verses together into a single argument, the Gemara here is able to show that God wears both types of tefillin.


This section as a whole takes a specific approach to the nature of tefillin, both human and Divine.  We naturally take human tefillin as a given and the possibility of Divine tefillin as a new idea, introduced explicitly only in this Gemara.  We may sum up this view as: Just as we wear tefillin, so too does God.  This passage, however, identifies tefillin with Divine might, with the strength associated with His arm and with His Name.  The “primary” tefillin, as it were, are God’s.  He is the source of strength.  The chiddush, or innovation, is the idea that Israel too can wear tefillin, that God may impart some of His strength to His people.  We can sum up this view as: Just as God wears tefillin, so too do we.  We can compare this to a king’s royal guard, who wear the insignia of the crown on their uniforms and helmets, signaling that they represent the king and they are backed up by all of his resources.


Having established that God wears tefillin, the Gemara assumes that His tefillin resemble our own and are similarly repositories of biblical verses.  An obvious question follows from this assumption:


R. Nachman b. Yitzchak said to R. Chiyya b. Abin:

What is written in the tefillin of the Lord of the Universe?

He replied to him:

‘And who is like Thy people Israel,

a nation one in the earth.’ (I Divrei Ha-yamim 17:21)

Does, then, the Holy One, blessed be He, sing the praises of Israel?

Yes, for it is written:

‘Thou hast affirmed the Lord this day …

and the Lord hath affirmed thee this day.’ (Devarim 26:17,18) 

The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel:

You have made me a unique entity in the world,

and I shall make you a unique entity in the world. 

'You have made me a unique entity in the world,’

as it is said:

‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.’ (Devarim 6:4) 

'And I shall make you a unique entity in the world, ‘

as it is said:

‘And who is like Thy people Israel, a nation one in the earth.’


The Gemara’s original statement about God wearing tefillin is presented by R. Abin, a Babylonian amora of the third generation, in the name of R. Yitzchak, a second generation amora of the Land of Israel.  This initial tradition states that God wears tefillin, but it does not give any details about what they look like.  As we have seen, one may interpret this statement as saying that “God’s Tefillin” is simply a metaphorical way of talking about God’s might and does not refer to anything that looks like our tefillin.


Now, we have two later amoraim of the fourth generation, having a discussion about this tradition which assumes that there must be real similarities between the Divine and human tefillin.  As our sugya progresses, increasingly later amoraim will demand an increasingly direct correlation between Divine and human tefillin. 


At this point, R. Nachman merely suggests that God’s tefillin must contain some biblical verse, akin to mortal tefillin.  The verse chosen is: “And who is like Thy people Israel, a nation one in the earth,” familiar to us from the Shabbat afternoon Shemoneh Esrei.  As becomes apparent in the course of the above quoted passage, the key word in this verse is “one."  Just as Israel declares that God is One in the Shema, the most prominent verse found in our tefillin, so too God declares that Israel is one, unique among the nations, in His tefillin. 


R. Nachman’s statement suggests a very different paradigm for the relationship between the Divine and the human tefillin.  Rather than suggest that human tefilin are mere reflections of the Divine tefillin, this model sees the Divine and the human as complementary.  God’s tefilin are mirror images of ours.  This is emphasized by the citation of the parallel verses from Devarim, in which Israel and God each “affirm” the other.  (The exact meaning here of the verb he’emir, translated as “affirm,” is unclear. It is clear, however, that it refers to declarations of mutual commitment between God and Israel).  This image of mutual commitment is taken even farther in R. Chiyya’s explanation of the verses.  In the Soncino translation, R. Chiyya’s explanation is rendered as saying that God and Israel each make the other, “a unique entity in the world.” However, Jastrow translates the key term here, hativah, not as “entity” but as “object of love."  In this understanding, the verses in Devarim are declarations of love between God and Israel, reminiscent of the rabbis’ interpretation of Song of Songs.  In this view, tefillin might be seen as similar to rings or other jewelry exchanged by a couple as a symbol of their commitment to each other.


Next, still later amoraim, both of the sixth generation, demand even more exact correlation between God’s tefillin and ours.


R. Acha b. Raba said to R. Ashi:

This accounts for one section,

what about the other section?

 He replied to him:

[They contain the following verses]:

‘For what great nation is there, etc.’ (Devarim 4:7) 

‘And what great nation is there, etc.’; (idem. V. 8)

‘Happy art thou, O Israel, etc.’; (ibid. 33:29)

‘Or hath God assayed, etc.’; (ibid.  4:34)

and ‘To make thee high above all nations’ (ibid.  26:19).


R. Acha assumes that not only do God’s tefillin contain biblical citations, but that God’s tefillin shel rosh, like ours, contain multiple compartments and hence must have more than one scriptural passage inside.  What are these other passages? R. Acha demands to know.  R. Ashi responds by listing five different verses from the book of Devarim, each of which emphasizes God’s “special relationship” with Israel.  It is not a coincidence that all of these verses come from Devarim, as do the first two paragraphs of the Shema (5:4-9 & 1:13-22) which are included in our tefillin, and the verse cited at the beginning of our passage in order to link tefillin with the concept of Divine power.  The central theme of the book of Devarim, as expressed in all of these verses, is the covenant (brit) between God and the people of Israel.  Each one has obligations to the other.  Israel must do the mitzvoth, and God must protect Israel in their Land.  Underlying these obligations is a deep-seeded mutual commitment to one another.  On several occasions, this commitment is described using the word “love” (ahav).  In Devarim itself, this word means loyalty between vassal and patron more than erotic love between a man and a woman.  However, the prophets, as we saw in the Yishayahu verses cited above, and the rabbis, as we saw in their interpretations of Shir Ha-shirim, and in their understanding of tefillin above, consistently recast this Deuteronomic love in terms of erotic love.  In citing these verses from Devarim, the Gemara places tefillin into the larger theological context of the Divine covenant described in Devarim, and, at the same time, re-interprets this covenant in terms of human love between a man and woman. 


Finally, the Gemara presents one final effort to correlate the structure of God’s tefillin with that of our own.


If so, there would be too many cases?

Hence [you must say]:

‘For what great nation is there,’ and

‘And what great nation is there,’

which are similar,

are in one case;

‘Happy art thou, O Israel,’

and ‘Who is like Thy people,’

in one case;

‘Or hath God assayed,’

in one case;

and ‘To make thee high,’

in one case. 

And all these verses are written on [the tefillin of] His arm.


This next question is not attributed to any particular rabbi; it is stated by the stam, the anonymous voice of the Talmud.  Contemporary scholars tend to assume that the stam was composed by rabbis who lived after R. Ashi and the period of the amoraim.  This passage in the Gemara presents a series of discussions involving different generations of rabbis about God’s tefillin.  They are arranged in chronological order, with each succeeding generation demanding that God’s tefillin resemble ours in a more and more exact manner.


In this final discussion, the rabbis insist that God’s tefillin not only contain multiple compartments with different scriptural passages contained in them, but that His tefillin contain exactly four compartments, like our tefillin.  The problem is that R. Ashi listed five verses from Devarim, in addition to the verse from Divrei Ha-yamim cited previously, all of which are supposed to go into God’s tefillin.  How can they all fit into four compartments? The Gemara suggests that two of the compartments must contain two passages each.  First they suggest that the verses ‘For what great nation is there,’ and ‘And what great nation is there,’ go together in a single compartment.  These two verses are not only similar, as the Gemara points out; they are also consecutive.  They are really a single passage.  So, just as in our tefillin, thus far God’s tefillin only contain individual passages.  Next the Gemara suggests that ‘Happy art thou, O Israel,’ and ‘Who is like Thy people,’ are also together in a single compartment.  ‘Who is like Thy people,’ is the only verse in this group that not only does not come from Devarim, but does not come from the Torah at all; it comes from Divrei Ha-yamim.  Based on the comparison to human tefillin, which contain only verses from the Torah, we would think that this Divrei Ha-yamim verse would be ineligible from inclusion in God’s tefillin.  The Gemara resolves this issue, in part, by saying that this verse does not get its own compartment, but, rather, is squeezed together with a verse from the Torah.


The question that needs to be resolved is what exactly does it mean that God wears tefillin? How can this be? In light of our interpretation of this passage in the Gemara, it seems quite reasonable to interpret this concept in rationalist terms.  God wearing tefillin is simply a metaphor that we use to discuss God’s relationship to Israel.  We have seen two basic models for the God-Israel relationship represented by the idea of God’s tefillin.  One model is that tefillin are symbolic of the way in which Jews imitate God and are endowed by Him with some of his attributes, such as His strength.  In this view, God’s tefillin are the paradigm, and our tefillin are mere copies.  The second model is that the tefillin represent the complementary relationship between God and Israel.  Each one is committed to the other, almost as equals, as it were, like a husband and wife.  In this case, God’s tefillin and human tefillin are two equal parts of a larger puzzle.  One may also interpret the Gemara’s discussion of God’s tefillin in mystical, kabbalistic terms, as talking allegorically about different aspects and levels of spiritual existence.


However, as the Gemara increasingly demands that God’s tefillin look just like ours, we get the sense that the Gemara may mean that God actually wears physical tefillin that look like ours.  This would follow the position of the Tosafists who insisted on a literal interpretation of agadda.  Indeed, there is much evidence that many medieval Ashkenazic rabbis, including, perhaps, Rashi himself, believed that God has a body on which He could place the tefillin described in the Gemara. 


My own inclination is to avoid the question of whether or not the rabbis of the Talmud believe that God was corporeal.  The rabbis, fundamentally, thought of God in terms that my teacher Professor David Stern called imitatio hominus.  The rabbis thought of God as if He were human, because they felt human beings were the closest thing to God that we can imagine.  At the same time, the rabbis clearly understood that there was a huge gap between God and mortals.  Exactly where this gap lies remains unclear.  The rabbis were not systematic theologians like their medieval inheritors.  The important thing for them was to emphasize that God is both like us and not like us.  In this passage, they seek to emphasize our commonality with God, so God appears quite human.  I do not think they meant to take an exact position on this matter. 

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