Tefillin – Basic Judaism

The head tefillin is placed so as to overhang the middle of the forehead, although it may not be lower than one’s hairline, with the knot of the strap at the back of the head and overhanging the middle of the neck, while the two ends of the strap, with the blackened side outward, hang over the shoulders in front. On laying the hand-tefillin, before the knot is fastened, the following benediction is pronounced: “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to put on tefillin.”


ברוך אתה ה׳ אלהינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצותו וצונו להניח תפלן Transliteration: Baruch Atah Adonai, elohainu, melech haolam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu l’haniach t’fillin. Then the arm tefillin is tightend, and wrapped around the arm seven times without interruption. On placement of the head tefillin, before tightening, the following is recited: “Blessed are you, Lord, our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us regarding the commandment of tefillin.”


ברוך אתה ה׳ אלהינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצותו וצונו על מצות תפלן Transliteration: Baruch Atah Adonai, elohainu, melech haolam, asher kidshanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu al mitzvat t’fillin. And then the head tefillin is tightened, as the following prayer is said: “Blessed is the Name of His glorious kingdom for ever and ever.”


ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד Transliteration: Baruch Shem kevod malkhuto l’olam vaed.

The Blessings

Before the head-tefillin is fastened, many repeat the blessing is repeated with the substitution of the phrase “concerning the commandment of tefillin” for “to lay tefillin.” Some authorities are of the opinion that the blessing on laying the head-tefillin should be pronounced only when an interruption has occurred through conversation on the part of the one engaged in performing the commandment; otherwise the one blessing pronounced on laying the hand-tefillin is sufficient. This is the current Sephardi custom. The prevailing custom amongst Ashkenazim is to pronounce two blessings, and, after the second blessing, to say the words, “Blessed be the name of God’s glorious kingdom for ever and ever,” lest the second benediction be pronounced unnecessarily. Amongst Ashkenazim, the strap of the hand-phylactery is then wound three times around the middle finger so as to form a ש and the passages Hosea ii. 21 and 22 are recited. The seven twistings of the strap on the arm are then counted while the seven words of Deuteronomy iv. 4 are recited. After the tefillin are laid Exodus xiii. 1-16 is recited. In removing the tefillin the three twistings on the middle finger are loosened first; then the head-phylactery is removed; and finally the hand-phylactery. It is customary to lay and to remove the tefillin while standing; also to kiss them when they are taken from and returned to the tefillin-bag. Sephardim proceed similarly, but often without the extra scriptural passages, and the shape ד is shaped on the palm of the hand and the shape of a ש is formed around the middle finger, so as to represent the name Shaddai from the middle finger (ש) through the palm (ד) to the short extra strap of leather (י) hanging from the bayit (box) of the hand-phylactery. Originally tefillin were worn all day, but not during the night. Now the prevailing custom is to wear them during the daily morning service only. They are not worn on Sabbaths and holy days; for these, being in themselves “signs,” render the tefillin, which are to serve as signs themselves (Ex. xiii. 9, 16), unnecessary. In those places where tefillin are worn on the week-days of the festivals (see Holy Days), and on New Moons, they are removed before the “Musaf” prayer.

Women and tefillin

The duty of laying tefillin rests upon males after the age of thirteen years and one day. Women are exempt from the obligation, as are also slaves and minors. Early Jewish law codes allow women to take on the obligation of wearing tefillin (Rambam, Rashba, Rashi, Rabbenu Tam), but this custom was generally discouraged. Over time the discouragement changed into active exclusion, especially amongst Ashkenazim: Later codes of Jewish law such as the Shulhan Arukh eventually forbade women from wearing tefillin at all. Traditional Sephardi authorities who permitted – and encouraged – women’s use of tefillin after the Shulhan Arukh were the 18th Century chief rabbis of Jerusalem R. Yisrael Ya’aqob Alghazi and his son R. Yomtob Alghazi. Modern Orthodox Judaism holds that it is permissible for women to wear tefillin, but generally discourage it. Conservative Judaism and Reform Judaism allow women to wear tefillin. Many in Conservative Judaism encourage this practice.


A mourner during the first day of his mourning period, a bridegroom on his wedding-day, one who has been excommunicated, and a m’tzora are exempt from wearing tefillin. A sufferer from stomach-trouble, one who is otherwise in pain and can not concentrate his mind, one who is engaged in the study of the Law, and scribes of and dealers in tefillin and mezuzot while engaged in their work if it can not be postponed, are also free from this obligation). It is not permitted to enter a cemetery or any unseemly place, or to eat a regular meal or to sleep, while wearing tefillin. The storage bag used for tefillin should not be used for any other purpose, unless a condition was expressly made that it might be used for any purpose. The tefillin should not be brought into a restroom. Ideally, this rule should be followed with regard to the tefillin in their storage bag.

In his Mishneh Torah, Maimonides concludes the laws of tefillin with the following exhortation :

“The sanctity of tefillin is very great. As long as the tefillin are on the head and on the arm of a man, he is modest and God-fearing and will not be attracted by hilarity or idle talk, and will have no evil thoughts, but will devote all his thoughts to truth and righteousness; Therefore, every man ought to try to have the tefillin upon him the whole day; for only in this way can he fulfil the commandment. It is related that Rav (Abba Arika), the pupil of our holy teacher (Rav Judah ha-Nasi), was never seen to walk four cubits without a Torah, without fringes on his garments (tzitzit), and without tefillin. Although the Law enjoins the wearing of tefillin the whole day, it is especially commendable to wear them during prayer. The sages say that one who reads the Shema’ without tefillin is as if he testified falsely against himself. He who does not lay tefillin transgresses eight commandments; for in each of the four Biblical passages there is a commandment to wear tefillin on the head and on the arm. But he who is accustomed to wear tefillin will live long, as it is written, ‘When the Lord is upon them they will live'”.

Earliest Form

Tefillin resembled amulets in their earliest form, strips of parchment in a leather case, which is called either “bag” or “little house.” Tefillin and “keme’ot” are, in fact, often mentioned side by side (Shab. vi. 2; Miḳ. vi. 4; Kelim xxiii. 9; et al.), and were liable to be mistaken one for the other (‘Er. x. 1 et al.). As in the case of the Torah roll, the only permissible material was parchment, while the “mezuzah” was made of a different kind of parchment (Shab. viii. 3 et al.); for this reason a discarded tefillah could be made into a mezuzah, but not vice versa (Men. 32a). It was made square, not round (Meg. iv. 8). The head-tefillah consisted of four strips in four compartments, while the hand-tefillah consisted of one strip. The former could be made out of the latter, but not vice versa; and they were independent of each other.

In the Diaspora and Post-Talmudic Times

Although the tefillin were worn throughout the day, not only in Israel but also in Babylon, the custom of wearing them did not become entirely popular; and during the Diaspora they were worn nowhere during the day. But it appears from the Letter of Aristeas and from Josephus that the tefillin were known to the Jews of the Diaspora. At this time it may have become customary to wear them only during prayer, traces of this custom being found in Babylon (Men. 36b).

In France in the thirteenth century they were not generally worn even during prayer. The difference of opinion between Rashi (d. 1105) and his grandson Jacob Tam (d. 1171) in regard to the arrangement of the four sections indicates that no fixed custom in wearing them had arisen. Rashi and Tam’s tefillin are referred to; scrupulously pious persons put on the tefillin of R. Tam after prayer. There were differences of opinion between the Spanish and the German Jews in regard to the knot in the strap (see illustrations in Surenhusius, cited below).