Bible’s 3 Special Signs

What They Are–Why They’re Vital

Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim

Torah (Bible) are God’s precise words. God’s teaches man not only through unambiguous statements, but deeper…by way of metaphor, repetition, and rare terminology which we discuss now. Only three Torah matters are called “signs.”  What is a sign? What’s their significance over the 610 other commands? This is vital…



“[God said to Abraham] walk in My ways and be perfect. I will establish My covenant between Me and you” (Gen. 17:1). “You shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and that shall be the sign of the covenant between Me and you” (Gen. 17:11).


“And this shall serve you as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead—in order that the teaching of God may be in your mouth—that with a mighty hand God freed you from Egypt” (Exod. 13:9).

“And so it shall be as a sign upon your hand and as containers on your forehead that with a mighty hand God freed us from Egypt” (Exod. 13:16).


“Keep My sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout the generations, that you may know that I God have consecrated you (Israel)” (Exod. 31:13).  “The Israelite people shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout the ages as a covenant for all time. It shall be a sign for all time between Me and the people of Israel. For in six days God made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day [God] ceased from work and was refreshed” (Exod. 31:16,17).

What is a sign? What’s their significance over the 610 other commands?

A Jewish Matter

“Signs” proclaim God’s covenant “between God and the Jews,” as God says regarding circumcision and sabbath “My covenant between Me and you,” and regarding Tefillin “with a mighty hand God freed us from Egypt.” God deems it essential that in these 3 matters, the Jew belongs to an exclusive covenant by their performance of certain acts. 

“Signs”: Three Core Commands

A sign is a frequent, visual reminder of matters of great significance:

Sabbath—Creation: God Exists

Tefillin—Providence: God relates to man

Circumcision—Human Perfection: Instinctual control

God wishes all mankind to benefit equally, explaining why He designed all mankind equally. God wishes man to direct his life towards the greatest good, which is appreciating God's wisdom through his Bible, Torah. But man's emotions lead him astray towards fame, fortune, and instinctual gratification. Once a person follows this path, it can be difficult to return to God's will. Therefore God set up one group of people who bear three regular reminders.

The Jew is singled out as an example for all mankind to follow. By abstaining from work on the same day that God rested from creation, Maimonides says [1] through sabbath, “We confirm thereby the principle of Creation which will spread in the world”. Observing sabbath causes the other nations to question our deviation, to which we can respond that there is a God—a sole creator—who rested on the seventh day, and we are following His command to imitate Him. In this manner, we teach the world of monotheism and reject all forms of idolatry, mysticism and superstition.

The Jew again is singled out to wear a black boxes on our bodies. This too attracts attention, and we can teach others that Tefillin contains stories of the Exodus and God’s unopposed singular control of the universal laws. Now we share not the concept of God’s existence, but of His relationship to man: He did not create the universe and abandon it, but saved the Jews from Egypt. Regarding tefillin, Torah says “And all the peoples of Earth shall see that God’s name is called upon you and they will fear you” (Deut. 28:10). Rebbe Eliezer Hagadol, said this refers to the tefillin of the head [2]. All nations will see God’s name appearing on tefillin…a sign for the world to see. 

Through sabbath and tefillin, the Jew teaches God’s creation and His providence. But for what ultimate goal? Here we come to the third sign—circumcision—where God informed Abraham that, although he perfected himself in all other areas of his personality and values, there's one more area which requires refinement, and that is the restriction of instinctual gratification. For if one follows his lusts, his limited energies are no longer following his mind, and he will forfeit appreciating God's wisdom. In order to temper man's emotions to enable the mind freedom to pursue thought, circumcision reduces sexual gratification for both genders [3]. Now that man is freed from chasing physical gratification, he can redirect those limited energies to explore God’s wisdom, which is man’s greatest joy. The greatest minds found the greatest satisfaction in the greatest pursuit, which is wisdom. If we are wise, we will follow the greatest minds, and not follow the masses chasing instinctual drives of fame, fortune, and lusts.

Thus, these three commands intend to teach the world of the three most important principles, and therefore they require regular visual lessons which we call “signs”: 

1) The world must know a Creator exists (Sabbath), 

2) that He relates to man (Tefillin/Exodus), and 

3) that Earth’s goal of human perfection is attainable (circumcision). 

As Rashi says [4], Torah is the purpose of Earth’s existence. And if Israel does not follow God—i.e., if man does not attain perfection—God will return the Earth to its pre-genesis chaotic state. Israel is needed to teach mankind. Addition ally, the essentiality of tefillin—Exodus—and circumcision are embellished through loss of the afterlife by failure to sacrifice the Paschal lamb—Exodus—and circumcise oneself. 


By our Torah adherence, God promises His covenant with us. A covenant is a reciprocal relationship where God does something due to the Jews’ fulfillment of God’s commands. What will God do as His part of the covenant? God will secure Israel for Abraham’s descendants and help us in all ways. As seen in the days of King Solomon, no nation compared to Israel. And this is not for Jews alone. This is so there is an identifiable people in an identifiable country that can teach the world of the great goodness God bestows on mankind when man follows God...for his own good. 

However, the world today is steeped in gratifying ego, power, the desire for wealth, and lusts. Today, wisdom does not appeal to people following instincts. Perhaps we must wait until the messianic age when the wise Messiah will return people to following God and wisdom. Rabbi Reuven Mann taught that the 13 Principles include the messianic era. The other 12 principles refer to perfections of God, so we wonder how the age of the Messiah forms part of this list of 13 Principles. Rabbi Mann said that in the messianic era, man will finally attain perfection. This reflects on God, that He did not create a being incapable of such perfection. Human perfection will be attained, and man will then view God as having created man who can perfect himself. This reflects on God’s perfect creation, rendering God perfect in man’s eyes, warranting its inclusion of the 13 Principles. And when God favors those following him as in King Solomon’s time, the world learns that God protects and raises His followers.


The reason tefillin are not worn on shabbos is because that would obscure the sign of Shabbos. People would be more focused on the black boxes than on the physical rest of the Jews.

[1] Guide for the Perplexed, book ii, chap. xxxi

[2] Menachos 35b

[3] Guide for the Perplexed, book iii, chap. xlix

[4] Avos 2:8