The Tefilin are a positive, Torah command. According to its original law, they are to be worn all day. But man presently is not on the level to keep his mind on Tefilin, so we limit our wearing of them to the duration of the morning prayers.
The Tefilin contain four portions of the Torah, commencing with these verses: Exodus 13:1, Exodus 13:11, Deuteronomy 6:4, and Deuteronomy 11:13. One Tefilin is 'placed' on the head, and the other, 'tied' on the arm. The Tefilin of the head contain these four portions written on four separate skins - placed in four separate housings, while the Tefilin of the arm contain these same four portions, are written on one skin - place in one housing.
In each of these four Torah portions, we read of the command to wear Tefilin, with insight into their purpose. I will record the single verse of each of the four portions which contains the command, paraphrasing the context of each, and suggesting the distinction of these portions:
Portion 1 (Exod. 13:9): "And it will be to you a sign upon your hand, and a remembrance between your eyes, so that G-d's Torah will be in your mouth, for with a mighty hand did G-d take you out of Egypt." This portion addresses the command to designate to G-d, all firstborn males and animals. As G-d killed all first born males and animals in the final Plague, our dedication of these individuals is a command, for our recognition of G-d's kindness, in that He spared the firstborns of the Jews. This portion also includes the command to observe the Passover, eating Matza and no leaven. The Exodus is thereby recalled, and our appreciation of G-d's redemption is never forgotten.
Portion 2 (Exod. 13:16): "And it will be a sign upon your hand, and as Tefilin between your eyes for with a mighty hand did G-d take you out of Egypt." This portion includes the command to redeem all firstborn males, while also dedicating all firstborn male animals. We are commanded to respond to our sons' questioning of this redemptive practice, by explaining the designation assigned to the Israelite firstborns. The Israelite firstborns too were to be slain by G-d's plague, but due to the commands we obeyed in Egypt, they were spared for a future designation of sole dedication to G-d's service. However, this law of redeeming the firstborns allows them to engage in mundane activity, like the rest of their fellow Jews, who work for their livings.
Portion 3 (Deut. 6:8): "And you shall tie them as a sign upon your arm, and they will be Tefilin between your eyes. " This portion we are all familiar with, it is the first paragraph of the Shema Yisrael prayer. We enunciate our conviction in the absolute oneness of the Creator, and our complete direction of our actions to His service, (ibid 4:5) "And you shall love your G-d with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might."
Portion 4 (Deut. 11:18): "And you shall place these words on your heart and on your soul, and you shall tie them as a sign upon your arms, and they shall be Tefilin between your eyes." This portion addresses the concept of reward and punishment, as rain is promised or withheld, depending on our fulfillment or abandonment of His commands. We are also warned against idolatry, and promised to be driven from Israel as a punishment. This is the second paragraph of the Shema Yisrael.
We can abbreviate these four portions. Besides commanding us in Tefilin, they cover the following ideas:
(By the inclusion of the command to "transmit to sons" contained in all four portions, we learn of G-d's concern that future generations are raised with these concepts.)
We must ask a few questions to understand this command:
1) What is the concept of placing Torah portions on our bodies?
2) Why in these two specific locations?
3) Why is the Tefilin of the head contain these four portions in individual compartments, on individual skins, but the arm has all four in one compartment, and written on one skin?
4) The order of the head's portions is the reverse of what we would think. Although the portions are in the order of the Torah, commencing with Exodus 13:1 and ending with Deut. 11:13, this order is arranged so if another person would view our own Tefilin, it would be in the correct order of HIS reading. Why must the head's portions be in order for a viewer, and not for us?
5) Regarding the arm's Tefilin, we read above that it is always referred to as a "sign". What does this mean?
6) The head's Tefilin is referred to as Totafos ("Tefilin"according to Unkelos) in all cases, except in the first portion, where it is referred to as a "remembrance". Why this deviation in this one case?
7) Only regarding the arm's Tefilin, do we read that it must be "tied". In all cases, the head's Tefilin is "to be", just "to be" - no command exists to "tie" it on our heads. Maimonides supports this distinction in his Yad HaChazakah, Laws of Tefilin, Chapter 1:1 in his Kesser, ("Crown") which is the opening, succinct classification of all commands in that portion. He writes, "A. There should be Tefilin on the head, B. To tie them on the arm." No law exists to tie the Tefilin of the head. How do we understand this command that this one Tefilin should just "be" on the head? What is the fulfillment of this command?
8) Maimonides records many similarities in the laws governing the procedures and substances for creating a Torah, Mezuza and Tefilin. What is the similarity of all three, taught through these laws?
9) Maimonides states (ibid, 3:17) that one is not allowed to convert the Tefilin of the head into the Tefilin of the arm, but vice versa is permitted. The reasoning is the Torah principle, "One may ascend in sanctity, but not descend." What "higher" sanctity exists in the Tefilin of the head?
10) Mezuza and Tefilin contain Torah portions. Why must we not only learn Torah, but also have these additional laws of placing Torah portions on our homes and our bodies? What is the difference between Tefilin and Mezuza, that the Mezuza contains only two of these four portions, the two paragraphs of the Shema?
As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains, the term "Tefilin" is a derivative of the word "pilale", as in "Tefila", to "judge". We are to judge our actions when we pray to G-d, analyzing ourselves, and presenting to G-d our requests that will assist in our intelligent, life-plan. Tefilin too are meant to assist us in judging correct ideas, for our actions to follow. The four portions are separated on our heads, as we must review each concept individually, if we are to apprehend each portion's significance. We must then follow through in unified activity, as demonstrated by all four portions, united on one parchment, in the arm's Tefilin. Thoughts without action display a disjointed being. We are deviant, if we study, but lack the self application of these ideas. Action, is the true barometer of a person who is convinced of what he learned. If one fails to act on his studies, he displays a lack of conviction. Tefilin straddle both; man's thoughts, and his actions. There cannot be any separation. The whole being comes under the service of G-d, as displayed by the law to have the name of G-d displayed in the knots and boxes of the Tefilin. But in addition to action, the Tefilin of the arm are to be set facing the heart. This demonstrates that just as one's thoughts (Tefilin of the head) are devoted to G-d, so too are one's emotions. The High Priest wears a gold, forehead plate (Tzitz) with "Holy to G-d" written upon it, and a breastplate with the twelve tribes' names engraved therein. These two objects also teach these concepts; the most perfected of the Jewish nation, the High Priest, displays what the most perfect attitude must be: One's mind must be devoted to G-d's law, while one's heart goes out to his brothers and sisters. This is true perfection. The Ten Commandments too, are divided into these two categories: laws between man and G-d, and laws between man and his fellow.
Why Place Tefilin on Our Bodies?
Perhaps one must realize that the human being, as a physical entity alone, is gravely incomplete. The Talmud teaches a parable; (paraphrased) "one is likened to a sickly being, and there is a bandage. If he keeps the bandage on, he survives, if he removes it, he dies. This bandage is Torah." Wearing the Tefilin, a person demonstrates that Torah is essential to his very being. He is not complete without the Tefilin. The Torah is, as any vital organ. This would support the law of wearing Tefilin the entire day; there is no part in the day, in our lives, where man can exist as intended, without adhering to the Torah laws, vital to our existence as "man", a G-d fearing being.
Torah is insufficient for man's perfection, while remaining in the scroll. Portions must be "worn" as Tefilin, and also "posted", as a Mezuza. Both, man's body and his home, must have concrete displays of Torah portions. But why are they not the same portions? The Mezuza omits the first two portions included in the Tefilin. Why? The Tefilin's first two portions bear one common theme: man's existence. They refer to our freedom from Egypt, and the redemption of the firstborns. I believe this is indicative of two roles in man's existence. Freedom from Egypt addresses man's "actions", i.e. he is now free to "do" what he wills, and that must be the adherence to Torah. However, redemption of firstborns does not address actions, but man's physical "self". Our very lives were spared by G-d's mercy. The Jews were also to be killed, had it not been for G-d's commands which earned back our lives. Since these two first portions in the Tefilin address man as a being - his actions and his very life - they are limited to Tefilin, and not included in Mezuza. Tefilin are commands on one's body. Mezuza, on the other hand, is posted on the doorposts of our homes. What is a home? It represents man's life on Earth - his abode, where he eats, sleeps, and raises his family. Man must acknowledge that his stay here on Earth has a purpose, found in his realization of the Creator, and that he must devote himself to Him. Man is also accountable for his actions. The two portions of the Shema, posted on our homes contain these two principles.
Man requires physical reminders of basic truths. He must view his very self as incomplete without Torah (Tefilin), and his home, as targeting G-d's goals, not his own securities (Mezuza). These concepts must reflect the entire Torah. Therefore, when creating Tefilin and Mezuza, many of the same laws of a Torah scroll apply.
There is an additional benefit to placing Tefilin on our bodies. By nature, man identifies his self with his appearance. We often refer to a loss of communication as "I haven't 'seen' you in so long", or "It's good to 'see' you." Clothing is so valued, and so diverse in style, as each person dresses with some fashion peculiar to how he identifies himself. Man's appearance plays a role in our own self image, and how we view others. By placing Tefilin on our bodies, we compromise our subjective identity of the self, conforming our identity to one synonymous with Torah - we are wearing portions of Torah.
Tefilin - An Item to be "Read"
The Talmud (Minachos, 35b) teaches according to Rabbi Eliezer the Great, that the following verse refers to the Tefilin of the head, (Deut. 28:10) "And all the nations of the Earth will see that G-d's name is called upon you, and they will fear you." We said earlier that the law is; the order of the Torah portions in the Tefilin of the head must be in the Torah's sequence - but from the vantage point of another person viewing you, not the one wearing it. (If the order is reversed, such Tefilin are unfit for use.) This is in line with our verse, that the Tefilin of the head are for the onlooker, be he Jew or Gentile. What do we learn from this verse, and our law?
It would appear that the Tefilin must possess the status of a "read" object. Although no one can see through the external, black leather casings, the Tefilin serve a purpose of "study", or understanding. Tefilin are essentially "written" objects, just as is the Torah. Torah, Tefilin and Mezuza share the common goal of "study". One must contemplate the portions contained in the Tefilin and Mezuza, if he is to truly fulfill these commands. This is the purpose of a written object. To demonstrate this essential feature, the Tefilin must be arranged so that one who can see these four portions, (the "reader" facing one wearing Tefilin) 'reads' them in the order in which they appear in the Torah. This order of portions reflects the complete Torah. Tefilin thereby achieve their goal of reflecting the Torah scroll, both, through their legibility for the "reader", and though reflecting the Torah's order.
One who wears Tefilin is not doing so for the "reader", but as a fulfillment of his own command. Even if there was nobody present, one must wear Tefilin each day.
Tefilin - A "Sign"
In all four portions, we are told that Tefilin are a "sign". We also learn (Minachos, 36b) that Tefilin are not worn on the Sabbath and holidays, as these days are inherently a sign. What is this concept? A sign to what?
We have already defined Tefilin as portions of the Torah. The Torah is synonymous with G-d. The Sabbath recalls the Creation, but in specific, the day in which work is prohibited, and wisdom is pursued, unhindered by physical labor. The holidays recall G-d's miracles performed throughout history. All three, Tefilin, Sabbath, and holidays, are signs to G-d's involvement in man's existence. Sabbath defined the purpose of Creation, i.e., the pursuit of wisdom. Holidays recall G-d's unceasing relationship with the Jewish nation, and Tefilin are a sign of G-d's Torah, commanded to the Jews. Therefore, a "sign" is that which attests to G-d's involvement with man. G-d's "signs" underline these two basic principles; 1)the purpose of Creation is G-d's display of wisdom in the universe, 2)the purpose of man is to pursue G-d's wisdom through Torah.
Wearing Tefilin, we are set apart from other nations, as the people commanded in Torah, signified through Tefilin, a miniature Torah. Inactivity on the Sabbath and holidays is also a physical deviation from other nations. But here, we deviate in activity, not in our physical presence, as done through Tefilin.
We now learn something new; these signs are to set the Jew apart in a visible fashion. We are different both in physical appearance by wearing black boxes all day, and we are different by not working, as all other peoples do on specified days. We must now ask, "why must we deviate?"
It would appear that deviating in a visible fashion drives at the purpose of displaying G-d's Torah to all nations. As we said, Rabbi Eliezer the Great taught, "And all the nations of the Earth will see that G-d's name is called upon you, and they will fear you" refers to the Tefilin of the head. This is our goal: we must make ourselves visually distinct, if we are to avail ourselves to others who are desirous of inquiring of G-d, and His laws. If other nations cannot detect the Jew, we cause them a great disservice by such concealment, whereby be sever their connection to the recipients and teachers of G-d's Torah.
Tefilin cause us to never forget the following:
1) G-d's Exodus: we are continually thankful to Him for our freedom to follow Torah.
2) G-d's sole responsibility for our lives: redeeming our firstborn sons, and dedicating the firstborn animals to Temple service.
3) G-d is One: our goal in life is to approach G-d in all our actions, there is not other god.
4) G-d is the only Ruler: our actions - good or bad - meet with a response from G-d,...alone.
We may deduce that if Tefilin are to function as "daily reminders" of these concepts, that man's natural disposition - in some ways - is not in line with these themes, and therefore requires constant subordination. Man possesses many components in his being, such as pride, independence, the desire for unbridled activity, and psychological security. I suggest that Tefilin teach us the Torah's basic tenets, while simultaneously subordinating man's natural, emotional tendencies to intelligent truths:
There is much more to be said, and we have not answered all our questions. Feel free to write in with your thoughts.