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Torah Commentary
Bo (January 24, 2015)

Robyn Weinstein Cimbol, Senior Director of Development and Philanthropy

THESE VERSES, found toward the conclusion of Bo, are the first biblical instruction for the practice of t’fillin: the pair of square leather boxes wrapped on the arm and forehead that contain sacred texts. Among Reform- and most Conservative-affiliated Jews today, the wearing of t’fillin is generally the exception rather than the norm. For the ancient Israelites, the wearing of t’fillin became a tribal identification.

Both the shel yad (hand) and the shel rosh (head) contain the identical four Torah passages written on parchment: the first two sections of the Sh’ma (Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21) and the verses of Exodus referenced above from this portion (Exodus 13:1-10 and 11-16). The shel rosh has four separate compartments, and each Torah selection is housed individually. The shel yad is a single compartment, and all of the Torah passages are written on a single parchment.

To Rabbi Mark Washofsky, in Jewish Living: A Guide to Contemporary Reform Practice, these passages are among the foundational statements of our faith: God’s unity, sovereignty over our lives and the incidents of redemption in Jewish history. Therefore, this ritual may be understood as a physical demonstration of our obligation to direct both head and heart toward the service of God.

In his seminal work, A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, Rabbi Isaac Klein asserts that the commandment to wear t’fillin on the arm is a ritual commemorating God’s outstretched arm as the source of liberation from Egyptian enslavement. This anthropological allusion is invoked multiple times in this parashah and has become a metaphor for God’s unique capacity to bring about redemption.

T’fillin generally are worn on the left, weaker arm, symbolizing our weakness in Egypt, and it was only with God’s mighty hand that we were redeemed. The leather strap is wound intricately on the hand to spell Shaddai (the reference to God found also on mezuzot).

Unlike amulets worn by other ancient Near Eastern peoples that generally were thought to possess magical powers to protect the wearer from evil, the purpose of t’fillin seems to be more concerned with the preservation of the memory of their transformational historical experience and “teach it forward.” This is yet another way in which the Israelites both adopted contemporary rituals while adapting them for special significance.

It is one thing to receive an instruction and another thing to carry it out. The acceptance of the obligation of t’fillin transforms the Israelites into a full partner — no longer simply object but also subject. Literally, the Israelites and God are intertwined and bound together by experience and historical memory. Like the rainbow in Noach after the Flood, the image of t’fillin reiterates God’s promise. It symbolizes not only God’s power but also reaffirms God’s endless, timeless and enduring love.

Shabbat Shalom!

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