Tefillin are small boxes containing the words of the Shema that are traditionally wrapped around one’s head and arm during weekday morning prayers.
In the video below, Rabbi Steven Exler demonstrates how to put on tefillin, the ritual phylacteries worn every day during the morning prayer service.
A Visual Guide
The components of tefillin are two leather boxes with parchment with biblical passages inside. The first one goes on your arm, the second on your head.
A right-handed person should place tefillin on the left arm (lefties wear it on their right). The box is placed on the lower half of the bicep. Just before tightening through the loop, the first blessing is recited:
ברוך אתה ה’ אלקינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצוותיו וצונו להניח תפילין
Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who sanctified us with God’s commandments and commanded us to place the tefillin.
The Sephardic and Hasidic custom is to wrap the tefillin strap away from the torso. The Ashkenazic practice is to wrap towards the torso. In both cases, the strap is wrapped around the arm seven times.
The Head Tefillin
The head tefillin is placed with the front at the hairline (or where that hairline used to be).
Before tightening it, the following blessing is recited:
ברוך אתה ה’ אלקינו מלך העולם אשר קדשנו במצוותיו וצונו על מצוות תפילין
Blessed are you, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who sanctified us with God’s commandments and commanded us regarding the mitzvah of tefillin.
The front should be centered in between the eyes and the back knot should sit in the soft spot of the top of the neck.
Bring the straps around to the front with the shiny black side (the “front” side) facing out. Recite these words:
ברוך שם כבוד מלכותו לעולם ועד
Blessed is the name of the Glory of God’s Kingdom forever.
Wrapping the Hand
Finally, the letters of one of God’s names, Shaddai–shin, dalet, yod–are “written” across the hand using the tefillin straps. The strap of the arm tefillin is wrapped around the upper knuckle of the middle finger, once, and twice on the lower knuckle, with the second wrap extending across three fingers (see below). This makes the dalet and yod.
As the strap is wrapped around the middle finger, the following verse from the Book of Hosea is recited:
וארשתיך לי לעולם וארשתיך לי בצדק ובמשפט ובחסד וברחמים וארשתיך לי באמונה וידעת את ה
I betroth you to me forever. I betroth you to me in righteousness, justice, lovingkindness, and mercy. I betroth you to me in faithfulness–and you shall know God.
The strap is wrapped again, diagonally, crossing the entire hand, except the thumb (see above) to form the second leg of the shin. Finally, the strap is wrapped once more around the middle of the hand, forming the middle leg of the shin.
Removal proceeds in the reverse–unwrapping from the hand, taking off the head, and then off the whole arm. You can wrap your tefillin in protective cases that they are commonly sold with.
Pronounced: khah-SID-ik, Origin: Hebrew, a stream within ultra-Orthodox Judaism that grew out of an 18th-century mystical revival movement.
Pronounced: MITZ-vuh or meetz-VAH, Origin: Hebrew, commandment, also used to mean good deed.
Pronounced: seh-FAR-dik, Origin: Hebrew, describing Jews descending from the Jews of Spain.
Pronounced: tuh-FILL-in (short i in both fill and in), Origin: Hebrew, phylacteries. These are the small boxes containing the words of the Shema that are traditionally wrapped around one’s head and arm during morning prayers.
Pronounced: shuh-MAH or SHMAH, Alternate Spellings: Sh’ma, Shma, Origin: Hebrew, the central prayer of Judaism, proclaiming God is one.