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Reprinted with permission from Louis Jacobs, The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.
The talmudic rabbis wax eloquent on the value of tefillin. The [Babylonian] Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 17a) defines a "sinner in Israel with his body" as "a skull that does not wear tefillin."
Yet, even in the geonic period [after the canonization of the Talmud], there was a certain laxity in the observance of tefillin. Some of the geonim [leading scholars of the period] and they were followed by the Tosafot ([12th-14th century commentators] to the passage)–observed that the talmudic denunciation applies only to those who refuse to wear tefillin out of irreligious reasons, but if a man does not wear tefillin because he believes he has not attained to the purity of body and mind required for them to be worn, he is no sinner at all. It is known that Rabbi Moses of Coucy traveled through Spain and France in the year 1237 on a preaching mission in which he urged the Jews of these lands to wear tefillin, arguing that sinners require all the more this "sign" of allegiance to the divine law.
The result has been that Orthodox Jews, although they no longer wear tefillin all day, since they do not believe they have the degree of purity to do so, do wear them for prayer, and tefillin have become one of the indications of Orthodoxy. The majority of Reform Jews, however, do not wear tefillin, interpreting, as did the Karaites, the references to binding on the arm and head as purely figurative. Conservative Jews do wear tefillin, like the Orthodox.
Over the ages, the tefillin were given various symbolic interpretations. For instance, the head tefillin, the hand tefillin, and the wearing of the latter opposite the heart was all taken to suggest that head, heart, and hand must all be brought into play in the service of God. That there are four sections on the head tefillin and only one in the hand tefillin has been understood to convey the idea that opinions may differ but Jewish practice should be uniform. That the hand tefillin have to be covered with the shirt-sleeve, while the head tefillin are uncovered has been understood as suggesting that a man’s religious emotions and his benevolent deeds should be private to him and not paraded in order to demonstrate his piety and generosity. In the Kabbalah, various mystical ideas are read into the tefillin: that, for example, they represent on earth details of the Sefirot on high.
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