Kippah, Tallit and Tefilin: The Clothing of Jewish Prayer

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The tefillin consist of two black leather boxes and straps to hold them on. One is worn on the biceps, and its strap, which is tied with a special knot, is wound by the wearer seven times around the forearm and hand—on the left arm for right-handed people and on the right for those who are left-handed. The second box is worn on the forehead at the hairline, with its straps going around the back of the head, connected at the top of the neck with a special knot, and hanging in front on each side.

Four passages in the Torah call upon the Israelites to keep God's words in mind by "bind[ing] them as a sign upon [their] hands and making them totafot [an enigmatic term] between [their] eyes." Tefillin, as ordained by the rabbinic leaders of classical Judaism, are intended to fulfill that commandment.

prayer quizTefillin are worn during morning services except on Shabbat or festivals. Most men wear tefillin in Orthodox and Conservative congregations, as do some women in Conservative congregations. The use of tefillin is less prominent in Reform and Reconstructionist congregations by both men and women. Inside the tefillin are handwritten parchments with texts from the four passages mentioned above.

Some men in Hasidic communities wear a cloth belt, called a gartel, during prayer. Some take it as a symbol of "girding one's loins with strength"--a potent biblical image.

The use of special garments for prayer is full of historic and contemporary symbolism. One envelops oneself in the tallit, creating a private space for prayer and meditation in the midst of the larger congregation, its tzitzit providing a reminder of one’s duties and obligations as a Jew. The binding of the arm and the head with tefillin reminds the wearer to use her or his physical and mental powers for the service of God throughout the day, controlling action and thought in order to bring blessing to others and self. Jewish men have been wearing these items for more than two millennia, and so they are a powerful symbol of continuity over time.

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