Everything I Need to Know I Learned from the Tefillin
Rabbi Daniel Pressman
It’s happened more than once. An observant Jew is on an airplane, realizes it’s time to pray, and puts on tefillin. Someone freaks out—little black boxes, black electrical wires—it’s a bomb!!—and the flight is diverted.
Indeed, tefillin do look weird. And flyers are nervous.
And lets be honest, there is something strange about the tefillin—even for many Jews. Like many ritual objects, it’s symbolic—you have to know the code. So I’m going to use my rabbi’s secret decoder ring to reveal one lesson from the Tefillin that relates to our tasks during these Days of Awe and to Jewish life in general. I think you will find this useful whether or not tefillin are part of your regular routine.
Tefillin are basically two boxes with straps, with Torah texts inside, including the first two paragraphs of the Shema. We call the boxes batim, plural of bayit, which means house. “Bind them as as sign upon your hand and as symbol above your eyes.” But sign and symbol of what? Here is the first clue: The head bayit sits on our head. The arm bayit rests close to our heart. The windings on the hand spell Shaddai, one of God’s names.
So we engage our head, heart and hand—our intellect, our emotions, and our deeds.
Judaism values the mind. Don’t take that for granted. There are religions that privilege emotion over rational thought. Judaism has never feared reason, interpretation, legal argument, or philosophy. At the beginning of the morning service you find Rabbi Ishmael’s rules for interpreting the Torah, modeled after Greek rhetorical analysis. How remarkable to begin the day with an intellectual tool kit.
Heart represents the emotions. Prayer is as much heart as head. The piercing sounds of the shofar, the plaintive tones of the Kol Nidrei, the soaring voices of the congregation joined in the Shema at the end of Neilah—these touch the heart. Our emotions keep us loyal through moments of doubt. Without them religion is arid, a theory about existence, not a living faith. It’s the heart that feels God’s presence in the starry sky or the birth of a child. Holiness and awe touch the affective domain.
The hand represents action. Most mitzvot are about deeds, not thoughts. Many are acts of ḥesed/lovingkindness: visiting the sick, comforting the mourner, hospitality, and many more. These mitzvot are so important that they, too, are part of the morning service. Without the hand, heart and mind are internal, self-involved. The hand extends our beliefs and feelings into the world.
Once you understand these aspects of head, heart and hand, you see them everywhere. For example, in major trends of Jewish thought. We find head Judaism in Rabbi Ishmael’s rules of interpretation; in Maimonides and other Jewish philosophers; and in the founders of Conservative Judaism and most of its greatest thinkers.
We find heart Judaism represented by Rabbi Akiva, the Talmudic master of mystical technique; the whole tradition of Jewish mysticism; ḥasidism, Jewish music, and the great renewal of Jewish mysticism and meditation in our time.
Hand Judaism is expressed in the positive mitzvot as detailed in Jewish law. We find it in the Mussar movement, which works on refinement of character that leads to right action. And it flourishes in the great modern structure of Jewish charity and philanthropy, in synagogue social action committees, and in the entire Zionist enterprise. The old Zionist song, “anu banu artzah, livnot ul’hibanot ba—we have come to the land to build and be built by it” is a secular expression of the Jewish belief in the power of the deed.
By now I imagine that you are realizing that you incline toward one of these emphases. Beth David has its head, heart and hand Jews. Head Jews love learning. They attend adult education and scholar-in-residence. They join book groups. They think intellectually about Judaism. Heart Jews love worship, music, art, dance, and Jewish spirituality. Hand Jews are found in the Threads of Tradition group, the chevrat chesed, hiddur zaken, noten yad and social action committees.
You can read Beth David’s mission statement through this lens. Head is the Bet Midrash, house of study. Heart is the Bet Tefillah, house of prayer. And hand is the Bet Kenesset the house of assembly and social connection. Judaism exists in community, and these three emphases are all necessary. When head, heart and hand are all present—the community is complete.
But these three paths don’t thrive in thick-walled, separate silos. Like the tefillin’s elements, they are interconnected and interdependent.
For example, Judaism sees an essential link between head and hand, study and deeds. The Talmud tells of an important debate over the question, “Which is greater, study or action?” (Kiddushin 40b):
Rabbi Tarfon spoke up and said: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva spoke up and said: Study is greater. The other [Rabbis] then spoke up and said: Study is greater because it leads to action.
For Jews, Torah study should never be a detached intellectual exercise. Rather, it is training for how to use one’s hand in the world. In fact, we put on the hand tefillin first, to indicate the priority of deeds.
There is also a link between prayer and deeds. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “Prayer must never be a citadel for selfish concerns; but rather a place for deepening concern over other people’s plight.”
How does this work? Consider the second blessing of the Amidah, where we praise God as someikh noflim, the one who supports the falling. There is a web site devoted to the shtetl of Vladimiretz, Poland. There we read about its extensive network of ḥesed groups, including one called Chevrat Somech Noflim, which provided weekly financial support for the poorest Jews. One of God’s traits becomes a program of tzedakah. Words of prayer are a call to action. When we praise God who heals the sick, or frees the oppressed, or gives food to all, these are a summons to be God’s hands in the world.
And finally, prayer and study, heart and head, go together, since learning in Judaism is a form of worship; a spiritual exercise. Jewish meditation teacher Susie Schneider links study with meditation: “Text study as meditation enables the mind to directly re-access that intense revelation of light and consciousness that happened at Sinai.”
Accessing that light can only happen if we study Torah with our heart as well as with our mind. Not just what does this text mean, but what does it mean to me? Not just what do I think, but what do I feel? The Shema itself tells us, “v’hayu ha-d’varim ha-eilah asher Ani m’tzav’kha ha-yomal l’vavekha—You shall take to heart these words that I command you this day.” Torah enters your consciousness through your mind, but it can touch your heart and change your life. That’s what the inscription on our regular Ark curtain and the stained glass means: marbeh Torah, marbeh ḥayyim—the more Torah, the more life.
So we may incline to be head Jews, heart Jews or hand Jews, but we all should strive to reach beyond our favored path.
The course of the Tishrei holidays engages with each of these aspects; Rabbi Bahir Davis writes, “Rosh Hashanah does not mean ‘new year,’ for the word rosh means “head.” The head is where we plan, where we process, where we prepare. Rosh Hashanah is that heady Holy Day of process. We look back and ask the hard questions. How have we strayed from our path? What baggage have we been carrying around? Whom have we hurt? How have our missteps, mistakes, missed opportunities missed the mark?”
That leads us toward self-evaluation and a plan for change. It prompts us to apologize to others and to forgive those who reach out to us.
Then, Rabbi Davis says, comes Yom Kippur, the Holy Day of the heart. “Our hearts are laid bare as we drop the burdens of anger toward others, the baggage of our spiritual failures, the impediments of our own guilt. Whereas Rosh Hashanah has to do with a meeting of the minds, people coming together, Yom Kippur is the heartful meeting of each of us and God.”
To help us along, we actually pound on our hearts many, many times! Even though we know that it’s really just a pump, we focus on its emotional symbolism. Open up and feel remorse, my straying heart!!
And then, three days later, we begin Sukkot, which, of course, is the holiday for hands, for building. It’s a reminder that thought and feeling must lead to action. We are most whole and closest to God when head, heart and hand work together.
I came upon irresistible metaphor for this integration, in an article about the Lebovitcher Rebbe. Engineers—don’t nit pick this: the Rebbe wasn’t an IT guy, but my consultants tell me its close enough.
This was back in the early sixties, when the first mainframe computers were being introduced into business. Professor Abraham Polichenco, a pioneer in computer technology, visited the Lubavitcher Rebbe and posed a question to him:
“I know that everything that exists in the world, even something that we discover later in history, has its source somewhere in the Torah. So, where are there computers in the Torah?”
Without hesitation, the Rebbe answered, “Tefillin.” The professor was perplexed.
“What’s new about a computer?” the Rebbe continued. “You walk into a room and you see many familiar machines: A typewriter, a large tape recorder, a television set, a hole puncher, a calculator. What is new?
“But under the floor, cables connect all these machines so they work as one.”
The professor nodded enthusiastically. He hadn’t realized it before, but yes, this is all that a computer is: A synthesis of media and processing devices.
“Now look at your own self. You have a brain. It is in one world. Your heart is in another. And your hands often end up involved in something completely foreign to both of them. Three diverse machines.
“So you put on tefillin. First thing in the day, you connect your head, your heart and your hand with these leather cables — all to work as one with one intent. And then when you go out to meet the world, all your actions find harmony in a single coordinated purpose.”
If I can update the metaphor, the goal is to be an integrated circuit—joining head, heart and hand. How often do we feel fragmented, at odds with ourselves? Judaism offers us a way to align our thoughts, feelings and actions through a system that is intellectually satisfying, emotionally fulfilling, and positively active in the world.
During these holy days, ask yourself: What do I think? What do I feel? What should I be doing? These hours of worship are a good opportunity to engage our head, heart and hand. Our goal is wholeness, integration and fulfillment of our potential. Through this consciousness, may our experience of these days and of our lives, be enriched, and may our opened minds, our receptive hearts, and our engaged hands unite in an experience of renewal and meaning.
 “Study as Meditation,” in Meditation from the Heart of Judaism, ed. Avram Davis, p. 55.