Receive weekly insights from the Chief Rabbi
Office of the Chief Rabbi

Bo: It’s not just the thought that counts!

Share this article:


What is the relevance of tefillin in our times?

In Parshat Bo, the Torah states (Shemot 13:16),

“Vehaya le’ot al yadecha uletotafot bein einecha.” – “And they shall be a sign upon your arm and frontlets between your eyes.”

Here there is a reference to the tefillin shel yad which we wear on the arm and the tefillin shel rosh which we wear on our heads. But notice, with regard to the tefillin of the arm, that what the Torah says is in the singular: vehaya le’ot – it shall be a sign, whereas with regard to the tefillin shel rosh, it is totafot, in the plural. An explanation of this can be derived from the Aramaic translation of Onkelos, who translates totafot as tefillin, in the plural as well.

So from here we learn that while we only have on the ‘shel yad’ (the tefillin of the arm) which we start with, that is only in the singular – it’s not the whole thing. It’s only once we have the ‘shel rosh’ on (the tefillin of the head) together with the ‘shel yad’ of the arm that it is tefillin – we have the entire set.

‘Shel yad’ and ‘shel rosh’ are actually separate mitzvot. However the impact of them comes when both are there together.

There are two very powerful messages here for us. First of all, the ‘shel yad’ (tefillin of the arm) represents action, because the arm is the busiest, most active part of the body, whereas the tefillin ‘shel rosh’ (of the head) represents thought and intention. The message is that it’s not good enough just to think, to have intentions. We need to implement our intentions so that they can be realised through our actions.

Secondly, the tefillin shel yad faces the heart which is the seat of emotion whereas the tefillin shel rosh is upon our heads which is the seat of logic. The message here is that we shouldn’t only be cerebral beings; we need to be feeling beings. We need to connect emotionally with others with love and affection, and also we need to recognise that we can’t allow our emotions to run away with themselves. We need to apply logic and reason and sometimes our minds need to put the brakes on our hearts.

So on a daily basis, therefore, tefillin are so relevant for us. They remind us to always translate our good intentions into meaningful action, and also to guarantee that we have the highest quality of mind power and also emotional capacity in everything that we do.

Shabbat shalom.