Why there are four tefillin compartments for the head but only one for the arm

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By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal

Rabbi Leonard Rosethal

SAN DIEGO–When a child becomes Bar or Bat Mitzvah, one of the first mitzvot for which they assume responsibility is tefillin.  

One of the verses which the rabbis say refers to the mitzvah of tefillin is in parashat Bo: “And this shall serve as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead-in order that the Teaching of the Lord may be in your mouth-that with a mighty hand the Lord freed you from Egypt.” (Ex. 13:9) The “sign on your hand” is the tefillah that is wound on your left arm and the “reminder on your forehead” is the tefillah that rests on your forehead. 

There are a total of four verses in the Torah that similarly refer to tefillin. All four verses are handwritten on parchment by a sofer (scribe) and inserted into the leather boxes which make up the tefillin. The tefillah for the head is comprised of four small compartments. Each of the verses is written out separately and inserted into its own compartment. The tefillah for the arm, however, has only one compartment. All four verses are written contiguously on one long parchment which is then placed into the singular box. 

Why the difference? (I thought you would never ask!) 

According to Rabbi Menachem Becker in Parparot L’Torah, it is to teach us that when it comes to philosophy and theology, Judaism does not demand conformity and consistency. Judaism is not a religion anchored in dogma or creed. Jews are free to think about life and about God in any way that they see fit. This is what the division of the parshiot (verses) of the tefillah for the head teaches us. 

However, when it comes to action, to what we do and how we treat each other and perform ritual and ethical mitzvot, greater consistency is demanded. Jews are not free to act in any way they see fit, rather they must behave in ways which respect the Torah and humankind. This is why the tefillah for the hand, which symbolizes action, includes one long undifferentiated parchment. 

When I speak to Christian groups, they often ask me if Jews believe that only they will go to heaven. My standard answer is that Judaism cares more about how people act than how they believe. We accept the Godliness of any religion that leads people to act with kindness and love toward all human beings. 

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Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego, where at 9 a.m., Sunday, Feb. 5, members of the Men’s Club and guests will participate in the “World Wide Wrap” event which encourages Jews around the world to put on their tefillin. Rabbi Rosenthal may be contacted at [email protected]

One Response to “Why there are four tefillin compartments for the head but only one for the arm”

  1. rami says:

    As i understand it the Tora teaches us how to think about life and about god and it’s not for each one’s interpetation to go for.

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