When do people lay tefilin?
If we leave aside the Chabadniks who stand on street corners in Israel and in other heavily Jewish populated areas offering men to lay tefilin, you will generally find tefilin only in the synagogue. Men (and in liberal circles a number of women) lay tefilin during the weekday shacharit (morning) service. In Israel, a tefilin-laying ceremony is oftentimes a major part of the bar mitzvah ritual even for secular Jews, a number of families holding it at the Western Wall.
It seems that in the Talmud, tefilin were not just an accessory for daily prayer but they were worn by pious men (and therefore, most certainly by the Rabbis) at all times. There is an entire discussion about whether one is indeed permitted to wear tefilin on Shabbat and what one should do if one forgets to take them off before Shabbat (Shabbat 35b, 62a). There is also a discussion about where to place your tefilin while you are in bed – whether you are sleeping or fulfilling a mitzvah with your wife (Berachot 24a). Finally, there are numerous references to taking your tefilin off before sitting on the toilet. (Brachot 23a)
A story is told in Ketubot 104a:
Rabbi’s handmaid ascended the roof and prayed: ‘The immortals (“those above”) desire Rabbi [to join them] and the mortals (“those below”) desire Rabbi [to remain with them]; may it be the will [of God] that the mortals may overpower the immortals’. When, however, she saw how often he resorted to the privy (having a painful diarrhea), painfully taking off his tefillin and putting them on again, she prayed: “May it be the will [of the Almighty] that those above may overpower those below”. As the Rabbis incessantly continued their prayers (“they were not silent”) for [heavenly] mercy she took up a jar and threw it down from the roof to the ground. [For a moment] they ceased praying (“they remained silent”) and the soul of Rabbi departed to its eternal rest.
This tale raises a number of existential questions about life and death, our fears, and who or what truly is in control of the world. However, in the matter of the tefilin, it shows that the old, sick rabbi is following a lifelong habit of taking his tefilin off when going to the bathroom and then putting them back on, meaning he is wearing them all the time. The Tosafot add that the act of attending to his tefilin is a demonstration of his piety as one who is so ill as he was is generally exempt from wearing tefilin. My study partner, Rabbi Justus Baird, speculates that perhaps the place of the tefilin in the story was to show that, in addition to the prayers of his maidservant and disciples, Rabbi’s wearing of tefilin during his illness was his own fight against the impending Angel of Death.
Why wear tefilin everyday?
The obvious reason is a literal understanding of the verse from Deuteronomy, “You shall bind them (the mitzvot) as a sign on your head and on your forehead between your eyes,” and three other similar ones from other places in the Torah which are written on the klaf (parchment) inside the tefilin (all together on the hand tefilin and each in a separate compartment in the head tefilin). Someone who wears tefilin all the time is fulfilling this mitzvah to the letter – always reminding himself about following G-d’s commandments. Much like the idea of wearing a talit katan, an undershirt with fringes on the four corners of the garment following the commandment in Numbers, “You shall put fringes on the four corners of your garments and you shall see them and remember all of my mitzvot and do them.”
But tefilin are a more cumbersome accessory than an undershirt. It is walking around with a small box on your forehead and on your arm, as well as leather straps binding your head and your arm. For anyone who has worn the strap, you know how it often leaves a mark in your skin, and that’s just wearing it for 20 minutes.
In reflecting upon this practice of the Talmud rabbis, I ask: Does wearing the words constantly truly help a person to remember what he is supposed to do in life? For example, my whole life I have aspired to write a book. If I place on my body a physical embodiment of the words “Write a book,” would that encourage me to actually do it already?
When I place the tefilin on my arm and on my forehead, is the sign for me or is it for others? If it was just for me, I could place the sign in hidden places – like upon my heart which could be hidden under my shirt. Something on my hand and on my forehead are generally not hidden. Perhaps the wearing of tefilin was a badge of piety which was done mainly by rabbis and professional learners of Torah. It was a sort of status symbol which designated people who belong to a certain group or profession, both for themselves and for those they met who were outside their circles.
I have also read different sources which claim that tefilin were sometimes like a protective amulet.
What is certain is that the rabbis of the Talmud by and large had a deep commitment to the wearing of tefilin and it was considered one of the basic ritual mitzvot that a person fulfills to demonstrate physically his commitment to Judaism and G-d, right up there with kri’at shma and the Amidah.
What are we prepared to place upon our bodies on a daily basis to remind ourselves of our core values?