Times were tough for the Lithuanian Jewish community in the interwar period.
“What can we do to awaken the compassion of our Father-in-Heaven?” asked Rabbi Shmuel Greineman of the gadol hador, the saintly Chofetz Chaim. “Perhaps, I could trade the reward for a mitzvah like putting on tefillin one day, in return for some sustenance for our people.”
“My dear chaver,” the Chofetz Chaim responded gently, “I’m sorry but that won’t work.” Rabbi Greineman heard the Chofetz Chaim’s reply and expected him to proceed to list the number of mitzvos it would take to stir up the divine compassion he was seeking. You can imagine his surprise as the Chofetz Chaim continued, “Picture a child who enters the sweet store to buy a single candy. His mother pulls out a check for a million dollars and asks for change. The shopkeeper shakes his head, astonished at the mere suggestion of the ridiculous transaction.”
“Rabbi Greineman,” the Chofetz Chaim concluded, “your gesture is a worthy one indeed. However, you are offering a check for a million dollars. That’s what one moment of tefillin is worth in comparison to the “candy bar” you’re requesting from Heaven. The exchange is completely out of order!”
What makes the mitzvah of tefillin so powerful?
Earlier, the Gemara explained that women are not obligated in the mitzvah of tefillin because the mitzvah is juxtaposed (in the first paragraph of the Shema) to the mitzvah of teaching Torah “to your sons.” Today’s daf presents the scriptural source that expands the tefillin exemption to all time-bound positive mitzvos.
אָמַר רָבָא: פַּפּוּנָאֵי יָדְעִי לַהּ לְטַעְמָא דְּהָא מִילְּתָא. וּמַנּוּ—רַב אַחָא בַּר יַעֲקֹב: אָמַר קְרָא: וְהָיָה לְךָ לְאוֹת עַל יָדְךָ וּלְזִכָּרוֹן בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ לְמַעַן תִּהְיֶה תּוֹרַת ה׳ בְּפִיךָ—הוּקְּשָׁה כָּל הַתּוֹרָה כּוּלָּהּ לִתְפִילִּין, מָה תְּפִילִּין מִצְוַת עֲשֵׂה שֶׁהַזְּמַן גְּרָמָהּ, וְנָשִׁים פְּטוּרוֹת—אַף כׇּל מִצְוַת עֲשֵׂה שֶׁהַזְּמַן גְּרָמָהּ—נָשִׁים פְּטוּרוֹת. וּמִדְּמִצְוַת עֲשֵׂה שֶׁהַזְּמַן גְּרָמָהּ—נָשִׁים פְּטוּרוֹת, מִכְּלָל דְּמִצְוַת עֲשֵׂה שֶׁלֹּא הַזְּמַן גְּרָמָהּ—נָשִׁים חַיָּיבוֹת
“Rav Acha bar Yaakov taught: The verse states: ‘And it shall be a sign for you on your arm and for a memorial between your eyes, that the Torah of Hashem may be in your mouth.’ The entire Torah is juxtaposed to tefillin: Just as tefillin is a positive, time-bound mitzvah and women are exempt from it; so too, are women exempt from every positive, time-bound mitzvah. And from the fact that women are exempt from every positive, time-bound mitzvah, one can infer that women are obligated in every positive mitzvah that is not time bound.
Here’s why the mitzvah of tefillin is so special: “The entire Torah is juxtaposed to tefillin.” That statement—declares the Sefas Emes—reaches far beyond the implication derived by our Gemara. Here are a few of his takeaways:
When you put on tefillin it is like you are engaging in Torah. Learning Torah utilizes the faculty of speech (and thought). Tefillin engages with Torah via the faculty of action.
Our Sages teach that “learning is not primary, but action.” In addition to the obvious meaning related to the performance of mitzvos generally, the action aspect of the mitzvah of Torah is implemented through the vehicle of tefillin.
The head tefillin contains four parchments corresponding to the first four books of the Torah. The hand tefillin contains a single parchment consisting of all four paragraphs. That parchment corresponds to the book of Devarim, which encompasses the message of the first four books.
The final mitzvah of the Torah is that each person should write a sefer Torah for himself. One’s personal tefillin fulfills this requirement. Moreover, just like the king whose Torah must accompany him wherever he goes, our tefillin are portable—offering us the opportunity to keep them with us constantly.
Have you ever heard the one about Jews having horns? Some attribute the myth to a Christian mistranslation of the verse describing the glow radiating from Moshe’s face as he returned to the people from Mount Sinai. The words for “shine” and “horn” derive from the same root in Hebrew, “keren.” Thus, even Michelangelo’s Moses exhibits horns. That explanation is dubious because it implies that the Jewish founder of Christianity was similarly horned!
Perhaps, the myth has its roots in the differentiation of early Christian congregations from mainstream Jewish synagogues. Christianity abolished the performance of most of the Torah’s mitzvos, including tefillin. Thus, if any uninitiated Christian were to enter a synagogue on any regular morning, he would have been surprised to encounter classical Jews in the midst of prayer sporting “horns” on their heads. And now you know why they say: “Jews have horns.” That’s what they saw. What they were really seeing was: “Jews have tefillin.” And from our Gemara, the translation of that observation is: “Jews have Torah!”
Next time you’re donning your horn, realize that you’re wearing the Torah on—or more precisely beneath—your sleeve, and radiating the light of the Shechina for all to see. May you forever be a source of Torah light in this world!
Rabbi Dr. Daniel Friedman is the author of The Transformative Daf series, infusing every day with an inspirational Torah message for life! He is the founder of Teaneck’s Center for Torah Values and teaches at Touro University. You can hear him live this Rosh Hashanah at Park East Synagogue.