May 16, 2024
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What Is the Meaning of ‘Totafot’?

This word appears three times in Tanach (Ex. 13:16, Deut. 6:8 and 11:18). We all know that it means “phylacteries.” But what does that mean? That deserves a separate column! Let me start again. We all know that it means “tefillin.”

But how do we understand that word “totafot”? Forgive me but I am not going to discuss the interpretation found in Menachot 34b relating it to “two” in the Coptic and African languages, which is the first interpretation brought down by Rashi. It seems too homiletical as it only produces the number four and does not describe the object itself. I am going to discuss two views that try to fit the word within Hebrew or other Semitic languages.

Scholars today look at that pattern of letters טטפ, and believe they reflect an original root of טפטפ, where the first פ dropped. As a parallel, let us look at that Biblical word ככב=star. We now know from Amorite and Ugaritic that it derives from an original C-B-C-B.

But what does our hypothetical original טפטפ mean? There are two widespread approaches, although each is not without its problems.

One approach believes that טפטפ derives from an original נטפ. See, e.g., E. Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, p. 241. נטפ is a well-known root in Tanach that means “drip.” (It is also probably the root of the word טיפה=drop.) But two times in Tanach we have the word נטיפות as a kind of decoration that men or women wear. See Jud. 8:26 and Isa. 3:19. Since the root is נטפ, scholars believe that it must be a kind of pendant that drips downward, worn on the head, neck or ear. See further the discussion in the Daat Mikra to Ex. 13:16, and the Soncino on Judges 8:26. “Totafot” may just be a synonym of נטיפות, and from the same root.

Another widespread approach sees the fundamental root as טופ. In Arabic, this root has a meaning like “encircle.” See, e.g., S.D. Luzzatto on Ex. 13:16, Brown-Driver-Briggs, and the article by J. Tigay cited below. In this view, “totafot” means something like “headband.”

There are two weaknesses with the first approach. First, we would prefer to find a root for “totafot” that did not have a “nun” as its initial root letter (even though initial “nuns” do often drop). More importantly, tefillin do not drip downward from the head. In response to this, we can suggest that, although the word may have originated as a description for pendants that drip downward, the word subsequently expanded its meaning to include items worn that do not drip downward.

As to the second approach, ordinarily we would prefer not to base suggestions on parallels in Arabic. Although Arabic is a Semitic language, our sources for Arabic are usually from the time of Mohammed and later, long after the period of the Tanach. Moreover, a word that has an “encircle” meaning and implies “headband” does not, at first glance, fit with tefillin, an item focused on the front of the head. A response would be that items on the front of the head typically do not stay in place unless they are attached by an encirclement on the head. Therefore, a term that means “encircle” can be viewed as appropriate.

See also the discussion of “totafot” in the Daat Mikra to Ex. 13:16. The Daat Mikra is conflicted about whether the root is נטפ or טפפ. (The latter means “totter, shake.” The meaning would then be an item that shakes while on the head.)

A few other thoughts:

—I mentioned above that “totafot” appears three times in Tanach. But what about the concept of “arba parshiyot” (=four sections) that discuss tefillin? The explanation is that in the first parsha, Ex. 13:1-10, where we would expect “totafot,” we have “zikaron” instead: “u-le-zikaron bein einecha.” Ibn Ezra focuses on this and deduces that “totafot” must have a meaning related to “zikaron.” But the word could still have a specific meaning and only in a general sense serve as a “zikaron.”

—With regard to the root נטפ = drip, this root later evolved into a “speak/preach” meaning (with the “nun” dropping). See, e.g., Ez. 21:2 and Michah 2:6. (When one speaks, one’s words flow/drip out. See similarly Deut. 32:2.) Rashi, in his second explanation, quotes the 10th-century grammarian Menachem Ibn Saruk for the view that “totafot” derives from the “speak” meaning of the letters טפ in the verses cited above.

(Note that Ibn Saruk explains “ve-hayu le-totafot bein einecha” as “I am ever mindful of the Lord’s presence.” This statement of Ibn Saruk is not quoted in Rashi. Rather, Rashi adapts Ibn Saruk’s “speaking” idea and writes that seeing the “totafot” being worn would remind people about the miracle of the Exodus and cause them to speak about it. But Ibn Saruk was merely writing about the fear of God.)

—Karaites did not wear tefillin. They understood “totafot” similar to the way Ibn Saruk did, as “preaching between your eyes.” (See the article by Maman cited below.)

—With regard to a possible Egyptian origin of the word “totafot,” some have suggested a relation to the Egyptian D-D-F-T, which means “snake,” including the uraeus snake often worn on the headdress. For further Egyptian origin suggestions, see the concordance of S. Mandelkern (suggesting a relation to the gods Thoth or Ptah), and some of the 11 suggestions in the Torah Shelemah pages cited below.

—Mishnah Shabbat 6:1 and 6:5 refer to the “totefet” of women. This word seems to mean something like an “ornament” (one without any religious significance). Based on this word, one can suggest that the Biblical “totafot” may have meant “ornament.” But more likely, the “totefet” worn by women is just an expansion from the Biblical word “totafot.”

A final drop of wisdom (and humor!): A well-known view of the Rashbam (comm. to Ex. 13:9) is that the idea of binding God’s words on one’s arm and head is only a metaphor. For example, regarding the arm tefillin, he cites Song of Songs 8:6 (“set me as a seal on your heart”).

Supposedly, a non-observant scholar was once asked whether he wore the tefillin of Rashi or of Rabbeinu Tam. He responded: I wear the tefillin of the Rashbam! (I am not disputing that Rashbam wore tefillin. Rashbam states clearly elsewhere that he follows the interpretations of our Sages, and that they are true, even if they are not plain-sense ones. See A. Bazak, “To This Very Day,” pp. 389-90 and 393.)

For further material, see, e.g., 1) Torah Shelemah 12: 277-280 (appendix to Bo), 2) J. Tigay, Journal of Biblical Literature 101/3 (1982) pp. 321-331, and 3) A. Maman, Israel Oriental Studies 19, pp. 343-357.


In last week’s column I raised the issue of whether Paul Simon’s phrase “Sound of Silence” was borrowed from “kol demamah” at I Kings 19:12. I mentioned that a five-hour audiobook just came out in which Simon discusses how he created his songs. My friend Craig Cohen has now told me that he had already listened to the audiotape and that Simon states that he doesn’t remember what inspired his lyrics here. All he remembers is that he wrote this song in the bathroom in his parents’ house, with the lights out and the water running. He describes the song’s origin as a “mystery.” (Of course, maybe Simon remembers more than he is willing to share with the world.)

Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at [email protected]. A future column will discuss the word “tefillin” and everyone’s favorite word: “phylacteries.”

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