What exactly is tefillin, and why did that flight attendant mistake it for a weapon?

Previously published Slate articles made new.
Jan. 22 2010 12:21 PM

Tefillin 101

What exactly did that flight attendant mistake for a weapon?

On Jan. 21, a plane was diverted after a flight attendant noticed a " suspicious passenger" strap an object to his wrist and his head. The culprit? Tefillin, prayer accessories for observant Jews. In a 2005 "Explainer," Daniel Engber described tefillin and why Gaza settlers wear them. The column is reprinted below.

In the latest stage of Israel's withdrawal from the Gaza strip, soldiers dragged recalcitrant settlers from synagogues on Thursday. Newspaper images of the evacuation show settlers wearing black cubes strapped to their foreheads. What are those things?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

V'haiyu l'totafot bein einekha

Prayer accessories called tefillin. Observant Jews don a pair of cubes every weekday for morning prayer service. Each one is a leather box that contains four passages from the Old Testament handwritten on parchment. The box is stitched with thread made of animal sinew and strapped into place with a leather band painted black on one side.

The inscribed passages—from Exodus and Deuteronomy—contain instructions from God to wear a sign "upon thine hand, and for a memorial between thine eyes" (Exodus 13:9). A literal interpretation of this commandment explains the practice of wearing the tefillin in two places: The shel rosh sits just above the forehead, on the midline of the head; the shel yad straps onto the upper arm.

Detailed rules about how to construct a tefillin and how to wear it are found in the Talmud. According to tradition, the texts inserted into tefillin must be written in order, without any mistakes or corrections to the almost 1,600 characters. For the hand tefillin, all four passages must be inscribed on a single piece of parchment and placed in the leather container. The head tefillin requires four individual pieces, each placed in its own subcompartment. (Given the intricacies of their production, a pair of handmade tefillin can cost more than $500.)

The tefillin are tied in place with knots that represent Hebrew characters, according to a careful procedure. In general, the head tefillin gets strapped on such that the knot in back sits just above the nape of the neck. The leather strap from the hand tefillin (which sits atop the biceps of the nondominant arm) is wound thrice around the upper arm, seven times around the forearm, and then three more times around the middle finger. * Tefillin cannot be worn at night, in the bathroom, or while eating a meal. Boys aren't allowed to wear tefillin until after their bar mitzvah; women can choose to wear them but rarely do.

It's not clear when Jews first started wearing tefillin, but cubes that are more than 2,000 years old have been discovered at the caves of Qumran. Ancient texts suggest that tefillin were originally worn throughout the day, as opposed to being taken off after morning prayer.

Bonus Explainer: Why are so many of the settlers in the Gaza strip wearing orange bracelets and orange stars? The orange color comes from the flag of the local settlement council and represents resistance to the withdrawal. (An Arab political party in Israel has tried to sue the protesters for stealing its official color.) The star refers to the yellow identification badges the Nazis forced on the Jews.

Explainer thanks reader Philip Herold for asking the question.

Correction, Aug. 22, 2005: This piece originally said that the head tefillin is put on before the strap from the hand tefillin is wound around the forearm. In fact, the head tefillin is generally put on after. Then the hand tefillin strap is wound around the hand and finger. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)



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