It’s an arcane and seemingly primitive concept. I get it; it’s bizarre to be seen at your flight’s checkpoint, wrapping your arm with these straps of black like Calvin Harris saying “I wear my heart upon my sleeve like a big deal”, and having that black box on your head just to make matters more ostensibly public. The commitment Jews have for this ancient practice of wearing tefillin is precious as it is illogical, or at least at first glance, it seems to be so. When we look at the first reference to this instruction in the Tora (Exo. 13:9,16), we see “And this will be for you as a sign (ot) on your hand and as a memorial (zikaron) on your forehead, so that The Lord’s law may be in your mouth, for with a mighty hand did The Lord bring you out of Egypt… This must serve as a sign (ot) on your hand and as a frontlet (totafot) on your forehead, for with a mighty hand did The Lord bring us out of Egypt.”
The latter term, while being concrete and definite, remains ambiguous. The Talmud (Shabbat 57b) states that on a simple level, it is a frontlet that extends from one ear to another. On the other hand, the famous grammarian, Rashbam, controversially comments that according to the truly original intent of the commandment, “placing” these objects upon ourselves is idiomatic. This possibly means that we should metaphorical bind the teachings of the Torah upon the actions of our hands, and place them “between our eyes” to see with the vision of those devoted to God’s instruction. However, Josephus, Philo, and the Mishna, unanimously report a physical form of these terms, which are the tefillin worn by Jews today (Although, see Responsa of Besamim Rosh #24 for an evolutionary report of physical tefillin).
Let us brake down these ambiguous terms one by one, and identify the origin of tefillin in their physical form. The phrase ot (sign) appears three times in the Tora. The function of these signs is to identify the subject; the Jew, to the outside world. The first appearance of the word regards circumcision (Gen. 17:11), the phylactery on the arm (Exo. 13:9,16, Deu. 11:18), and the Sabbath (Exo. 31:13, Ezekiel 20:12, 20). In light of these verses, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 21b) draws a parallel case concerning the Jewish monarch, who would hang his scroll of identification on his arm, and would be obligated by law to do so at virtually all times. Regarding the headpiece (zikaron), the term ‘memorandum’ is an appropriate translation of the term in its context. Its significance is symbolic of Jewish memoranda as a whole, and of the Jewish national archives in specific. Therefore, the tefillin of the head is designed as a ‘folder,’ containing 4 separate chambers, each of which containing a different ‘file’. Once the tefillin contain all its files, it is considered to be a memorandum equal to the entire Torah (as per Exo. 13:9, Qiddushin 35a).
The first file records the salvation of Israel from Egypt. The second file registers the connection between the redemption from bondage and the land of Israel. The third and fourth files establish faith and love of God (Deu. 5:4–9); and fulfillment of His precepts (Ibid 11:13–21). These are the pillars of Judaism in a nutshell: there is nothing in the entire Torah which is not incorporated in these files. Likewise, the tefillin may not be worn at nights, on Holidays, and on the Sabbath. This regulation makes good sense upon realizing that the Temple archives were accessible during daylight and on regular weekdays only. As with the Archives, the files of the tefillin are positioned in reference to someone facing them (according to a majority position in Jewish law), as if that individual would want to open and examine them, not from the viewpoint of the person wearing it. Consequently, when wearing the tefillin, the act is referred to by the Talmud as “le’haneeaḥ” tefillin (root nwḥ) – a term standing for ‘placing’ or ‘depositing’ a valued object for safe-keeping. Foreseeably, this is the exact term used in the blessing made upon wearing the tefillin. Once crowned with the tefillin, the Jew becomes a national archive incarnate. It is the individual Jew, in function of an archive,which is the reason for the tefillin’s special sanctity, not the other way around. Since it is the body that serves as an archive, the fulfillment of this commandment requires the highest level of personal hygiene (see Shabbat 130a for fantastical explanation).
We are now left with the last question: why physical tefillin? Perhaps in modification of the Egyptian pagan practice of the Pharaohs to wear the renown Uraeus (the pharaohs were seen as a manifestation of the sun god Ra, and so the Uraeus protected them by spitting fire on their enemies from the fiery eye of Ra), as seen here on the forehead, the Hebrew’s of the Exodus adopted their own royal ornaments; not those of protection, but those of loyalty to protect God’s word, thus making them true princes of the Almighty. In my view, such commitment to God’s word is further reflected in the binding of the middle finger with the tefillin straps. A widespread custom was developed by the Polish mystic, R. Nathan Nata Spira (1585-1633), to recite the verses from Hosea 2 upon the binding: “I will engage myself to you forever; and I will engage myself to you in righteousness and in justice, in loyal love and in mercy. And I will engage myself to you in faithfulness, and you will certainly know The Lord.” These verses uttered by the Prophet Hosea thus extend to a symbolic marriage ceremony everyday upon binding the tefillin on ourselves (hence the Palestinian Talmud’s acceptance of the Michal, daughter of Saul, wearing tefillin as well). They are also recited at Jewish weddings until today.
A circular headgear is still worn by the Japanese Yamabushi monks, as this type of headgear is used for magical protection, meditative calibration, and unrelatedly, it is used to store water as well. The Rabbis referred to them as ‘amagoza’, or ‘magos’: ‘of’, or ‘pertaining to’ magic (see Mishna: Megilla 3§8, Peshitta Matthew 1). Lest the tefillin be taken to be some sort of magical apparatus, the Rabbis stipulated that it is the duty and responsibility of the individual wearing it “to protect” it. This is why the minimal age to wear tefillin is from when the minor “is able to guard them” (Tosefta: Hagiga 1§2), and not the other way around! With this, I hope the evolution and function of tefillin has become clear and meaningful to all of you.