The Talmud in tractate Berachot 6:a records a most unusual series of scriptural references and proofs discussed by the members of the Rabbinical Academy:
Rav Avin bar Rav Ada taught in the name of Rav Yitzchak: What is the Scriptural source from which we know that G-d wears tefillin? From the verse: ‘G-d affirms His Vow with His Right Hand and with His Strong Arm’ (Isaiah 62:8). What is ‘G-d’s Right Hand?’ The Torah, as referred to in the verse: ‘From His Right Hand He gave the Torah in fire to His People’ (Deuteronomy 33:2). What is ‘G-d’s Strong Arm?’ His Tefillin, as referred to in the verse: ‘G-d gives His People strength’ (Psalms 29:11).
How are we to understand these passages that seem to anthropomorphize G-d in the extreme? First we need to see the continuation of the discussion:
How do we know that their tefillin is the source of the People of Israel’s strength? This is understood from the verse: ‘All the nations of the world will see that the People of Israel are called by G-d’s Name and they will be in awe of you’ (Deuteronomy 28:10). Rav Eliezer the Great taught: this verse refers specifically to the tefillin worn on the head.
What is Rav Eliezer’s reasoning that this proof speaks specifically of the tefillin worn on the head? Because it is the tefillin that are worn on the crown of the head that bears the raised letter ‘shin’ of G-d’s Holy Name on both the right and left sides of the leather bayit housing the parchments and the letter ‘daled’ of His Name is formed by the knot of the straps. These combine with the letter ‘yud’ formed by the knot of the straps of the tefillin worn on the arm to complete His Name Shad-ai. According to the halacha, as well as to practicality, the tefillin worn on the head are always exposed and visible to all. In contrast, the tefillin worn on the arm are covered with the tallit or shirtsleeve after being positioned and bear no letters on the leather bayit housing the parchments.
Our excerpt from the Talmud then concludes with the following exchange:
Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak asked Rav Hiyya bar Avin: ‘What is written on the parchments contained within G-d’s tefillin?’ Rav Hiyya answered: ‘Who is like Your People of Israel, a most unique nation in the world’ (Chronicles I:17:21).
Actually the Torah makes much use of anthropomorphism. There are many references to G-d’s Eye, G-d’s Hand, G-d’s Arm, etc. Our sages teach us that such passages are not meant to be taken literally: rather, these anthropomorphisms are used in order to teach us ethical lessons. Every verse in the Torah can be explained simultaneously on many different levels. Passages such as these that are beyond comprehension at face value have much to teach us on a deeper, mystical, Kabalistic level.
Originally, we were meant to wear our tefillin throughout all the daylight hours of every weekday. Wrapping the leather boxes of the tefillin with their enclosed parchments on our arm and on our head creates a constant reminder for the Jew wearing them of his special closeness with G-d. The physical presence of the tefillin attached to our body causes a spiritual G-d-liness to encompass us. In response to our wearing our tefillin, G-d, so to speak, feels an intimacy with His People Israel as expressed in the verse ‘I alone am my beloved’s, and my beloved is uniquely mine’ (Song of Songs 6:3). The Talmudic sages graphically describe this complimentary reaction of G-d’s by their metaphor that He also wears tefillin. The natural continuation of their discussion is then what verses are written on the parchments contained with His Tefillin.
On a deeper, Kabalistic level, when we wear our tefillin and by doing so come to an appreciation of the special closeness to G-d they bring us, we achieve a heightened awareness of the Jewish People’s ultimate purpose in this world: to exemplify to all the nations what a human being is capable of achieving. This touches on basic principles of Judaism and the Jewish worldview.
Why was the world created and what is our purpose in life? The Torah’s answer is that G-d desired that there be a creation, called Mankind, that would arrive at an independent recognition of Him and give thanks to Him for His gifts to this world in which Man lives.
How does G-d bring this about? By creating Man with free will: just as G-d is independent and has free will, so is Man. This is how we understand the verse ‘G-d created Man in His Image’ (Genesis 1:27). Man alone of all G-d’s creations has the ability to distinguish between Good and Evil. He can choose the path of Good instead of that of Evil in all aspects of his life. The path of Good is outlined for us by G-d in the Torah, His guidebook for us and His original blueprint for the creation of the world. Using his free will, Man is capable of seeking out and finding G-d in this world and giving thanks to Him for all that He has created.
The Jewish People is unique among the nations of the world. We accepted G-d’s Torah at Mount Sinai and took it upon ourselves as a nation to follow its teachings, to find the path of Good in the world and thus draw ourselves closer to G-d. In this way the Jewish People as a nation is fulfilling G-d’s purpose in creating the world.
To complete this deeper insight into the mitzvah of tefillin, the Kabala teaches us that the world was created and its existence is maintained on a constant basis by a continual G-d-ly infusion of awareness into all that He created. This is the symbolism behind many references to G-d’s Head and is alluded to by the verse ‘everything was created with awareness’ (Psalms 104:24). But preceding the act of creation, there first had to be Divine desire to create. In the symbolism of the Kabala the desire to do anything originates specifically from the crown of the head.
The symbolism of the Talmudic sages according to the Kabalistic understanding is now complete: G-d is portrayed wearing tefillin on His Arm and on the crown of His Head, the source of His original initiative to create the world. His Tefillin contain a verse from His Torah, the guidebook He gave Mankind teaching us how to use our free will to choose correctly between Good and Evil in this world. That verse describes the People of Israel, His unique nation: we follow His Torah and fulfill His ultimate purpose in creating the world by adhering to the path of Good and seeking out G-d in order to give Him praise and thanks for the world that He created.
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