August 15, 2016
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #1034, Mivtza Tefilin, Parsha Thought, VaEs'chanan


The Mitzvah of wearing T’fillin is mentioned in the Torah four times; twice in the book of Exodus and twice in Deuteronomy. These four sections are written out and contained in the T’fillin. In the Hand T’fillin they are all written on one scroll, whereas in the Head T’fillin they are written on four separate scrolls and inserted into four separate compartments.

What is the Biblical source for the requirement that the Head T’fillin contain its scrolls in four separate compartments?

Rashi, citing a Talmudic tradition, explains that the word used by the Torah for the Head T’fillin is totafos, a composite of the two words, tat and pas. Tat in the language of Kaspi is two and pas in the Afriki language also means two. The Torah thus hints that we should create four compartments (2+2) for the Head T’fillin.


This comment raises some obvious questions:

First, why the need for four compartments in the Head T’fillin? While we need four sections of the Torah, since they each contain a reference to the Mitzvah of wearing T’fillin, why do they have to be placed into four separate compartments in the Head T’fillin?

Second, why doesn’t the Torah mention the requirement of four compartments explicitly?

Third, why would the Torah, which was written in the Holy Tongue, teach us something about T’fillin using two different foreign languages?

To be sure, the Shaloh (Rabbi Yeshaya HaLevi Hurwitz, a sixteenth century sage) explains, these “foreign” words are actually Hebrew words that were forgotten and somehow turned up in other languages. However, the question still remains, why couldn’t the Torah have used Hebrew words that had not been forgotten to indicate the need for four compartments?

Fourth, what is the symbolism and hidden message in these two languages, Kaspi and Afriki, and what is their connection to T’fillin?


One partial answer to these questions (based on the work Matteh Naftali) is that the two elements of the T’fillin represent two aspects of our devotion to G-d. The Hand T’fillin represents action and the Head T’fillin intellect and thought. Of these two, Judaism considers action more important. We therefore put on the Hand T’fillin before the Head T’fillin to indicate that even before we understand why we perform a certain Mitzvah we must do it. Even if we never fathom G-d’s rationale for His commandments we still must perform them.

However, throughout our long exile, there have been many instances where tyrannical authorities forbade the practice of Judaism. Concerning T’fillin in particular, the Talmud relates how the Romans expressly banned donning T’fillin and threatened to execute anyone who was found doing it.

During the Holocaust and in the Soviet Gulag there were isolated stories of heroism by Jews who risked their lives to put on T’fillin, but the overwhelming majority of Jews simply could not procure T’fillin even if they had been willing to risk their lives to do so.

What does a Jew do when he can’t physically perform a Mitzvah due to circumstances beyond his control?

The answer is to perform the Mitzvah mentally. The Talmud states that when a Jew sincerely wants to do a Mitzvah and is precluded from doing it due to circumstances beyond his control, G-d reckons it as if he had done the Mitzvah. However, the person must make every attempt to do the Mitzvah in whichever manner possible. If one cannot do the Mitzvah physically he should at least do it in his mind and heart.

The Torah alludes to this idea when it says that the four sections and compartments of the Head T’fillin correspond to the number four in foreign languages, symbolizing our challenge to observe the Mitzvah in foreign lands in times of persecution. At least, the Torah hints to us, do the Mitzvah cerebrally; put on the virtual Head T’fillin, and that way you will be able to fulfill the Mitzvah in exile as much as possible.


The fact that the Torah teaches this lesson with regard to T’fillin in particular, although it applies to every Mitzvah we cannot perform because of exile conditions, is because the Mitzvah of T’fillin is particularly suited to get us out of exile. The Torah tells us that T’fillin are reminders of the Exodus, which portends the future Redemption. This is particularly true with regard to the Head T’fillin, which the Zohar states, is a symbol of freedom and royalty much like the crown it resembles.

Wearing T’fillin empowers us to defy the exile conditions symbolized by the two foreign nations of Kaspi and Afriki that are combined into the word totafos.

The above still does not explain the significance of the number four with respect to the Head T’fillin, nor does it explain the significance of these two foreign languages (Kaspi and Afriki) in particular.


The Head T’fillin, as stated, symbolizes the intellectual approach to serving G-d, while the Hand T’fillin, placed opposite the heart, symbolize the emotional approach. There is an advantage to each.

Emotions are fickle. This is best seen in children. One minute they can throw a tantrum and the next minute they are docile and subdued followed by joyous laughter. There is no telling what will be the catalyst to cause an explosive reaction, and no one can say when it will abruptly pivot into a totally opposite emotion.

Intellect, on the other hand, is stable. While the heart, the symbol of emotion, is constantly pumping blood, the brain keeps its activities under wraps. We cannot feel our brainwaves the way we feel the pulsation of the heart. Intellect is cool, calm and collected, while emotion is heated, explosive and all over the place.

One of the messages of T’fillin therefore is placement of mind over heart. We must instill understanding into our emotions to temper and guide them.

However, intellect is subject to its own set of problems that can undermine its ability to influence our emotions properly.

Intellect is impersonal. Emotion is the glue that connects to other events, things or people. Intellect causes us to withdraw into its own sphere. Emotions show up in our facial expressions. We can tell if someone is depressed, happy, kind or cruel, etc., by looking into their face. But, it is virtually impossible to detect a person’s intelligence quotient by just looking at the face.

However, the above applies only to the external or “backside” or “shoulder” aspect of the intellect. Chassidic philosophy reveals that the internal, or “facial” dimension of the intellect, is closely aligned with the inner sanctum of our heart. The key to a healthy mind-heart relationship thus is to elevate our intellect from its external-“shoulder” mode to its internal-“facial” mode.

This is how Chassidic thought explains why the Ark had to be carried on the shoulders of the priests and not transported in a wagon. When they carried it on their shoulders, their backside, they actually faced one another. This symbolizes the role of the Ark to take the backside of the spiritual, intellectual dimension of the Ark (which contained the Tablets, the innermost dimension of Divine wisdom) and have it match the internal, facial aspect of the Ark.

Put simply, the face of wisdom refers to G-d’s wisdom as it is understood by Him and has been transmitted to us in the Torah. When we study Torah we come face to face (pun intended) with G-d’s inner wisdom. By contrast, when we study nature or any aspect of G-d’s creation, we are only accessing the backside of Divine wisdom.

When we deal with intellect in its “shoulder” or “backside” state it is devoid of connectivity to others. It is cold and detached. Perhaps that is the origin of the expression “he’s giving him the cold shoulder.”


Here then is the connection between the Kaspi language and the Head T’fillin. The word “Kaspi” is related to another Hebrew word which means “shoulders.”

When the shoulder however is connected to the Head T’fillin, it imbues the shoulder with the face of wisdom, with inner purpose and connectivity.

Thus, the Head T’fillin contains an allusion to the shoulder to indicate that the intellect, represented by the Head T’fillin, is not cold and detached. Rather, it relates to the inner intellect which is in touch with the inner emotions of the person. It is only when our intellect is in its external mode that it does not relate to emotion and cannot positively influence our emotions.

Hence, the first two sections of the Head T’fillin relate to the two shoulders, which also allude to the two directions all emotions take, to the right (chesed-kindness) or left (g’vura-harshness). One’s kindness and love can be uncouth and stifled when our intellect is just on “shoulder” level. Likewise our judgment and discipline can be uncouth and rough. In short we are in exile.

When we make the “shoulders” a component of the Head T’fillin (which contain the theme of the Exodus), it elevates, edifies and liberates them because the Head T’fillin are a crown worn on the head signifying wisdom in its most exalted and liberated state.


As stated, the second two parts of the Head T’fillin are related to Afriki, which shares a root with the Hebrew word perek, chapter, or disconnected. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 99b) criticizes one who only studies Torah intermittently. It uses the word lifrakim, which has the same root as Afriki. The Chassidic Sage Rabbi Hillel of Paritch offered a deeper understanding of this lower effort of Torah study. It refers to one who disconnects his knowledge of Torah from its G-dly source.

Hence the second two sections and compartments of Head T’fillin, which discuss G-d’s unity, demand of us that we not be content with uniting our external understanding (“shoulders-Kaspi”) with our internal mind. The Head T’fillin also want us to connect our observance of the two entities, Torah and Mitzvos, to their Divine Source, i.e., to the Divine that resides in Torah that transcends even the inner precincts of wisdom. This is symbolized by the crown which connotes that which is above the mind.

As mentioned, T’fillin are associated with liberation and Divine unity. Putting on T’fillin is one way to prepare for the final Redemption when we will be fully liberated. This will bring about the full alignment between the external and internal wisdom, as well as the complete connection of our Judaism with its Crown.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (
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