Bo: Adornments of Remembrance

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Bo

Our weekly Torah portion, Bo, continues the story of the Exodus, through
the penultimate plague and the laws of the Pesach [Passover]
offering. At the very end of the portion, God says that the Israelites
will tell the story of the Exodus in future generations, and perform
various rituals of remembrance. Among those is the mitzvah
[commandment] of tefillin, or “phylacteries,” the little leather boxes
that observant Jews (in egalitarian synagogues, both men and women)
wear during weekday services. These leather boxes contain passages
from the Torah in which tefillin are mentioned, including two passages
from parshat Bo.

In the first passage (13:9), tefillin are called a “zicharon,” or
remembrance, but in the second part of chapter 13, tefillin are called
“totafot,” a word which also appears in Deuteronomy. So what does
“totafot” mean, besides “tefillin,” in the traditional understanding
of the word? Well, we find “totafot” in one other ancient text, the
Mishnah, which is the first part of the book of Jewish law and lore
known as the Talmud. Admittedly, the Mishnah was compiled many
hundreds of years after the time of the Torah, but it’s still
interesting to compare word usage.

In this case, the word “totafot” (in a variant form, “totefet”) occurs
during a discussion of what women may or may not wear when they go
from place to place on the Sabbath. In this context, “totefet” means
something like “adornment,” which would not be part of one’s clothing
and thus not necessary to wear on Shabbat.

So the next question is- what does the idea of “adornment” have to do
with wearing tefillin, especially given that a primary meaning of
tefillin is remembering the Exodus? One idea, set forth in the book
called “Popular Halacha,” by R. Jacob Berman, is that wearing tefillin
as a “diadem” truly shows that we are no longer servants in Egypt, but
free people, practicing our religion as we choose, and not beholden to
any earthly “crown.”

That’s a beautiful idea, and yet one more interpretation occurs to me.
Tefillin are not particularly beautiful objects in the conventional
sense- they are black leather boxes with carefully written passages of
Torah inside them, without jewels or bright colors or fancy patterns.
So to call them “adornments” is to make a claim about what is
“adorning” or beautiful from a Jewish perspective. Perhaps we “adorn”
ourselves with tefillin because there is a moral beauty to daily
rededication of the strength of our arms and the power of our minds
(symbolized by the head tefillin) to religious and spiritual ideals.

Furthermore, what is most “real” and hence most beautiful about
tefillin is on the inside- the words from Torah which speak of
covenant and the Exodus. So (ahem) to wrap things up, we might say
that when we put these “totafot,” or “adornments” on our arms and
heads, we are living out the proposition that what is most beautiful
in life is not outward appearances but inner, spiritual qualities. We
are no longer servants in Egypt, but free to choose the actions which
are the true adornment of a life lived well.

Shabbat Shalom,


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