The Reason Why Men Shouldn’t Wear Tefillin (Sometimes)

As the Jewish people leave Egypt in this week's parsha, they are given the mitzvah of tefillin as a commemoration and memorial of the leaving of Egypt. It used to be that people wore tefillin all day long, but as it became more difficult to keep a clean body the whole day, the amount of time people wore tefillin was reduced to just shacharis. What is important to understand, however, is that tefillin and praying are not really connected.

Tefillin are also never worn on Shabbos and Yom Tov. But why? In truth, it is not something people think much about. It is an idea that people grow up with and so the very concept of wearing tefillin on Shabbos is foreign. In reality, however, there does not seem to be a logical reason why this is so. Indeed, ponder which of the following would make more sense: 1) Tefillin are worn every day during only morning prayers, and on Shabbos, the holiest day(s) of the year, are not worn at all. 2) Tefillin are worn only during morning prayers throughout the week, and on Shabbos are worn the entire day. Certainly the latter makes more sense!

Proposed Solutions

Most, when faced with the aforementioned conundrum, would reply that the reason tefillin are not worn on Shabbos and Yom Tov is simply because they are muktzah. This, however, is a critical error, for items are not prohibited because they are muktzah, rather they are muktzah because they are prohibited.

Perhaps the most famous answer proposed for why tefillin are not worn on Shabbos and Yom Tov is found in the Gemara1 and is given by Rabbi Akivah. There he states that tefillin are not worn on Shabbos because they are a “sign”, and since Shabbos and Tom Tov are themselves also a sign, one need not also wear tefillin. But how strange a proposition! Quite simply, why can there not be two signs? As any sports fan is surely well aware, the more team paraphernalia the better! What real fan would be satisfied attending a game with just a team hat? Why limit the amount of signs?

Rabbi Yosse HaGalili has another explanation for why tefillin are not worn on Shabbos derived from a strange wording in a posuk2 that follows the command of tefillin. Since the verse reads “m’yamim yamimah”, meaning literally “from day to day”, Rabbi Yosse HaGalili explains that this implies that tefillin are not to be worn on all days, but rather certain days must be selected from others as a time to wear tefillin. What is most perplexing about this approach is that one would presume that Shabbos and Yom Tov would be very high on the list of days to wear tefillin — not the first on the list of days to cross off.

Not Every Day

The Torah Temimah suggests that Rabbi Akivah and Rabbi Yosse HaGalili actually agree with one another. They are not arguing, but giving two sides of the same coin. The first step is to establish that tefillin are not worn on all of our days. The second step is that Shabbos and Yom Tov are the days that we do not wear them. This is readily agreed upon by both parties, but the question that still looms large is why Shabbos and Yom Tov? Why can there not be two “signs”?

Rav Moshe Benovitz suggests that the Torah here is actually conveying something simpler and yet altogether deeper. Quite simply, the Torah is stating that tefillin should not be worn every day. As important as they are, there must come a time that they are taken off. This, then, is the fundamental idea behind Rabbi Yosse HaGalili’s explanation of “m’yamim yamimah” — the great mitzvah of tefillin is to be done on some days, but not all days. Once it is established that this is the case, Rabbi Akivah proposes that a great day not to wear tefillin is Shabbos and Yom Tov.

The way that we understood things from the outset, tefillin on Shabbos did not make sense. This, however, is a difficult proposition. In theory, of course tefillin could be worn on Shabbos. It makes perfect sense. Once the Torah tells us that tefillin are not to be worn every single day, however, it now makes sense that Shabbos and Yom Tov are chosen, as they are already signs unto themselves. To continue the analogy from above, if our young sports fan was told by his or her mother that he or she could only wear one article of paraphernalia a day, it would make sense that when he or she donned a hat the team jersey would not be worn, and so on.

The Classic Bar Mitzvah Boy Speech

One would think, though, that the more signs the better. Why is there an independent value in the Torah of not wearing tefillin every day?

As Rav Benovitz explains, the straightforward explanation is that the Torah commands tefillin as a reminder of God and the Exodus from Egypt. If the reminder is present at all times it is not much of a reminder. An alarm clock that beeps at all times is not much of an alarm clock. A string tied around one’s wrist to remember to take care of a certain errand is a good way to remember — but not if the string is ever-present. Were these scenarios to be the case one might as well not have the alarm clock or string. The Torah is telling us that tefillin must be jarring; there must be contrast. This makes them a more effective reminder.

When things become rote and regular they lose their specialness. Indeed, the absolutely (ironically) classic speech given at a Bar Mitzvah boy’s hanachat tefillin is that the tefillin should be as exciting to him for the rest of his life as they are to him now. There is a certain sadness in this, though, as everyone present knows, not even very deep down, that this simply will not be true. Sooner or later, be it a week, a month, or a year, tefillin will no longer be nearly as exciting to this child as they were when they were new and novel. Such is the human condition. Tefillin might forever remain of crucial importance in a person’s life — tefillin might even be the most prized possession a person has — but they simply cannot remain as exciting as when one puts them on for the first time.

The Torah thusly recognizes this phenomena of human psychology and states that they are not to be worn every day; distance makes the heart grow fonder.

Distance Makes The Heart Grow Fonder

As Rav Benovitz elaborates, tefillin are supposed to bring one closer to God, but the only way that one can truly know if tefillin is a part of him is by separating from it. This is the deep truth behind the famous dictum of “distance makes the heart grow fonder.” This concept applies to everything in life. The only way that one can know if something is truly a part of him or her is to inspect how one acts when they do not have that thing.

Separation is what tells us who we really are as it allows us to define ourselves independently. A husband and wife who spend every waking moment with one another are making a terrible mistake. Such spouses have no independent identity. Happy marriages are born out of separation and reunification3.

One needs to able to define his or herself independently of the things closest to him or her. And this, in turns, heightens one’s sensitivity towards these things. If one does not separate from tefillin to see what he is without them, the tefillin simply do not have the same effect.

True piousness is not measured by what one does when he or she is “wearing tefillin”, but what one does when he or she is not.

1. Menachos 36

2. Exodus 13:10

3. If this sounds suspiciously like the laws of niddah, it should.

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