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Armed and Ready

By: Rabbi Dr Zvi Ron

In this week’s parsha we read about the mitzvah of tefillin. Twice we are told that the tefillin should be "a sign upon your arm", but the word for "your arm" is spelled differently each time. In 13:9 it is spelled the standard way, ιγκ, but in 13:16 it is spelled with an extra letter, ιγλδ.

There are numerous interpretations for this unusual spelling. The ancient Midrash Chaserot v'Yeterot explains that the letter ‘hey’  has the numerical value of five, and this spelling teaches that whoever puts on tefillin, it is as if they read all five books of the Torah. In the work Hadar Zekeinim, from the Tosafists, we find that this letter symbolizes the four divisions in the head tefillin along with the one of the arm tefillin for a total of five.

But the most well known explanation is that found in the Gemara, Menachot 37a. There we are told that the extra letter ‘hey’   makes the arm in the verse feminine, and this teaches that the tefillin should be worn on the weaker ("feminine") arm. This is a nice explanation, but actually very problematic. The Torah tells us that the tefillin remind us that God took us out of Egypt with a strong arm (13:9, 13:16). If so, men should wear the tefillin specifically on the stronger arm, not the weaker one!

Chizkuni explains that the simple reason tefillin are worn by men on the weaker arm is simply because it is much easier to put tefillin on that way, using the strong arm to wrap it on the weaker arm. This p’shat reason contains a very important concept. We see from here that even though the symbolism should make men wear tefillin on the stronger arm, God gave the mitzvah in a way that it is more convenient for it to be performed.

The Kli Yakar writes that men put the tefillin on their weaker arm to remind us that only God truly has a "strong arm" and all our strength is weakness relative to God. Based on this, the lesson of putting the tefillin on the weaker arm is to show that with all our weakness, we are still strong enough to put on tefillin.

Tefillin is one of the first mitzvot given to the Jewish People. The lesson they contain applies to both men, who physically wear them, and women as well. The idea of the weaker arm teaches us that God gave us the mitzvot in a way that is doable, and not too difficult. Also, that we have the ability and power needed to perform these mitzvot. Although at times we may feel that mitzvot are difficult, in fact they are always within our abilities, limited as they are.

Shabbat Shalom.




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