Sunday 16 July 2023

437) The historical neglect of Tefilin

One of the oldest pairs of Tefilin, dated between 200-50 BCE, discovered in the Qumran Caves in the 1950s. (The dimensions are 1 X 2 cm).


Considering how normative the wearing of Tefilin is in contemporary religious and traditional societies, it is hard to comprehend the idea that this may be a relatively new phenomenon. During Talmudic[1] times (10-589 CE) and the later rabbinic periods of the Gaonim (589-1038 CE) and Rishonim (1038-1500), it seems that the mitzva of Tefillin was largely neglected for a variety of reasons that we shall discuss. 

This article is based extensively on the early writings[2] of Rabbi Professor Ephraim Kanarfogel.[3] 

Tefilin during the Talmudic period (Babylonian Talmud)

1) The Babylonian Talmud describes the reason for laxity in the observance of Tefilin as follows: 

“[R. Shimon ben Elazar says:] Any commandment for which [the people of] Israel gave their lives at the time of persecution, such as [the prohibition of] idol worship and circumcision is still strong in their hands, and any commandment for which Israel did not give…their lives…such as Tefilin is still weak” (b. Shabbat 130a). 

1a) This is supported by a statement by R. Yanai who tells of an individual called Elisha Baal Kenafaim, who openly defied the ban issued by the authorities against wearing Tefilin. When the Roman officers asked Elisha what it was that he held clandestinely in his hands, he said it was a dove. Upon being forced to open his hands, it is said that the leather straps on either side of his Tefilin took on the appearance of the wings of a dove and flew off. Thus Elisha became known as ‘Baal Kenafaim’ which means the ‘Master of Wings’. Rashi comments that evidently it was only Elisha who was prepared to defy the ban against wearing Tefilin (although that is not necessarily implied by the Talmud). 

2) Another reason, suggested by the Babylonian Talmud, for the neglect of the mitzva of wearing Tefilin during Talmudic times was that it required a ‘clean body’ and not all people in those times were able to maintain such a high standard of physical and ritual cleanliness. Originally, Tefilin were worn for the entire day, but because of the difficulty in maintaining a clean body for such a long period, the duration was limited to the morning prayers (see b.Yoma 86a). But, as we shall see, even this dispensation did not quell the tide of neglect.

Talmud Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud)

The previous Talmudic statements and explanations are found in the Babylonian Talmud. The Jerusalem Talmud, however, offer a very different reason for the general non-observance of the mitzva of Tefilin.[4] It suggests that the reason why Tefilin fell out of favour was “because of the tricksters.” Unscrupulous people who wanted to deceive those with means would masquerade as righteous and religious – by wearing Tefilin thereby gaining their trust. This was obviously a major issue and it resulted in a disassociation with the mitzva of wearing Tefilin. 

Determining historical information from Talmudic sources

Kanarfogel explains why it is not accurate or prudent to use Talmudic sources as a means of determining historical events and attitudes: 

“The difficulty in analyzing any Talmudic source for the purpose of extracting historical information is that it is impossible to determine with complete accuracy whether a particular statement reflects [1] actual practice or was [2] addressed to an exceptional circumstance or was [3] postulated to instill a particular attitude” (Kanarfogel 1976:108. Square brackets are mine). 

This means that we have no real idea, in practical and historical terms, of how many people were affected by 1) the persecutions (and their concomitant bans against Tefilin), 2) the concern for cleanliness [as per the Babylonian Talmud], and 3) the fraudulent tricksters issue [as per the Jerusalem Talmud] – all of which, to some degree, kept Jews away from the popular observance of Tefilin. 

Maimonides on the popularity of Tefilin during Mishnaic times

Moving away from the Talmudim, we notice that Maimonides paints a very different picture in his analysis of the early Talmudic, or Mishnaic period. Maimonides suggests that the reason why the Mishna is rather sparse in its laws pertaining to Tefilin, Mezuzot and Tzitzit, is that these laws were well-known and widespread during that period. There was, therefore, no need to elaborate on them in the Mishna because they were so popular and ubiquitous.[5] This is starkly different from the impression we gain from the later Gemara sources mentioned above (in both Talmudim), describing the neglect of Tefilin during the Gemara period. 

The Gaonic period (589-1038)

In the post-Talmudic or Gaonic period, the notion of neglect of Tefilin is intensified in the rabbinic responsa (Sheilot uTeshuvot)[6] literature of the time. While earlier Talmudic sources spoke to the notion of limiting the duration of wearing Tefilin from the entire day to just the morning services – the later Gaonic literature, on the other hand, dealt with questions of wearing Tefilin at all! 

Rav Yehudai Gaon (c. 750 CE)

1) One outspoken promoter of the popularisation of Tefilin was Rav Yehudai Gaon. He claimed that the old notion of a “clean body” only applied to those who wanted to defy the bans against wearing Tefilin during the Roman persecutions and thus risk their lives. In other words, only exceptionally holy people were permitted to endanger their lives by defying the bans. However, such measures were no longer applicable in the more peaceful Gaonic times. Therefore everyone, regardless of their state of physical and spiritual cleanliness was now obligated to wear Tefilin since the Roman persecutions had long passed. 

2) Additionally, Rav Yehudai Gaon argues, strict spiritual cleanliness was also no longer demanded during Gaonic times, because we still read from the Torah despite not being perfectly or ritually clean. If we can read from the Torah in technically 'impure' states, we can similarly wear Tefilin. 

Thus, the old limiting conditions requiring a "clean body;" 1) if one wanted to defy the bans during Roman persecution, and 2) if one claimed that general "impurity" still exempted one from Tefilin during Gaonic times -no longer apply. Now every male from the age of thirteen must don Tefilin regardless of the circumstances. 

Rav Yosef Gaon (c. 850 CE)

It seems that Rav Yehudai Gaon’s noble attempt to reinstate the neglected mitzva of Tefilin was not entirely successful. A century later, in the time of Rav Yosef Gaon (the father of Rav Saadia Gaon), it was still thought that Teflin was only for exceptionally holy people and not for the common folk. 

The following question was addressed to Rav Yosef Gaon: 

“A merchant involved in business, should he put on tefillin during prayer (Shemona Esrei) and Shema, or perhaps only a great person puts them on, while one who is not such an important person doesn't, so as not to appear haughty, since the entire congregation does not put them on” (cited in Kanarfogel (1976:110), emphasis is mine). 

Rav Yosef Gaon had to again emphasise that the obligation to wear Tefilin fell on all people, common and holy alike. 

Rav Sherira Gaon (c. 960 CE)

The issue of cleanliness, however, would not go away despite the previous Gaonim arguing in favour of a return to Tefilin. Even towards the end of the Gaonic period, Rav Sherira Gaon received a question from someone who wanted to wear Tefilin but was concerned he would be considered “haughty” if he joined the scholarly class who were the only ones fulfilling this neglected mitzva of Tefilin. Thus, as we see from the literature, even at such a late stage as the end of the Gaonic period around the eleventh century, very few Jews seem to have been wearing Tefilin. 

Of particular interest is a view in the Gaonic work dealing with the laws of Tefilin entitled Shimusha Rabba, that one who has not attained high levels of Torah scholarship, should not wear Tefilin at all (Kanarfogel 1976:119 n.28). 

The Tosafist period (12th to 15th centuries)

We notice that continuing to the Tosafist period, the rabbis are still concerned about the neglect of Tefilin. One Tosafist explains casually why this mitzva is so overlooked: 

“It is not a wonderment why this precept (tefillin) is weak in our hands, since it was also weak in the days of the sages” (Tosafot, Shabbat 49a). 

R. Moshe of Coucy (1200-1260)

The French Tosafist, R. Moshe of Coucy, author of an early codification of Halacha entitled Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, visited Spain and tried to campaign there for a return to the observance of the mitzva of Tefilin. He went so far as to declare that G-d would rather see a wicked man put on Tefilin than a righteous man because Tefilin serves as the path to further observances! 

R. Asher ben Yechiel, the Rosh (1250-1327)

In the time of R. Asher ben Yechiel, known as the Rosh, people were still holding on to the old idea that because Tefilin should be worn all day, it remained solely within the domain of the few worthy people in each generation. This prompted the Rosh to write: 

“At this time, when the custom is to put on…[Tefilin] only during prayer, it is easy for anyone to be careful [to behave appropriately for this limited time].” 

Amazingly, even at such a late stage, there were still observant Jews who did not put on Tefilin daily. 

R. Tzidkia haRofe (c. 1240)

R. Tzidkia haRofe, in his Shibolei haLeket, offers a different reason as to why Tefilin were neglected in his day. He suggests that due to the difference of opinion between Rashi (1040-1104) and his grandson, Rabbeinu Tam (1100-1171), on the correct order of the Torah verses appearing on the scrolls inserted in the Tefilin, people were confused and therefore neglected to wear Tefilin altogether. According to both Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam, the other’s opinion was totally invalid. 

R. Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin (1365-1427)

R. Yaakov ben Moshe Levi Moelin, known as Maharil, writes that some Jews, instead of wearing Tefilin and affixing Mezuzot, would instead recite various verses and poems through which they believed they could vicariously fulfil those commandments. 

Astoundingly, a point was reached just six hundred years ago, where, in some instances, the actual fulfilment of important commandments like Tefilin and Mezuza (which are accepted as primary commandments today by both observant and even traditional Jews) were totally neglected and replaced by verbal and literary representations instead.


Kanarfogel does not deal with the question of what changed between then, and now, when Mezuza and Tefilin are currently commonplace. I was prompted to ask this question after stumbling upon an old photograph of myself as a yeshiva bochur during the early 1980s, putting Tefilin on Israeli soldiers just before they went across the border on a military mission. 

Nowadays, even non-religious Jews acknowledge their right to wear Tefilin, and every barmitzvah boy is expected to do the same, whether observant or otherwise. But, as we have seen, this was not always the case. 

So, assuming our interpretation of the sources is correct, what changed the mindset from the earlier exclusive paradigms where Tefilin was considered the proclivity of the scholarly elite and the holy, as was prevalent during Talmudic, Gaonic and Rishonic times? Why is it suddenly acceptable today for the common person to unapologetically lay claim to mitzvot like Tefilin?

I would suggest that at the exact point in history, just after the fifteenth century, where our present analysis ends, something soon occurred that changed people's perspectives of mitzvot like Mezuza and particularly Tefilin

This was the advent of the Lurianic Kabbalah of R. Yitzchak Luria, known as the Ari Zal (1534-1572). This new mystical system introduced, or certainly popularised, the notion of theurgy, perhaps more than any previous mystical system had done before. Theurgy is the almost 'magical' notion of 'spiritual cause and effect.' In other words, by the physical observance of the mitzvot, one not only fulfils the legal and clinical requirements of law, but one attains protection and renewed spiritual energy through these very actions. Every mitzvah is another step closer to the messianic era. This imbued Judaism and held it within an unprecedented (certainly on a popularist level) intense messianic tension that related to every religious word uttered and deed performed. Now Tefilin, Mezuza and Tehilim protected.

This paradigm shift, I would argue, changed everything. From that point on, promoters and advocates of religious observances had a far easier time than the earlier Gaonim who only had technical legal precedent to work on. The Gaonim could travel to Spain to promote Tefilin observance amongst the masses, and author responsa literature, but to no practical avail. This all changed after Lurianic Kabbalah.

This is also why I believe that leaders like the Lubavitcher Rebbe and others could more easily promote projects like Mezuza and Tefilin campaigns, which were often projected as 'protection' not only for the individual but, as I can personally attest, for the Jewish nation (and army) as a whole. By shifting the emphasis from a discussion of technical and legal qualifications and exemptions, to one of mystical protection on a personal, national even and universal messianic level, the barriers and objections suddenly disappeared, and a democratisation and inclusivity of Judaism ensued. 

Further Reading

A similar pattern seems to have been followed with the observance of a head covering (yarmulka), which stared out as only a pious observance of Rav Huna - to its universal observance today, including its contemporary defining symbol of 'religiosity': Kotzk Blog: 054) What You May Not Know About Your Yarmulka.

For Hebrew readers, see this link to an article on Tefilin by Dr. Avi Harel:

See also a fascinating  article by Ezra Brand: (99+) Tefillin and Tzitzit in the Zohar: A Case Study in Halacha and Polemics | Ezra Brand -

[1] The Talmudic period includes the Mishnaic period (10-210 CE), the Gemara (Amoraic) period (210-500), and the Savoraic period (500-589 CE).

[2] R. Kanarfogel published his article while was completing his rabbinical ordination and his simultaneous Masters degree in Jewish History.

[3] Ephraim Kanarfogel, E., 1976, ‘Not Just Another Contemporary Jewish Problem: A Historical Discussion of Phylacteries’, Gesher, vol. 5, 106-121. 

[4] y. Berachot 2:3.

[5] Maimonides, Perush haMishnaot, Menachot, 4:1.

[6] This literature revolved around questions on Halachic matters that were sent from Jews all over the world, to the Gaonic rabbis in Babylonia, who, in turn, responded in writing. The questions and answers were often collated in a form that became known as responsa (Sheilot uTeshuvot, or Shut) literature.


  1. Great piece!
    I had the same question and hoped you were going to answer.
    Without seeing the literature, I sumised that tefilin were lax in the geonic times due to the fact rashi and tosfos had a machlokes.
    How can you have a machlokes? Just look inside your tefilin!
    Ela Mai we see there wasn't really tefilin to look and check.