Empowered Experience: Laying Tefillin

Life with God isn’t purely intellectual. It isn’t purely emotional. And emotional-rationality doesn’t explain it all either.

I am not alone, in the vast see of Jews and Christians, who feel we have connected in reality with God through experience. To the naturalist-rationalist-modernist this is nonsense, perhaps explained as some Freudian deficiency. To the emotive-mystic-non-rationalist this could be explained without reference to any scripture or theology at all. I think the best approach is rational-emotional-mystical. Experience guided by reason and sacred scripture, the Torah and the soul seeking union with God, devekut, as some traditions call it. Many Christian worship traditions also combine faith and experience, seeking union with God (note to theologians: I don’t mean losing oneself in God when I say union).

For a Christian, an experience seeking closer connection with God might be something like meditation on a scripture, reciting the Lord’s Prayer, centering prayer, practicing the Presence, or any number of devotional observances. For a Jew, there are also a number of practices which lend themselves to deeper connection: Torah learning (Chumash or Talmud or Midrash or whatever), the daily prayers, and so on.

One practice is on my mind today, a ritual of connection to God which lends itself especially to devekut. It is the practice of laying tefillin.

For those who have no idea what tefillin are, think of the small, leather boxes containing parchment scrolls inside with verses from the Torah. One is strapped on the head (so the box rests high on the forehead) and one on the left arm, on the upper bicep towards the heart. (The New Testament calls them by their Greek name: phylacteries, Matthew 23:5).

They are worn only during morning prayers (though in the Second Temple period, some wore them all through the day).

The thing about a practice like laying tefillin is that it combines a number of elements which help a person connect with God on a deeper level:

(1) A purposeful, meditative state filling the mind with thoughts from the prophets and poets and sages of Israel.

(2) A physical action which enacts in physical space a deeper spiritual reality: being bound to God with leather straps.

(3) A physical action which connects our being with God: the head and heart infused with Torah.

(4) A state of mind and spirit bent on union with God, which we call kavanah, or intention.

(5) Symbols of the divine Name, such as the Shin symbol made with the straps on the upper arm.

(6) The sanctity of an object which is set apart for use as a means of union with God: the tefillin are treated as holy.

(7) We join with other Jews all over the world in this action, together, at the same time of day: a drawing together of community in real time and space.

And for Messianic Jews, like myself, there is an added dimension:

(8) The tefillin bring us into union with God much like Yeshua, who said he came to make us “one, as we [Yeshua and the Father] are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one” (John 17:22-23).

Laying tefillin is a practice meant for Jews to draw together with each other and God. It is a daily mystical experience if our kavanah is good.

For Christians as well as Jews, such empowered experiences are necessary and sadly neglected.

Yeshua empowers our laying of tefillin, bringing a deeper spiritual reality we wish all our Jewish family to know. He is truly the One who binds us to the Eternal One.

To learn more about Tefillin, I recommend a new resource by First Fruits of Zion by Toby Janicki. In a short 68 pages, Janicki lays out the history, theology, archaeological evidence for, halacha, and significance of Tefillin. See more about Janicki’s book here.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Judaism, Judeo-Christian, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism, Mysticism, Spirituality. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Empowered Experience: Laying Tefillin

  1. justin david says:

    Blessings Derek;

    Nice post. My only comment would be in reference to this statement, “They are worn only during morning prayers (though in the Second Temple period, some wore them all through the day).” This would depend on the specific minhagim of the community. Although tefillin are traditionally worn during morning service, as you stated, there is no specific prohibition against wearing them at any time during daylight hours. I am not aware of any specific Messianic Jewish halakah that differs from this, and given that the practice is not widespread, as of yet, in the MJ movement, I would guess that most follow what they were taught in traditional Judaism. Also, Chabad’s tefillin campaign takes place during all hours of the day. Just my 2 shekels. Again, nice post.


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