A set of tefillin includes the arm-tefillah (left)
and the head-tefillah
|Halakhic texts relating to this article|
|Mishneh Torah:||Tefillin, Mezuzah, veSefer Torah ch 5-6|
|Shulchan Aruch:||Orach Chayim 25-48|
Tefillin (Askhenazic: //; Israeli Hebrew: [tfiˈlin], תפילין), also called phylacteries (// from Ancient Greek φυλακτήριον phylacterion, form of phylássein, φυλάσσειν meaning "to guard, protect"), are a set of small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah. They are worn by male observant Jews during weekday morning prayers.
Although "tefillin" is technically the plural form (the singular being "tefillah"), it is loosely used as a singular as well. The arm-tefillin, or shel yad, is placed on the upper arm, and the strap wrapped around the arm/hand, hand and fingers; while the head-tefillin, or shel rosh, is placed above the forehead. The Torah commands that they should be worn to serve as a "sign" and "remembrance" that God brought the children of Israel out of Egypt.
The scriptural texts for tefillin are obscure in literal meaning. For example, Deuteronomy 11:18 is one of the standard texts referenced as supporting the obligation, but does not designate what specifically to "bind upon your arm," and the definition of totafot between your eyes is not obvious. It is the Talmud, the authoritative oral tradition for Rabbinic Judaism, which explains what are to be bound to the body and the form of tefillin.
And it shall be for a sign for you upon your hand, and for a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the LORD may be in your mouth; for with a strong hand did the LORD bring you out of Egypt.— Exodus 13:9
And it shall be for a sign upon your hand, and as totafot between your eyes; for with a mighty hand did the LORD bring us forth out of Egypt.— Exodus 13:16
and twice in the shema passages:
And you shall bind them as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as totafot between your eyes.— Deuteronomy 6:8
You shall put these words of mine on your heart and on your soul; and you shall tie them for a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as totafot between your eyes.— Deuteronomy 11:18
The ultimate origin of Hebrew "tefillin" is uncertain. The word "tefillin" is not found in the Bible, which calls them ṭoṭafot. The Septuagint renders "ṭoṭafot" ἀσαλευτόν, "something immovable." Some believe it refers to a charm, similar to the Hebrew neṭifot, "round jewel." The Talmud (Sanhedrin 4b) explains that the word ṭoṭafot is combination of two foreign words: Tot means "two" in the "Caspi" language and Fot means "two" in the "Afriki" language, hence tot and fot means "two and two", corresponding to the four compartments of the head-tefillin. Menahem ben Saruq explains that the word is derived from the Hebrew Ve'hateif and Tatifoo, both expressions meaning "speech", "for when one sees the tefillin it causes him to remember and speak about The Exodus from Egypt."
The first texts to use "tefillin" are the Targumim and Peshitta and it is also used in subsequent Talmudic literature, although the word "ṭoṭafah" was still current, being used with the meaning of "frontlet." "Tefillin" may have derived from the Aramaic palal, "to plead, pray," a word closely related to the Hebrew tefillah, "prayer." Jacob ben Asher (14th century) suggests that "tefillin" is derived from the Hebrew pelilah, "justice, evidence," for tefillin act as a sign and proof of God's presence among the Jewish people.
The only instance of the name "phylacteries" in ancient times occurs once in the Greek New Testament (Matthew 23:5) whence it has passed into the languages of Europe. "Phylacteries" derives from the Greek phulaktērion - φυλακτήριον, "defences," and in late Greek, "amulets" or "charms." Neither Aquila nor Symmachus use the word "phylacteries." The choice of this particular Greek equivalent to render the Heb. tefillin bears witness to the ancient functional interpretation of the said device as a kind of an amulet. The other Greek words for “amulet” are periapta or periammata, which literally signifies “things tied around,” analogously to the Hebrew qame‘a derived from the root קמע meaning “to bind.”
The tefillin are to serve as a reminder of God's intervention at the time of the Exodus from Egypt. Maimonides details of the sanctity of tefillin and writes that "as long as the tefillin are on the head and on the arm of a man, he is modest and God-fearing and will not be attracted by hilarity or idle talk; he will have no evil thoughts, but will devote all his thoughts to truth and righteousness." The Sefer ha-Chinuch (14th century) adds that the purpose of tefillin is to help subjugate a person's worldly desires and encourage spiritual development. Joseph Caro (16th century) explains that tefillin are placed on the arm adjacent to the heart and on the head above the brain to demonstrate that these two major organs are willing to perform the service of God.
Many have the custom to have high quality tefillin and beautiful tefillin bags as a Hiddur Mitzvah. This idea comes from the verse "This is my God and I will glorify Him" (Exodus 15:2). The Jewish Sages explain: "Is it possible for a human being to add glory to his Creator? What this really means is: I shall glorify Him in the way I perform mitzvot. I shall prepare before Him a beautiful lulav, beautiful sukkah, beautiful fringes (Tsitsit), and beautiful phylacteries (Tefilin)."
Moreover, numerous scholars think that tefillin also play an apotropaic function. For instance, Yehudah B. Cohn argues that the tefillin should be perceived as an invented tradition aimed at counteracting the popularity of the Greek amulets with an “original” Jewish one. In fact, some more anthropologically inclined scholars like Joshua Trachtenberg, considered every ornament worn on the body (whatever its declared function) as initially serving the purpose of an amulet. In addition to this the early Rabbinic sources furnish more or less explicit examples of the apotropaic qualities of tefillin. For instance, Bamidbar R. 12:3 presents tefillin as capable of defeating “a thousand demons” emerging on “the left side,” rabbis Yohanan and Nahman used their sets to repel the fiends inhabiting privies in BT Berakhot 23a-b, whereas Elisha the Winged, who was scrupulous in performing this mitzvah, was miraculously saved from the Roman persecution in BT Shabbat 49a. Also, tefillin are believed to possess life-lengthening qualities, as suggested in BT Menahot 36b, 44a-b and in BT Shabbat 13a-b and they are often listed in one breath among various items which are considered amuletic in nature, as is the case in M Kelim 23:1, M Eruvin 10:1 or BT Eruvin 96b-97a.
Manufacture and contents
The manufacturing processes of both the boxes and the parchment scrolls are intricate and governed by hundreds of detailed rules. In earlier Talmudic times, tefillin were either cylindrical or cubical, but later the cylindrical form became obsolete. Nowadays the boxes should be fashioned from a single piece of animal hide and form a base with an upper compartment to contain the parchment scrolls. They are made in varying levels of quality. The most basic form, called peshutim ("simple"), are made using several pieces of parchment to form the inner walls of the head tefillin. The higher quality tefillin, namely dakkot ("thin"), made by stretching a thin piece of leather, and the more durable gassot ("thick") are both fashioned from the single piece of hide. Black leather straps (retsu'ot) pass through the rear of the base and are used to secure the tefillin onto the body. On both sides of the head-tefillin, the Hebrew letter shin (ש) is moulded; the shin may have four branches instead of three. The knot of the head-tefillin strap forms the letter dalet (ד) or double dalet (ד) (known as the square-knot) while the strap that is passed through the arm-tefillin is formed into a knot in the shape of the letter yud (י). These three letters spell Shaddai (ידש), one of the names of God.
Four biblical passages which refer to the tefillin are placed inside the leather boxes. These are: "Sanctify to me..." (Exodus 13:1-10); "When YHWH brings you..." (Exodus 13:11-16); "Hear, O Israel..." (Deuteronomy 6:4-9); and "If you observe My Commandments..." (Deuteronomy 11:13-21). They are written by a scribe with special ink on parchment scrolls (klaf). The Hebrew Ashuri script must be used and there are three main styles of lettering used: Beis Yosef – generally used by Ashkenazim; Arizal – generally used by Hasidim; Velish – used by Sefardim. The passages contain 3,188 letters, which take a sofer (scribe) between 10–15 hours to complete. The arm-tefillin has one large compartment, which contains all four biblical passages written upon a single strip of parchment. The head-tefillin has four separate compartments in each of which one scroll of parchment is placed.
There was considerable discussion among the commentators of the Talmud about the order in which the scrolls should be inserted into the four compartments of the head-tefillin. In the Middle Ages, a famous debate on the issue was recorded between Rashi and his grandson Rabbeinu Tam. Rashi held that the passages are placed according to the chronological order as they appear in the Torah: Kadesh Li, Ve-haya Ki Yeviehcha, Shema, Ve-haya Im Shemoa, while according to Rabbeinu Tam, the last two passages are switched around. Of the tefillin dating from the 1st-century CE discovered at Qumran in the Judean Desert, some were made according to the order understood by Rashi and others in the order of Rabbeinu Tam. The prevailing custom is to arrange the scrolls according to Rashi's view, but some pious Jews are also accustomed to briefly lay the tefillin of Rabbeinu Tam as well, a custom of the Ari adopted by the Hasidim. The placement of the protrusion of a tuft of the sinew (se'ar eigel) identifies as to which opinion the tefillin were written. The Vilna Gaon, who wore the tefillin of Rashi, rejected the stringency of also laying Rabbeinu Tam, pointing out that there were sixty-four permutations for the arrangement of the tefillin scrolls.
The duty of laying tefillin rests upon Jewish males after the age of thirteen years. Although women are exempt from the obligation, some early codifers allowed them to do so. Moses Isserles (16th century), however, strongly discourages it. Historically, the mitzvah of tefillin was not performed by women, but the ritual was apparently kept by some women in medieval France and Germany. Traditions exist of some prominent women laying tefillin. Rashi's daughters allegedly wore tefillin, as did the wife of Chaim ibn Attar and the female Hasidic Rebbe known as Maiden of Ludmir. and the idea is gaining a following among women affiliated to the Conservative movement. In 2013 SAR High School in Riverdale, New York began allowing girls to wrap tefillin during Shacharit-morning prayer; it is probably the first Modern Orthodox high school in the U.S. to do so. The wearing of tefillin by members of Women of the Wall at the Western Wall caused consternation from the rabbi in charge of the site until a Jerusalem District Court judge ruled in 2013 that doing so was not a violation of “local custom.”
Others who are not obliged to lay tefillin include a mourner during the first day of his mourning period, and a bridegroom on his wedding-day. A sufferer from stomach-trouble or one who is otherwise in pain and cannot concentrate his mind is also exempt. One who is engaged in the study of the Law and scribes of and dealers in tefillin and mezuzot while engaged in their work if it cannot be postponed, are also free from this obligation.
The codes view the commandment of tefillin as important and call those who neglect to observe it "transgressors." Maimonides counts the commandment of laying the arm-tefillin and head-tefillin as two separate positive mitzvot. The Talmud cites Rav Sheshet who said that by neglecting the precept, one transgresses eight positive commandments. A report of widespread laxity in its observance is reported by Moses of Coucy in 13th century Spain. It may have arisen from the fear of persecution, similar to what had occurred to the Jews living in the Land of Israel under Roman rule in the 2nd-century.
Originally tefillin were worn all day, but not during the night. Nowadays the prevailing custom is to wear them only during the weekday morning service, although some individuals wear them at other times during the day as well.
Tefillin are not donned on Shabbat and the major festivals because these holy days are themselves considered "signs" which render the need of the "sign" of tefillin superfluous. On Chol HaMoed (intermediate days) of Pesach and Sukkot, there is a great debate among the early halachic authorities as to whether tefillin should be worn or not. Those who forbid it consider the "sign" of intermediate days as having the same status as the festival itself, making the ritual of tefillin redundant. Others argue and hold that Chol HaMoed does not constitute a "sign" in which case tefillin must be laid. Three customs evolved resulting from the dispute:
- To refrain from wearing tefillin: This ruling of the Shulchan Aruch is based on kabbalah and the Zohar which strongly advocate refraining from laying tefillin on Chol HaMoed. This position is maintained by Sephardic Jews and is also the opinion of the Vilna Gaon whose ruling has been universally accepted in Israel.
- To wear tefillin without reciting the blessings: This is the opinion of, among others, Jacob ben Asher, Moses of Coucy and David HaLevi Segal. The advantage of this compromise is that one avoids the transgressions of either not donning tefillin or making a blessing in vain.
- To wear tefillin and recite the blessings in an undertone: This opinion, based on Maimonides,[not in citation given] is the ruling of Moses Isserles who writes that this is the universally accepted practice among Ashkenazic Jews. However, he was evidently mistaken, since many Ashkenazim refrain from wearing it or wear it without a blessing during Chol HaMoed.
In light of the conflicting opinions, the Mishna Berura (20th-century) recommends Ashkenazim make the following stipulation before donning tefillin: "If I am obligated to don tefillin I intend to fulfill my obligation and if I am not obligated to don tefillin, my doing so should not be considered as fulfilling any obligation" and that the blessing not be recited.
On the fast day of Tisha B'Av, tefillin are not worn in the morning, as tefillin are considered an "adornment", symbols of beauty, which is deemed inappropriate for a day of mourning. They are worn instead at the afternoon Mincha service. There are those however who have a custom (Jews from Aleppo, Syria) on Tisha B'Av to privately put on tefillin at home and pray privately, say the Amidah and take off the tefillin and go to synagogue to finish the prayers.
How to put on tefillin
Ashkenazim put on and remove the arm tefillin while standing in accordance to the Shulchan Aruch, while most Sephardim do so while sitting in accordance with the Ari. All, however, put on and remove the head tefillin while standing. It is forbidden to speak or be distracted while putting on the tefillin. An Ashkenazi says two blessings when laying tefillin, the first before he ties the arm-tefillin: ...lehani'ach tefillin ("to bind tefillin"), and the second after placing the head tefillin: ...al mitzvat tefillin ("as to the commandment of tefillin"), thereafter he tightens the head straps and says "Baruch Shem Kovod...." ("blessed be the holy name") The Sephardic custom is that no blessing is said for the head-tefillin, the first blessing sufficing for both. Sephardim and many members of the Chabad Orthodox movement only recite the blessing on the head-tefillah if they spoke about something not related to tefillin since reciting the blessing on the arm-tefillah.
The arm-tefillin is laid on the inner side of the bare left arm, right arm if one is left handed, two finger breadths above the elbow, so that when the arm is bent the tefillin faces towards the heart. The arm-tefillin is tightened with the thumb, the blessing is said, and the strap is immediately wrapped around the upper arm in the opposite direction it came from in order to keep the knot tight without having to hold it. Some wrap it around the upper arm for less than a full revolution (the bare minimum to keep the knot tight) and then wrap it around the forearm seven times, while others wrap it around the upper arm an addition time before wrapping it around the forearm. Many Ashkenazim wear the knot to be tightened (not to be confused with the knot on the base which is permanently tied and always worn on the inside, facing the heart) on the inside and wrap inward, while Nusach Sephard Ashkenazim and all Sephardim wear it on the outside and wrap outward.
Then the head-tefillin is placed on the middle of the head just above the forehead, so that no part rests below the hairline. A bald or partially bald person's original hairline is used. The knot of the head-tefillin sits at the back of the head, upon the part of the occipital bone that protrudes just above the nape, directly opposite the optic chiasm. The two straps of the head-tefillin are brought in front of the shoulders, with their blackened side facing outwards. Now the remainder of the arm-tefillin straps are wound three times around the middle finger and around the hand to form the shape of the Hebrew letter of either a shin (ש) according to Ashkenazim, or a dalet (ד) according to Sephardim. There are various customs regarding winding the strap on the arm and hand. In fact, the arm strap is looped for counter-clockwise wrapping with Ashkenazi tefillin while it is knotted for clockwise wrapping with Sephardic and Chabad tefillin. On removing the tefillin, the steps are reversed.
Kadesh Li —
the duty of
the Jewish people
to remember the
|And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying: 'Sanctify to Me all the first-born, whatever opens the womb among the children of Israel, both of man and of animal, it is Mine.' And Moses said to the people: 'Remember this day, in which you came out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage; for by strength of hand the LORD brought you out from this place; no leavened bread shall be eaten. This day you go forth in the Spring month. And it shall be when the LORD shall bring you into the land of the Canaanite, and the Hittite, and the Amorite, and the Hivite, and the Jebusite, which He swore unto your fathers to give you, a land flowing with milk and honey, that you shall keep this service in this month. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and the seventh day shall be a feast to the LORD. Unleavened bread shall be eaten throughout the seven days; and no leavened bread shall be seen with you, neither shall there be leaven seen with you, in all your borders. And so shall you tell your son on that day, saying: It is because of that which the LORD did for me when I came forth out of Egypt. And it shall be for a sign for you upon your hand, and as a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the LORD may be in your mouth; for with a strong hand has the LORD brought you out of Egypt. You shalt therefore keep this ordinance in its season from year to year.|
Ve-haya Ki Yeviakha —
of every Jew to
inform his or her children
on these matters.
|When the LORD brings you into the land of the Canaanite, as He swore unto you and to your fathers, and shall give it to you, you shall set apart to the LORD all that opens the womb; every firstborn animal shall be the LORD'S. Every firstborn donkey you shall redeem with a sheep, and if you will not redeem it, then you shall break its neck; and all the first-born of man among your sons shall you redeem. And when your son asks you in time to come, saying: What is this? say to him: By strength of hand the LORD bring us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage; and when Pharaoh found it hard to let us go the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the first-born of man, and the first-born of animals; therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all males that open the womb, and redeem all my first-born sons. And it shall be for a sign upon your hand, and as "totafot" between your eyes; for by strength of hand the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt.|
Unity of the
|Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one. And you shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart; and teach them thoroughly to your children, and speak of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the road, and when you lie down, and when you get up. And tie them for a sign upon your hand, and let them be "totafot" between your eyes. And write them on the door-posts of your house and on your gates.|
Ve-haya Im Shamoa —
God's assurance of
reward for observance
of the Torah's
precepts and warning
of retribution for
|If you listen to My commandments which I command you today, to love the LORD your God, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, then I will give the rain of your land in its season, the early and the late rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied. Take care for yourselves, lest your heart be seduced, and you turn aside, and serve other gods, and worship them; and the anger of the LORD be lit against you, and He shut up the heaven, so that there shall be no rain, and the ground not yield her fruit; and you be quickly lost from off the good land which the LORD gives you. Put these words of Mine on your heart and on your soul; tie them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be "totafot" between your eyes. Teach them to your children, to speak of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the road, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. And write them on the door-posts of your house, and upon your gates; so that your days, and those of your children, may be multiplied upon the land which the LORD swore unto your fathers to give them, as the days of the heavens above the earth.|
- Steinmetz, Sol (2005). Dictionary of Jewish usage: a guide to the use of Jewish terms. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. p. 165. ISBN 978-0-7425-4387-4.
- Phylacteries, Jewish Encyclopedia (1906).
- Steinmetz, Sol (August 2005). Dictionary of Jewish usage: a guide to the use of Jewish terms. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 165. ISBN 978-0-7425-4387-4. Retrieved 30 June 2011.
- The Targum often substitutes the word Afriki for Tarshish, see Kings I 10:22
- Exodus 13:16, s.v. U'letotafot bein ei'neicha
- Rashi to Exodus 13:16, s.v. U'letotafot bein ei'neicha
- Dovid Meisels; Avraham Yaakov Finkel (30 April 2004). Bar mitzvah and tefillin secrets: the mysteries revealed. Dovid D. Meisels. p. 133. ISBN 978-1-931681-56-8. Retrieved 30 June 2011.
- The Cambridge Bible for schools and colleges. University press. 1908. p. 175. Retrieved 30 June 2011.
- Crow, John L. (2009). Braak, J., ed. Miracle or Magic? The Problematic Status of Christian Amulets. Discussion to Experience: Religious Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Amsterdam. pp. 97–112.
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- Tefillin, Mezuzah, ve'Sefer Torah ch 5-6.
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- "Holiday Art Beautiful ritual objects enhance holiday celebration.". myjewishlearning.com.
Beauty enhances the mitzvot by appealing to the senses. Beautiful sounds and agreeable fragrances, tastes, textures, colors, and artistry contribute to human enjoyment of religious acts, and beauty itself takes on a religious dimension. The principle of enhancing a mitzvah through aesthetics is called Hiddur Mitzvah. The concept of Hiddur Mitzvahis derived from Rabbi Ishmael's comment on the verse, "This is my God and I will glorify Him" (Exodus 15:2):
- Greene, Gary. "Shabbat Truma Rosh Hodesh". MARATHON Jewish Community Center. Retrieved 23 July 2014.
I think the beauty was important then because it reminded the people of the worth of God in their worship. During the dry and dusty days of desert wanderings, they needed a reminder of God’s majesty.
- Silverberg, Rav David. "PARASHAT BESHALACH". The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash. Yeshivat Har Etzion.
Rav Shlomo Ha-kohen of Vilna, in his work of responsa Binyan Shlomo (siman 6), writes that he was once asked why the Gemara never mentions a requirement to purchase beautiful tefillin. Seemingly, tefillin is no less a religious article than a tallit, Sefer Torah or lulav, and thus the obligation of hiddur mitzva should apply equally to tefillin.
- Cohn, Yehuda B. (2008). Tangled Up in Text: Tefillin and the Ancient World. Providence: Brown Judaic Studies. pp. 88–99, 148.
- Trachtenberg, Joshua (1939). Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion. New York: Behrman's Jewish Book House. p. 132.
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- Shimon D. Eider (September 1985). Student Edition of Halachos of Tefillin. Feldheim Publishers. pp. 21–22. ISBN 978-1-58330-050-3. Retrieved 30 June 2011.
- Shimon D. Eider (September 1985). Student Edition of Halachos of Tefillin. Feldheim Publishers. pp. 13–14. ISBN 978-1-58330-050-3. Retrieved 1 July 2011.
- What is Tefillin?, www.stam.net. Retrieved 1 July 2011
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- Maimonides, Hilkhot Tzitzit 3:9; Rashba Teshuva 123; Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 421; Rabbenu Tam. See Grossman, Avraham (2004). Pious and Rebellious - Jewish Women in Medieval Europe. Brandeis Univ.
- Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim, 38:3. See also Targum Yerushalmi on Deuteronomy 22:5.
- Baumgarten, Elisheva (2004). Mothers and Children - Jewish Family Life in Medieval Europe. Princeton.
- "Women & Tefillin - Congregation Beth El–Keser Israel".
- Women and Tefillin : The United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism (USCJ)
- Briefs, Jewish Press News (20 January 2014). "NYC Orthodox High School Lets Girls Put On Tefillin".
- Western Wall Rabbi: No More Tallit and Tefillin for Women at Kotel haaretz, February 1, 2016
- Isaac David Essrig (1932). The fountain of wisdom. p. 18. Retrieved 1 July 2011.
- Menahot 44a
- Shulchan Aruch Orach Chayim 37:2
- Jachter, Howard (April 7, 2001). "Tefillin on Hol Hamoed". Kol Torah: Torah Academy of Bergen County.
- Mishna Berura 31:8
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- Eider, Shimon D Halachos of Tefillin, Feldheim Publishers (2001) ISBN 978-1-58330-483-9
- Emanuel, Moshe Shlomo Tefillin: The Inside Story, Targum Press (1995) ISBN 978-1-56871-090-7
- Neiman, Moshe Chanina Tefillin: An Illustrated Guide, Feldheim Publishers (1995) ISBN 978-0-87306-711-9
- Rav Pinson, DovBer: Tefillin: Wrapped in Majesty (2013) ISBN 0985201185
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Tefillin.|
- Halachic sources and diagrams on Tefillin on a commercial site
- Lots of pictures and explanations about Tefillin, the parshiyot and batim
- Educational information and diagrams of tefillin on a commercial site
- Short movie about Tefillin producing process
- How to Guide to Putting on Tefillin
- Illustrations on how to tie the knot (kesher) in the head phylactery, Ashkenazi and Sephardic methods, pp. 627–630 in PDF.