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You are children to Hashem your God. You shall not cut yourselves and you shall not make a bald spot between your eyes for a dead person. For you are a holy people to Hashem your God and Hashem has chosen you for Himself to be a treasured people from among all the people on the face of the earth (Devarim 14:1-2).
Rashi explains that it was customary for the Amorites to cut themselves and make bald spots when a person died. The Torah here warns us not to follow this practice. It is noteworthy that the posuk uncharacteristically provides an explanation for this prohibition by explaining that we are a holy people and that Hashem has chosen us from among all the people of the earth. Why did the Torah here specifically elaborate on the uniqueness of the Jewish people? What is the connection between the holiness and uniqueness of the Jewish people to this specific mitzvah?
Chazal derive from this posuk the halacha that the tefilah of the head must be placed above the hairline. With regard to the tefilah of the head the posuk says that it shall be placed “between your eyes.” If we would interpret the posuk literally we would be required to place the tefilah of the head above the nose which is directly between the eyes. Yet chazal derived through a gezairah shaveh that just as the words “between your eyes” that are written in connection to making a bald spot must be interpreted to mean above the hairline because that is the only place where it is possible to make a bald spot, likewise, the words “between your eyes” that are written in connection to the position of the tefilah of the head are to be interpreted above the hairline. We may ask what homiletic message is the Torah conveying by teaching us the laws of tefilin through the prohibition of making a bald spot over the dead?
It is noteworthy that in contrast to the tefilah of the hand which is only described as a “sign,” the Torah has two different descriptions of the tefilah of the head. The Torah first says that it shall serve as a “remembrance” (Shemos 13:9). However, the posukim later describes the tefilah of the head as a totafos (Shemos 13:16, Devarim 6:8, 12:18). This unusual word is interpreted to mean an object that has four separate and distinct compartments. The Gemara (Sanhedrin 4b) explains that the word totafos is a combination of two words, tat and pos. Tat in the Kaspi language means two and pas in the Afriki language means two. When the two are combined into the single word totafos it indicates a total of four compartments. What is the significance of the tefilah of the head being described as both a remembrance and a totafos?
The commentators explain that the tefilin of the head is symbolic of the hidden ways of Hashem. This is seen when Moshe asked to see the face of Hashem (Shemos 33:18). Hashem responded that he would only show His back but not His front. Chazal tell us that Moshe was shown the knot of Hashem’s tefillin. This indicates that the front would have been the tefilin themselves. Hashem, by not permitting Moshe to see it conveyed that the ways of Hashem are hidden and cannot be comprehend by man. Indeed, tefillin must be completely black. Black is a color that is symbolic of darkness and what is hidden from us. By wearing tefilin we express our faith that although we do not understand the ways of Hashem we have faith that all His ways are just and true. This is particularly relevant when dealing with death.
The above posuk teaches us that we may not follow in the ways of the Amorites. When an Amorite would lose a relative or friend they would rip out their hair and cut marks in their flesh. The pagan Amorites did not know how to deal with death or any tragedy for that matter. They lacked faith. As an expression of frustration they would rip out their hair and cut themselves. In contrast to the Amorites Hashem has commanded us to be faithful in dealing with death and tragedy that we cannot comprehend. As a symbolic expression of faith he has given us the mitzvah of tefillin. The two concepts of tefilah of the head correspond to the actions performed by the Amorites. In contrast to the making of bald spots Hashem has instructed us to place a remembrance on that same spot. In contrast to the marks the Amorites would make on their flesh Hashem has given commanded us to tie upon us the totafos. The halacha requires that the four compartments be clearly demarcated from the outside of the tefilah. Our symbols of faith stand in contrast to the marks of frustration of the Amorites.
We may now understand why the posuk concludes by mentioning the holiness and uniqueness of the Jewish people. The posuk says “And all the nations of the world will see that the name of Hashem called upon you and will fear you.” Chazal teach us that this refers to the tefilah of the head. The theme of this posuk is similar to the reason given for the prohibition of making bald spots and cuts, that being, the holiness and uniqueness of the Jewish people. Both here and in regard to tefilin the posuk conveys that what distinguishes a Jew from the rest of the world is his ability to have faith in Hashem even with regard to things that are beyond human comprehension.
© Efraim Levine 5760/2000 - 5762/2002