The Torah contains four sources regarding the mitzvah of tefillin, two of which appear in this week’s parashah. The mitzvah of tefillin, which are worn on the head, arm and hand, represents our pledge to use our minds and strength in serving God. There is a Jewish way to think and to believe, and there is a Jewish way to behave and to perform.
In contemporary terms, I think of tefillin every time I see or use jumper cables. Just as two sets of cables warm up the car, so too, two sets of straps provide us spiritual strength on weekdays and transform an ordinary day into a sacred day.
The exterior of the tefillin, with its black boxes, straps, visible letters of shin, dalet and yud, spelling one of God’s Hebrew names, teaches us to be mindful of the outer physical condition of the human being. The tefillin’s interior, housing four handwritten parchments containing the four biblical sources for tefillin, teaches us to be sensitive to the invisible spiritual condition of the human being.
The two shins that appear on the headpiece – one a three-stemmed shin and one a four-stemmed shin – signify the totality of the commandments in Judaism: the gematria (numerical value) of the two letters alone adds up to 600, each shin equalling 300; the two shins, put side by side, spell the Hebrew word shesh (six); and the seven stems from the two letters bring the total to 613, representing the completeness of Judaism. Thus, the mitzvah of donning the tefillin impels us to strive for greater consistency in our observance of the tenets of Judaism.
The placement of the parchments also contains a lesson. In the headpiece, each of the four sources has a separate compartment. In the box placed on the arm, they all share one compartment. Thus, while we should strive for unity in the observance of Jewish practice, we should encourage an openness towards discussing ideas, opinions, interpretations and points of view.