Tefillin are a powerful mitzvah, meant to literally bind one’s self to God, as a reminder that God brought the Jewish people out of Egypt and slavery. The tefillin, placed on the left arm, are thought to be significant as resting next to the heart, and between the eyes, as the centre of our thought. Together, the arm tefillin and head tefillin are thought to signify our head and our heart, so that our love and attention are on God during prayer.
Remarkably, there might be more to putting on tefillin for prayer than just symbolism. A 2002 study from the Journal of Chinese Medicine, by Steven Schram, titled “Tefillin: An Ancient Acupuncture Point Prescription for Mental Clarity”, mapped out several traditional methods of binding tefillin, and noted major underlying acupuncture points. Schram’s investigation determined that when bound, contact points of tefillin are the same pattern of an acupuncture treatment to improve mental clarity, spiritual consciousness and purify thoughts.
Acupuncture, stemming from traditional Chinese medicine, is a therapeutic technique where thin solid needles are inserted into energy points in the body. Traditionally, in Chinese medicine, Qi (energy force) runs along meridians and by inserting needles into strategic points along these lines, the body’s energy can be aimed at healing a wide variety of concerns. Western medicine has branched off of this system of acupuncture, where the same thin solid needles (sometimes including electrical stimulation) are inserted to anatomically significant sites, which can include trigger points or neurologically beneficial sites. While both are effective for a variety of conditions, tefillin have been found to stimulate the most powerful of the traditional Chinese points.
According to Schram, arm tefillin are difficult to map, as there are several ways of binding them. In his article, Schram “explored the four major variations in wrapping procedures: Chassidic, Sephardim, Sephard, and Ashkenaz”. While there is variation in each wrapping pattern, together they cover over 50 major points for spiritual consciousness, mental clarity, and purified thoughts. Coincidentally, the most powerful of the points are stimulated in all four. A good example is LI-4, a commonly used acupuncture/acupressure point, located between the thumb and index finger. It’s known for addressing headaches, and stress, and is included in most upper body treatments, it can also treat pain, improve immunity and energy, among other concerns.
Because they are always in the same location, the head tefillin are simpler to map. The box, between the eyes, correlates with Shenting DU-24 and Shangxing DU-23. The knot correlates with Fengfu DU-16. DU points are also known as the governing vessel, and are known for their influence on the mind and mental health, as well as their spiritual action, explained by its close relationship with the brain.
- Shenting DU-24, located at the forehead, around the hairline, is also known as the spirit court, and its primary function is to calm the spirit and clear the brain.
- Shangxing DU-23 is located a little bit further back from DU-24 and is also known as the Upper Star. This point is also meant to calm the spirit, clear the head and relax the face.
- Fengfu DU-16, found at the base of the neck, in the midline, is also helpful for calming the spirit, nourishing the head and neck, and eliminating distractions.
Together, these three points can clear the mind, enabling a sense of spirituality and focus.
If the breakdown of points stimulated by tefillin are looked at under the scope of acupuncture, it indicates a treatment for mental and spiritual enhancement. It is, however, uncommon to see such specific treatment plans in non-Chinese culture, consistently practiced for thousands of years. While the earliest mention of tefillin is in the Torah, the earliest archaeological evidence of tefillin is in the 1st century BCE, with the Dead Sea Scrolls. Coincidentally, the first mention of acupuncture being used is in 100 BC, in China.
It’s unlikely that one practice stemmed from the other. What is more likely is that both acupuncture and tefillin have roots in the idea that stimulating the body’s energy is a powerful tool for enhancing mindfulness, in this case, during prayer. It’s not the first time that ideas (specifically related to health and well-being) found in Jewish tradition have been popularized by other cultures. Some other examples being: food as medicine and cupping therapy (both notably mentioned by the Rambam), as well as the astrological symbols.