Gershon Hepner

Phylacteries and Totaphot

Hand-written, not made in a factory,
one is placed upon the forehead where,
anterior, the fontanel lies bare
for the most capital phylactery.
The other on the weaker arm is placed,
the left for most, and covered, hidden.
The words which in a box are written
are Bible texts, thus by the arm embraced.

The order of the texts is subject to
dispute between grandfather and
grandson. The pious now demand
two pairs of boxes, and thus do
both as the grandfather decided,
and as the grandson whose dispute
was recognized as valid, his repute
so great that many by him still are guided.

The argument is hard to understand.
Another grandson said the law
is metaphorical. He wore
phylacteries on both his head and hand,
but thought the text means: “Keep within your mind
the words.” If this is right, why wear
an extra pair? A single pair
is more than what you literally must bind.”

The origin of totaphot, Rashi supposes,
may be Egyptian, which he labels “Coptic,”
with a suggestion that’s synoptic:
he to “Coptic” “African” apposes,
“African” denoting “Phrygian,”
two-headed view that is like the pair
of rosh tephillin we Jews wear,
our heads wrapped twice by our religion.

Inspired by a passage in Haim Sabbato’s The Dawning of the Day (New Milford, CT.: Toby Press, 2004), translated by Yaacob Dweck, describing how the hero Ezra buys an extra pair of tephillin when he learns about the dispute between Rashi and Rabbenu Tam (Jacob ben Meir Tam of Champagne, 1100–1171) regarding the correct order of the texts in them, and is chided for doing so because in the opinion of some people only the most pious people should wear two pairs. “According to the law, a simple man is not worthy to put on Rabbenu Tam tefillin, only a man who has repaired the sins of his youth and is celebrated for his piety can wear them.”  (pp. 49–57) (cf. Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 34:3).

In “A Tale of Two Totafot: On the mysterious and much debated origins of a seminal biblical term,” Tablet, 1/6/22, Stanley Dubinsky and Hesh Epstein discuss the origin of the word טֹטָפוֹת  totafot (or totaphot) in Deut. 6:8:

We are thus left with a way of understanding totafot as an ordinary word, as the Ramban would have it, neither borrowed from Egyptian, Coptic, or Phrygian, nor connected to other cultures’ magic rituals for dispelling evil. And rather than involving some mysterious allusion to the construction of the head tefillin, its meaning is a straightforward metaphor reminding us how important it is to keep the teachings close to us and foremost in our minds.

Rashi writes on Deut. 6:8:

והיו לטטפת בין עיניך. אֵלּוּ תְּפִלִּין שֶׁבָּרֹאשׁ, וְעַל שֵׁם מִנְיַן פָּרָשִׁיּוֹתֵיהֶם נִקְרְאוּ טֹטָפוֹת, טט בְּכַתְפִּי שְׁתַּיִם פת בְּאַפְרִיקֵי שְׁתַּיִם (סנהדרין ד’):
לטטפות בין עיניך AND THEY SHALL BE FOR FRONTLETS BETWEEN THINE EYES — these are the tephillin that are placed upon the head. It is in reference to the number of the Scriptural sections contained in them that they are termed טטפת, for טט denotes “two” in Katpi (viz. Coptic), and פת in Afriki denotes “two” (Sanhedrin 4b).

About the Author
Gershon Hepner is a poet who has written over 25,000 poems on subjects ranging from music to literature, politics to Torah. He grew up in England and moved to Los Angeles in 1976. Using his varied interests and experiences, he has authored dozens of papers in medical and academic journals, and authored "Legal Friction: Law, Narrative, and Identity Politics in Biblical Israel." He can be reached at
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