Gershon Hepner

Tefillin and the Daily Confession


on forehead he’s

been wearing every morning of the week,

together with a prayer-shawl, tongue in cheek,

and makes a killing

with tefillin,

except on Sabbath, festivals and days between,

when he appears without them on the scene,

of phylacteries disarmed,

his head and left arm both uncharmed.



The Hebrew word for them, tefillin,

recalls what Judah gave Tamar

to guarantee what she was billin’

would by him soon be paid. Jews are

accustomed when they wake to say

modeh ani,” Judah’s confession,

the first words they should say each day,

becoming, thanks to this expression,

Judeans, words affirming trust

in God, their Judge, just as did Judah,

who judging Tamar was more just

than when he, levir, leveraged, wooed her.

Modeh ani’s great rationale,

like that of the tefillin, to

provide each morning the morale

felt frumly by each faithful Jew.


In “Filling Your Phylacteries”  What’ s in a Word, 1/17/24,  Reuven Chaim Klein writes:

When Judah had given his ptil (usually translated as “wick,” but in this case generally understood as “belt”) to Tamar whom he thought was a prostitute (Gen. 38:18), some commentators explain that this ptil was none other than his tefillin, as the word ptil can be read as an anagram of tefillin (see Paneach Raza and Baal HaTurim there).

Rashi (to Gen. 30:8), in fact, connects the word tefillah with the word petil and the root PEH-TAV-LAMMED (“thread/string/cord,” “crooked/twisted,” “wrestle”). Expanding on this idea, Noam Elimelech (Elimelech Weisblum of Lizhensk) (to Num. 18:8) echoes the Tosafists in explaining that tefillin represents that which connects the Jewish People to Hashem and vice versa. Indeed, the Talmud (Brachot 6a) relates that just as the Jewish People wear tefillin whose written contents declare the Oneness of Hashem, so does Hashem wear tefillin whose contents declare the uniqueness of the Jewish People.

Gen. 38:25-26 states:

כה  הִוא מוּצֵאת, וְהִיא שָׁלְחָה אֶל-חָמִיהָ לֵאמֹר, לְאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר-אֵלֶּה לּוֹ, אָנֹכִי הָרָה; וַתֹּאמֶר, הַכֶּר-נָא–לְמִי הַחֹתֶמֶת וְהַפְּתִילִים וְהַמַּטֶּה, הָאֵלֶּה.        25 When she was brought forth, she sent to her father-in-law, saying: ‘By the man, whose these are, am I with child’; and she said: ‘Discern, I pray thee, whose are these, the signet, and the cords, and the staff.’

כו  וַיַּכֵּר יְהוּדָה, וַיֹּאמֶר צָדְקָה מִמֶּנִּי, כִּי-עַל-כֵּן לֹא-נְתַתִּיהָ, לְשֵׁלָה בְנִי; וְלֹא-יָסַף עוֹד, לְדַעְתָּהּ.            26 And Judah acknowledged them, and said: ‘She is more righteous than I; forasmuch as I gave her not to Shelah my son.’ And he knew her again no more.

This the text of the modeh ani prayer, in which the word מוֹדֶה,  give thanks, can also mean “confess,” and resonates with the name of  יְהוּדָהJudah:

מוֹדֶה אֲנִי לְפָנֶֽיךָ מֶֽלֶךְ חַי וְקַיָּם שֶׁהֶחֱזַֽרְתָּ בִּי נִשְׁמָתִי בְּחֶמְלָה, רַבָּה אֱמוּנָתֶֽךָ

I give thanks to You living and everlasting King for You have restored my soul with mercy. Great is Your faithfulness.

This poem points out the link between the p’til, the precursor of tefillin, which Judah gave to Tamar as a guarantee of payment for the levirate services he had unwittingly provided his daughter-in-law, and the fact that the first prayer Jews say every day begins with the words מודה אניI confess. Judah’s willingness to confess to Tamar, whom he had wrongly convicted for alleged sexual misconduct, declaring, while reversing, the sentence that she was more righteous than he (Gen. 38:26), is one of the reasons that Jews are called Judeans.  Recitation of modeh ani and wearing tefillin on all days that are not festivals, both connect us to God in a conceptually similar manner; they both affirm Jews’ trustworthiness in the same way that their great ancestor who provided them with their name, Judah, affirmed his.

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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