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Rabbeinu Tam Tefillin

I had recently brought in my Tefillin to be checked. For those few days that I didn’t have them, I wore an old pair in the house which used to be my grandfather’s. They are Rabbeinu Tam Tefillin. Afterwards, someone told me that one shouldn’t wear Rabbeinu Tam Tefillin unless he has that custom. Was it okay to wear them – during that time when I had nothing else to wear?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Let me first explain some of the background to your question before I answer it. There are two basic types of Tefillin. The standard, worn universally, is known as Rashi Tefillin. The alternative, worn primarily by Sephardic and Hassidic Jews and only in addition to Rashi Tefillin, is known as Rabbeinu Tam Tefillin.

Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam are names of medieval scholars. Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (1040-1105) of Troyes, France, was the of the great early Ashkenazi authorities in Jewish law. His commentary on the Torah and Talmud are considered absolute classics, studied to this day by beginners and scholars alike. Rabbeinu Tam (Rabbi Yaakov ben Meir, 1100-1171), also of France, was Rashi’s grandson and one of the primary authors of the “Tosafot” commentary on the Talmud.

Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam had a basic debate regarding how the Tefillin are made. Both the arm and head Tefillin consist primarily of leather boxes containing parchment within them. (See here for a much more detailed discussion.) The parchments have four sections of the Torah written on them – Exodus 13:1-10, Exodus 13:11-16, Deut. 6:4-9, and Deut. 11:13-21. They are rolled up and placed in the Tefillin. Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam had a basic debate as to the order in which the sections are written on the parchment. (It’s interesting to note that Tefillin have been found in the Qumran caves (the primary location of the Dead Sea Scrolls; they are estimated to be from the 1st century C.E.), and both Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam Tefillin have been found. Thus, this debate is an ancient one.)

In terms of practical law, we consider Rashi Tefillin to be the correct ones. Thus, the Tefillin Jews wears daily are Rashi Tefillin. Nevertheless, throughout the ages, meticulous individuals have been known to additionally wear Rabbeinu Tam Tefillin – just in case that is the proper practice. They are put on at the conclusion of morning prayers, without reciting the blessings, and then the first two paragraphs of the Shema are said. (Some also say Exodus 13:1-16, the other two paragraphs written on the Tefillin parchments.)

Early authorities state that one should not wear Rabbeinu Tam Tefillin unless he is generally known to be pious and careful in all his actions. Otherwise, doing so would be considered a pompous display of piety. However, the practice is widespread among Sephardic Jews and Hassidim, more often from the age of marriage but sometimes from the age of Bar Mitzvah. Thus, doing so is no longer considered pretentious. Even so, in non-Hassidic Ashkenazi circles it is generally not done at all, even by great rabbis. Thus, if a person lives in a homogenous community where the custom does not exist, if he does want to wear Rabbeinu Tam Tefillin, he should do so in private.

Getting back to your case, since wearing Rabbeinu Tam Tefillin is not the accepted practice but is only done as an act of piety, it cannot be done in place of Rashi Tefillin. If in the future you find yourself without your Rashi Tefillin, you should borrow a pair from a friend.

Sources: Shulchan Aruch O.C. 34:1-3, Be’er Haitev 34:6, Sha’arei Teshuvah 34:6, Aruch HaShulchan 34:5, Minchat Yitzchak VI 7.

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