"That the Torah of God May Be in Your Mouth"

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein

Sicha for Shabbat from the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion






"That the Torah of God May Be in Your Mouth"

Summarized by Josh Blaustein

Adapted by Dov Karoll



"And it [the tefillin] shall be for a sign to you on your arm, and a memorial between your eyes, so that the Torah of God may be in your mouth, for with a strong hand God took you out of Egypt." (Shemot 13:9)

This verse teaches us that wearing tefillin is meant to cause the Torah to be "in your mouth." The relation between the tefillin and this goal can be understood in two ways, depending on how we understand the word "lema'an," which can mean either "for the purpose of," or "in order to cause the result that."

How do tefillin cause the Torah of God to be "in your mouth?"

One approach is to explain this connection in a formal-legal sense. The Gemara (Shabbat 28b) learns from this verse that tefillin must be produced from material that is kosher, "from that which is permitted to your mouth."

There is another approach one can take to understanding this verse. The Gemara (Kiddushin 30a) derives a principle from the phrase we recite daily in the Shema, "ve-shinnantam le-vanekha - and you shall teach them [i.e., the words of the Torah] to your children" (Devarim 6:7), taking "ve-shinnantam" to mean "and you shall sharpen." The Gemara thus derives that the words of Torah should be "sharp" in your mouth, such that if someone asks you a question in Torah, you should be able to respond immediately. The Gemara then brings further verses to support this notion. One of these verses is particularly relevant to our context: "Bind them [i.e., the Torah and mitzvot] upon your fingers, and write them upon the table of your heart" (Mishlei 7:3).

This Gemara teaches that Torah should be on the tip of your tongue, meaning that it should be internalized in such a way that when asked something you will answer immediately, without having to look into the recesses of your memory. Torah must be an integral part of us, existentially immanent within us.

This verse, "Bind them upon your fingers," should remind us of tefillin, and in fact, the commentators connect the message of the Gemara in Kiddushin to tefillin. Ibn Ezra mentions an explanation of this verse, which takes the verse metaphorically, citing similar verses in Mishlei as examples. That opinion states that when the verse tells us to bind the tefillin to ourselves, it does not mean that we should literally bind anything around our bodies, but rather that Torah should be important to us, close to us, as if tied to us, as in the allegorical verse in Mishlei (1:9) "For they [the instruction of your father and the Torah of your mother] shall be a graceful garland for your head, and chains about your neck."

Ibn Ezra rejects this view, and defends the more literal rabbinic reading of the verse, whereby it constitutes an additional source for the mitzva of tefillin. He then adds that the Torah cannot be understood in the same metaphorical way as Mishlei. This distinction is based on the fact that the book of Mishlei opens, "The proverbs of Shlomo son of David." Mishlei states from the outset that it is meant to be a collection of proverbs, allegories and metaphors. The Torah, on the other hand, must be understood literally when possible. When the literal understanding is not feasible, then the Torah also may be understood on a metaphorical level. The example he gives for this is "Circumcise the foreskin of your heart…" (Devarim 10:16).

The Rashbam, on the other hand, cites the view Ibn Ezra rejects, saying that it accords with "a deep understanding of the literal meaning of the text." He explains that one should remember the exodus constantly, as if it were written on one's hand. The Rashbam believes that this view lends deeper meaning to the mitzva of tefillin. He does not reject the rabbinic and legal understanding of the tradition, but provides this interpretation to add spiritual significance to the mitzva.

What then is the meaning of phrases such as, "so that the Torah of God may be in your mouth"? The phrase emphasizes to us the importance of internalizing Torah, of ingesting it, of allowing it to enter not only our heads but also our kishkes, our innards.

The phrase "in their mouths" appears also in the context of the mitzva of writing a sefer Torah. The Torah states there, "Now therefore write this poem [the Torah] for yourselves, and teach it to the children of Israel, and put it in their mouths" (Devarim 32:19). However it is possible that the phrase with regard to tefillin is slightly different than the phrase with regard to sefer Torah. This phrase appears both with regard to the last mitzva in the Torah, and with regard to one of the first, both of which are related to the world of "STaM," of those passages that are written on parchment for ritual use.

There is a crucial difference between tefillin and a sefer Torah, highlighted by one of the laws governing the writing of a sefer Torah. A Torah must be written with "sirtut," that is, there must be lines engraved into the parchment before the letters are written. According to most opinions, this is not true regarding the writing of tefillin. Why? Many commentaries explain that a sefer Torah is meant for reading, and therefore there must be lines on the page to ensure a clear, readable text. Tefillin, on the other hand, do not need ever to be opened up. While it is proper to have tefillin checked if one has reason to think that some problem may have arisen, technically tefillin need not be opened. This stands in contrast even to mezuza, regarding which the Halakha states that it is to be checked twice every seven years.

Based on this, one can explain that tefillin represent Torah as accepted unconditionally. We need not read it, check it, or look at it. It is accepted simply because it is God's Torah. A sefer Torah, on the other hand, is for reading, for learning, for understanding, using textual and logical analysis. That is not to say that we are to criticize or contradict the Torah and its content, but rather we are to employ our minds and use the analytical tools available to us to properly understand its content.


We first put on tefillin, accept the Torah as God's Word, unchanging and unchanged by us. Once we have attained this acceptance, we are ready to read from the sefer Torah, to study it intensely, aiming to clarify its concepts, to explain them, and to analyze them, making these divine concepts our own as well. Through this process, we can say that the Torah of God has come to our mouths, and has been put in our mouths.

(This sicha was originally delivered on leil Shabbat Parashat Bo, 5762 [2002].)

(c) Yeshivat Har Etzion 1999. All rights reserved to Yeshivat Har Etzion.

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