Why No Tefillin?

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tefillinHere’s a question for you: Why don’t men wear tefillin all day long? The mitzvah is not just during morning services; it is throughout the day (cf. Tur, Orach Chaim 37). So why don’t we wear them all day?

The answer to this question is historical. It used to be that men wore tefillin all day, certainly in the times of the Mishnah and Gemara. But at some point the custom was changed to wearing them only during morning services. The good news is that we know exactly when that happened.

There is textual evidence that already in Talmudic times there were many people who did not wear tefillin. The Gemara (Shabbos 130a) quotes R. Shimon ben Elazar as saying: “Every mitzvah for which the Jews submitted to death at the time of the royal decree, e.g. idolatry and circumcision, is still held firmly in their minds. However, every mitzvah for which the Jews did not submit to death at the time of the royal decree, e.g. tefillin, is still weak in their hands.” In other words, granted they could not wear tefillin at a time of a royal decree not to wear it. However, even after the decree was rescinded the mitzvah was still “weak in their hands.” The Gemara (Rosh Hashanah 13a) specifically condemns those who never wear tefillin.

This laxity by many on wearing tefillin continued into the Middle Ages. Tosafos (Shabbos 49a sv. ke-Elisha) write that one should not be surprised that at that time people were lax in tefillin, since they were in the times of the Talmud also. This is attested to in many other places, and in the times of the Geonim there are even implications that almost no one in the land of Israel wore tefillin. The Beis Yosef (Even Ha-Ezer 65) quotes the Kol Bo who suggests that in some communities ashes are not placed on a groom’s forehead because the community members do not wear tefillin. There was even a responsum by R. Sherira Gaon, copied in many medieval works on halakhah, answering a question about whether it is yuhara (haughty) for a yeshiva student to wear tefillin when no one else does.

It seems that in order to defend this practice, some rishonim utilized the idea that one who wears tefillin needs a “guf naki – clean body”. The Shibbolei Ha-Leket (Buber ed., p. 382) quotes one view that “guf naki” means that a person is clean of sins. In other words, only someone without any sins is allowed to wear tefillin. This view can be found in other rishonim that explicitly dispute it. For example, the Sefer Ha-Chinukh (no. 421) states that “guf naki” does not refer to someone who has no sins or impurity, implying that someone else had suggested that it did. The author explicitly condemns those who are strict on the holiness of this mitzvah and thereby deprive the masses of the mitzvah. Rather, “guf naki” refers to the ability to refrain from passing gas and thinking improper thoughts while wearing the tefillin.

R. Moshe of Coucy (Semag, mitzvos aseh no. 3) tells of how he would travel around thirteenth-century Europe, preaching to people that they should wear tefillin during the morning prayers. Even if they cannot control themselves all day, people can certainly maintain a guf naki for the prayer services (that is the view of Tosafos [Pesachim 113b sv. ve-ein]; Rosh [Hilkhos Tefillin, no. 28 and Beis Yosef [Orach Chaim 37]; footnote 8 in the Schlesinger edition of Semag assumes the Semag agrees). Evidently, this practice of wearing tefillin only during morning prayer services took hold and the prior practice of widespread abandonment of the mitzvah slowly turned into minimal performance of it during the morning prayers.

However, someone who cannot control himself and cannot maintain a guf naki may not wear tefillin. Despite the biblical obligation, someone in a definite situation such as that should not wear tefillin at all (Shulchan Arukh, Orach Chaim 38:1). For this reason, the Arukh Ha-Shulchan (Orach Chaim 38:6) rules that those who are not obligated in the mitzvah of tefillin — such as women — should never place themselves in even a doubtful position of not maintaining a guf naki. For centuries, men who were obligated to wear tefillin refrained from doing so because of a concern for guf naki and, even today, we only wear tefillin for a minimal time. And even then, if we are certain that we cannot maintain a guf naki we do not wear tefillin. Women, who are not obligated to wear tefillin, should recognize the sensitivity surrounding this mitzvah and not place themselves in the position of even possibly lacking a guf naki while wearing tefillin without any obligation to do so. (This is without considering other issues, such as deviating from the standard custom and confirming heretics.)

(Resposted from here: link)

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazineand the Board of OU Press. He has published four English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.


  1. The rationale to disallow a woman from wearing tefillin stated here is that someone is not allowed to peform a non-obligatory action if there is a chance/possibility that it will result in a violation of Halacha. But we have many situations where this principle is not applied. If we were to follow this principle uniformly, we would not allow someone to be a nazir or to take any sort of neder that might be broken. We would not allow anyone into a beit kenesset unless it was for making a minyan for davening for fear of violating kedushat beit ha-kenesset. and women certainly wouldn’t be allowed in a beit ha’knesset. For those who hold that the obligation of minyan is only on the community and not on the individual, only 10 people would be allowed in shul so as to have a minyan. This obviously sounds very ridiculous becuse it is ridiculous.
    I am not denigrating the issue of guf naki- it is important. But it doesn’t make logical sense to make these sorts of pronouncements and then have them apply only to women in a certain situation. It is very similar to saying that women should not have a tefilla group because of b’rov am hadrat Melech, and then turning around and allowing cholent minyanim, learning minyanim, and every other type of breakaway minyan under the sun. Halcha demands at least some consistency.

  2. Noam:
    Regarding allowing cholent minyanim, I’m guessing most pulpit rabbis accept that they can’t ban them, but would prefer to do so. As avi mori vrabbi zll’hh would say- 2 wrongs make 2 wrongs

  3. Which is it:
    (1) “It seems that in order to defend this practice, some rishonim utilized the idea that one who wears tefillin needs a “guf naki – clean body”. ”
    (2) “For centuries, men who were obligated to wear tefillin refrained from doing so because of a concern for guf naki.”

    Also, is it common practice for men with physiologicl difficulty re: passing gas not to put on tefillin (eg, some elderly, people with certain bowel diseases). I have never seen or heard of this (in fact, as I noted, I have instead seen leniencies re: allowing infirm men to put on tefillin), but could be.

    • Emma: The second quote might need some tweaking. For centuries people refrained from wearing tefillin out of a fear of violating the rules of guf naki, taking the laws too far.

      I’m not sure the case you mentioned is problematic. It might help refamiliarizing yourself with the laws of tefillin. For example, there is a siman in Shulchan Arukh (OC 43) about which types of bathrooms a man may enter while wearing tefillin and when he may urinate while wearing tefillin. Not everything is automatically not guf naki. Like everything in halakhah, there are definitions and boundaries which sometimes seem counterintuitive without the proper context. (And all of this predates feminism.)

    • “Also, is it common practice for men with physiologicl difficulty re: passing gas not to put on tefillin (eg, some elderly, people with certain bowel diseases).”

      I have heard of people being told not to put on tefillin when they have particular stomache problems. Usually temporary.

  4. “Emma: The second quote might need some tweaking. For centuries people refrained from wearing tefillin out of a fear of violating the rules of guf naki, taking the laws too far.”

    I don’t think this solves my issue. The first quote implies that people stopped wearing tefilling for whatever reason (probably a “Weakness”) and rabbis came up with a limmud zechus not to have to regard them all as sinners. I don’t understand such limmudei zechus to be actual historical statements as to the reasons the practices being justified actually developed, and it sounds from your phraseology like you don’t either. Yet by the end, you are talking as if the actual motive of the generations in which tefillin fell out of favor was guf naki (whether properly or improperly understood). This is the inconsistency, and your rephrasing does not solve it in my view.

    • No, I must be writing very unclearly. People did not put on tefillin for many years. Some rabbis suggested that this was because of guf naki but most disagreed that this was sufficient justification and instead insisted that people put on tefillin at least a little each day.
      I am assuming that the guf naki concerns were real. Otherwise the suggestion to wear it only a little would not have been necessary. Also, I do not believe that rabbis just make up explanations entirely divorced from reality.

      • Even assuming that the suggestion that the previous laxity was due to (overzealous application of) guf naki had some basis in fact, I still see a difference between such a suggestion, motivated primarily by after-the-fact reasoning, and being able to confidently assert that guf naki was in fact the motive of ordinary folk.

      • But my bigger issue is this: Let’s say that we understand how this guf naki issue entered the halachic discourse and why it became such a big deal and how it is applied to women. That can all make sense in a self-contained way. But it does not seem to comport with the way we deal with the possibility of messing up other optional mitzvot, by women or men. Which is part of what makes me feel like it is an ex-post rationale that has taken on a life of its own in somewhat difficult-to-understand ways.

        • I fully agree. You have to look at things in the wider context and not just on this single issue. Even if I am entirely correct, why bother making a big deal about it? We look the other way on so many things, why not this?

          But in the same way, you have to look at the broader context on the feminist side. This isn’t about a single issue. This is a revolution in women’s roles in Judaism and the synagogue. And I have made it abundantly clear here that I am profoundly uncomfortable with this revolution and all its implications. Tefillin is an easy item to criticize on a technical level but I believe the entire activity deserves criticism.

          • I find it rather frustrating that the discourse is so centered on the technical halachah, then. Especially in this case where it so easily shades into being (mis)understood as “women are dirty” and derailing the whole conversation. Wouldn’t it be better to actually talk about the “broader context of the feminist side” and explain why either (1) for some deeper, values-based reason, women should not wear tefillin, or (2) why even though one can imagine permitting women to wear tefillin, this is a place to draw a line in the sand because of social consequences (and spelling out how those consequences are expected to work).
            Also rather frustrating that, from what I observe, there is a real problem of tefillah in MO circles (could be all O circles but i don’t observe the others so much) – kids don’t want to daven and don’t daven at all when they are not being forced to by schools (including on shabbat, as most parents seem not to want to do any forcing). It seems like a waste to spend so much time talking about tefillah in high school without even reaching the real problem.

            • The point of this essay was discussion of the technical issues. We have discussed the broader issues elsewhere and will probably continue to do so in the future.

  5. Joel: If they really thought it was assur, one would hope that they would say it was assur. They may think it isn’t a good idea or be opposed to it, but that is different than saying it is forbidden.

    A brief look at Tefillin related halachot in Nishmat Avraham and the Encyclopedia of Jewish Medical Ethics leaves me wondering what the exact definition of guf naki is. Nishmat Avraham concentrates on avoiding flatulence while wearing tefillin. R. Steinberg brings sources that someone with intestinal troubles is exempt from putting on tefillin. Someone with a colostomy can put on tefillin if the opening is cleaned, washed, covered and there is no odor. So it appears that the issue is flatulence and stool. I am not sure how women are more at risk than men.

    On another note, the Nishmat Avraham discusses blind, deaf/mute, reduced mental capacity and in some cases they are not obligated to put on tefillin, but they can if they want. It is not clear to me why the concern of guf naki was not applied to them.

    • Noam: I do not believe halakhah is binary — either assur or mutar. There are other classifications. A nuanced writer like R. Lichtenstein is not permitting something just because he does not use the word assur.

      As to blind, deaf/mutes, etc., doesn’t Dr. Steinberg discuss that some consider them obligated in tefillin and that is why they are allowed to put on tefillin? If so, that fully answers your question. A possible obligation overrides the concern for guf naki. Women do not have even a possible obligation. They are definitely not obligated.

    • I thought the Arukh haShulchan (38:6, already cited and paraphrased repeatedly) is clear. It is not that women are more at risk, it’s that they have less countervailing motive. Men have an asei to push them to risk wearing tefillin without a guf naqi, women do not. Quoting:

      נשים ועבדים פטורים מתפילין, מפני שהיא מצות עשה שהזמן גרמא, דשבת ויום טוב פטור מתפילין. ואם רוצין להחמיר על עצמן – מוחין בידן. ולא דמי לסוכה ולולב שפטורות ועם כל זה מברכות עליהן. דכיון דתפילין צריך זהירות יתירה מגוף נקי, כדאמרינן בשבת (מט א)…

      אך אנשים שמחויבים – בהכרח שיזהרו בהם בשעת קריאת שמע ותפילה. ולכן אין מניחין כל היום, כמו שכתבתי…

    • Noam:
      Agree – in my understanding, there are many things that are not 100% assur but varying shades of grey. (Just to note there is a competing school of thought that says everything is either required or forbidden.) As avi mori vrabbi zll”hh would often say, “just because something is permitted doesn’t mean it’s a good idea”. I think the whole guf naki thing is a red herring as R’ Gil stated above. The meta question is who will make the call for which community. I don’t know how history will paskin, but I have a greater understanding of how early observers of Chassidus and Conservative Jewry must have wondered how the scales would tip.

  6. Gil: You misunderstand. The point is this: if you think that something is definitely assur, it makes no sense to allow others to do it if you have the option of protesting. I know there is lots of grey in Halacha, but that doesn’t mean there cannot be consistency.

    I will have to go back and look at the Nishmat Avraham but I do not think that safek was stated as the rationale for allowing non-obligatory wrapping of Tefillin.

  7. Micha: Please see my first comment. I am trying to think of a situation where one is prohibited from doing an elective mitzvah due to the risk of violating an issur intrinsic to the mitzvah (I think not blowing shofar on Shabbat involves a balance of two different mitzvot and therefore is not analagous).
    The other similar situation that occurred to me is going to Har HaBayit. I am not sure how much of a mitzvah it is to go there in the absence of the beit hamikdash. Perhaps not even a mitzvah. But even so, there are those of stature who allow (and even encourage) it even with the risk of tumah. So it seems that the this blanket prohibition from doing an elective mitzvah is pretty unique. Please let me know if I am missing something.

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