Differentiating Distraction from Disrespect

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by R. Moshe Kurtz

Lomdus on the Parsha: Tetzaveh

Based on the Acclaimed Sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon

Q: Which is holier, the Tzitz of the High Priest or the Tefillin of the common man?

You shall make a frontlet (Tzitz) of pure gold and engrave on it the seal inscription: “Holy to God.”  Suspend it on a cord of blue, so that it may remain on the headdress; it shall remain on the front of the headdress. It shall be on Aaron’s forehead, that Aaron may take away any sin arising from the holy things that the Israelites consecrate, from any of their sacred donations; it shall be on his forehead at all times, to win acceptance for them before God. (Exodus 28:36-38)

One of the eight vestments of the High Priest was a small front-plate known as the Tzitz, which displayed the words Kodesh L’Hashem, “Holy to God,” for all to see. While this particular item was exclusive to the High Priest, in truth, every Jewish man wears Tefillin (phylacteries), which contains many inscriptions of God’s Name on the scrolls that are embedded inside. (There is also a discussion about the external letters of Shin, Daled and Yud which spell God’s Name. See Tosafos on Megillah 26b, s.v. Tashmishei Kedushah about the origin and status of the Daled and Yud which are formed by the knots.)

Both the Tzitz and Tefillin are similar in the sense that they contain the Name of God, are displayed prominently on the wearer’s head, and require a certain degree of constant awareness (avoiding distraction is called hesech hada’as). We may inquire, which of these two items possesses more sanctity? Tosafos (Yoma 8a, s.v. u’Mah) grant supremacy to the Tzitz, while the Rambam (Mishneh Torah, Tefillin 4:14) rules that Tefillin are greater. It would seem that the basis of Rambam’s ruling is strongly supported by the Talmud in Yoma (7b-8a):

And according to Rabbi Yehuda as well, isn’t it written: “Always”? That term: “Always,” [teaches that the High Priest must always be aware that the Tzitz (frontplate) is on his head, and] that he should not be distracted from it. This is in accordance with the statement of Rabba bar Rav Huna, as Rabba bar Rav Huna said: A person must touch the Tefillin (phylacteries) on his [head and on his arm] each and every hour. [This is derived by means of] an a fortiori inference from the frontplate: Just as with regard to the Tzitz , which has only one mention of God’s Name, the Torah said: “It shall be always upon his forehead,” teaching that that he should not be distracted from it, with regard to phylacteries, which have numerous mentions of God’s Name in their four passages from the Torah, all the more so one may not be distracted from them.

This passage seems to convey that the Tefillin, due to containing multiple invocations of God’s Name, is greater than the Tzitz’s single instance – and thus would certainly demand the same standard of constant concentration. However, Tosafos (ibid) challenge this reading of the Gemara: Why should we assume that Tefillin are greater than the Tzitz? Granted there are more appearances of God’s Name in the Tefillin, but the contents of those scrolls are inscrutable, while the single mention of God’s Name on the Tzitz is exposed to the public! (Tosafos instead resort to suggesting that the prohibition of becoming distracted while wearing Tefillin was only a later Rabbinical requirement.) 

While the Rambam’s ruling fits better with the standard reading of the Gemara, it is not clear how he would reckon with Tosafos’ challenge, and still maintain that Tefillin are inherently holier than the Tzitz. The Rambam’s insistence on the primacy of Tefillin is further complicated by the following Mishnah in Sotah (38a):

In the country, the priests lift their hands [so they are] aligned with their shoulders [during the benediction]. And in the Temple [they lift them] above their heads, except for the High Priest, who does not lift his hands above the frontplate. Rabbi Yehuda says: Even the High Priest lifts his hands above the frontplate, as it is stated: “And Aaron lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them” (Lev. 9:22).

The Be’er Sheva (Sotah 38a) observes that while the Mishnah forbade the High Priest from disrespecting the Tzitz by lifting his hands above it during the priestly blessing, there appears to be no parallel prohibition for raising one’s  hands above the Tefillin. He suggests that is consistent with the view of Tosafos who contend that this is because the Tzitz is holier than Tefillin and thus has stricter requirements. However, would the Rambam, who maintains that Tefillin are holier, explain why there is no stricture against lifting one’s hands above it?

R. Yitzchak Zev Soloveitchik (a.k.a The Gri”z) comes to the rescue of the Rambam on both fronts. R. Soloveitchik posits that the disagreement between Tosafos and the Rambam boils down to how they fundamentally understand the issue of becoming distracted from Tefillin. Tosafos emphasize the nature of the inscription of God’s Name while Rambam looks at the sum total of the parts. For Tosafos, one should not lose his awareness of the Name of God. Since the Name of God is infinitely sacred, the fact that Tefillin contain more Names of God is immaterial, is it would be like adding to infinity, thus presenting no qualitative advantage over the Tzitz.  Whereas, the Tzitz is regarded with extra halachic precautions since God’s Name is exposed to the public (while the Tefillin, despite incorporating multiple mentions of the Name of God, still remains hidden).

The Rambam, however, is concerned with becoming distracted from the Tefillin as a holistic unit, and thus believes that its multiple inclusions of God’s Name make it superior to the Tiztz since the Tefillin unit is just as exposed as the Tzitz. This is why Rambam is not threatened by Tosafos’ earlier rebuttal – for when it comes to the imperative to maintain one’s awareness, the Tefillin unit is a greater force to be reckoned with.

Moreover, the reason that the stricture against raising one’s hands only applies to Tzitz during the Priestly Blessing actually has nothing to do with the issue of becoming distracted from the presence of the Tzitz. Rather it is a unique law pertaining to kavod haShechinah, respect for the Divine Presence. To raise one’s hands over the exposed Name of God constitutes a flagrant affront to God’s Name, while the Names of God which are hidden within the boxes of Tefillin remain protected from perceived offense. Thus, for the Rambam, Tefillin are more severe vis-a-vis the issue of distraction, while the issue of publicly disrespecting the Divine Presence naturally relates to whether the Name of God is perceptible, thus resulting in the Tzitz being more vulnerable to such an issue.

On a practical level, this issue manifests in the case that one wishes to enter the restroom with an amulet or something else that contains the Name of God. Since it is a question of respecting the Divine Name, the Talmud (Shabbos 62a) , and subsequently the Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 282:6) rule that so long as it is covered the dignity of the Name of God remains unaffected.

R. Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin writes (Meishiv Davar 1:6) that, as we mentioned earlier, the issue of becoming distracted is not the same as concern for disrespecting the Divine Names. Rather, the issue is that absent a baseline awareness of one’s Tefillin, one has ceased to fulfill the mitzvah, which essentially renders the Tefillin spiritually impotent thereby nullifying the existence of a mitzvah (bittul aseh). How careful we must be to maximize our opportunities to fulfill God’s precious commandments and capitalize on every mitzvah moment. 

(For an alternative approach to reconciling the dual-predominance of the Tzitz and Tefillin, see Yeraim no. 399 and Toafos Re’em no. 69.)

Note: This series is not intended to dispense practical halachic conclusions. The Torah presented here is but a small extraction from the breadth of the sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon and is not affiliated with the author in any official capacity. Translations are adapted from Sefaria, Chabad.org, Mechon Mamre, and my own. Contact: [email protected] 

About Moshe Kurtz

Rabbi Moshe Kurtz is Assistant Rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, CT. He welcomes questions, feedback and speaking requests at: [email protected].

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