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By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein | Series: | Level:

A Guide to Jewish Weaponry1

No nation can if it cannot beat back external threats and internal insurrection. As the Bnei Yisrael took their first steps in physical freedom, HKBH provided them with the tools with which they could maintain national cohesion and strength. Tefillin, it turns out, is the key to all of those tools.

Three elements enable people to function as a political entity, particularly in regard to defense. They need mutual agreement to be bound by the authority of the collective – and for the chief executive to concern himself with the needs of the people. They need officers and officials to implement the decisions of the governmental and military authority. They need the weaponry with which to repel all threats.

So it is with the Jewish people.

HKBH tells us to “remember this day on which you departed from Egypt…for with a strong hand Hashem removed you from here[2].” While living among the Egyptians, we are incapable of fully absorbing Who He is to us, and how He protects us. The day we left Egypt as free men, we could benefit for the first time from the ruach ha-kodesh He made available to us. That day – that very day – HKBH made Himself known to us, and we understood that our task till the end of time would be to establish the dominion of G-d in this world. The first of the three crucial elements was in place.

For the next forty years, Klal Yisrael did not need much more than their initial sense of their relationship with Hashem, since He led them directly. Each day reinforced the relationship. This would change, however, as they entered the Land and His Presence would become more hidden. “When Hashem will bring you to the land of the Canaanites…then you shall set apart every first issue of the womb to Hashem[3].” The first-born of each family would become the spiritual elite who could bring Divine instruction closer to the people.

The second parshah of tefillin speaks of the weapons of the masses – the opportunity afforded every citizen of the Torah nation to lay claim to his own “strong hand.” In the first parshah of tefillin, Hashem linked that mitzvah to Torah study: “And it shall be for you a sign on your arm and a reminder between your eyes, so that Hashem’s Torah shall be in your mouth[4].” Torah – its deep and fervent study – always was and always will be the ultimate Sword of Israel. The mitzvah of tefillin is a tributary of the mitzvah of Torah study. It gives every Jew a way to wield that sword.

This sword is double-edged, as it were. The written Torah, according to our mesorah, consists of combinations and permutations of the different Divine Names. The head-tefillah, worn openly and proudly, showcases those Names, and thus represents Torah she-b’chsav. “Then all the peoples of the earth will see that the Name of Hashem is proclaimed upon you, and they will revere you[5].” The gemara[6] understands Torah she-b’al peh, on the other hand, to be more private and hidden by nature, and instructs that it should be taught in private, out of the public gaze. The arm-tefillah is covered up. It represents the more hidden parts of the Torah that must be ferreted out through the tools of Torah she-b’al peh to be understood.

The sword also functions in two distinct ways, which are refracted in the tefillin. These ways can be detected in the subtle differences between the first parshah of tefillin and the second. The first parshah calls the head-tefillah a zikaron/remembrance. The second terms it totafos/ornaments. Additionally, the spelling of yadchah/your arm is conventional in the first parshah, but appends the letter “heh” to it in the second.

We can easily account for these differences. The function of Torah is first and foremost to implant within us a firm understanding of some of the principals of faith: acceptance of the yoke of Heaven, and submitting our hearts and minds to Hashem’s authority. For this reason, the head-tefillah is called a zikaron in the first parshah. It reminds us of the quintessential beliefs of Judaism. (For a related reason we don the arm-tefillah before the head-tefillah: we must bend our hearts towards Him before our minds are ready to follow.)

Torah plays another role as well, as alluded to in the second parshah . It affords the Jewish people security and protection. Torah is our defense against enemies, and animates our offense when we must go out to war. While Torah scholars assume much of the burden of this role, the non-scholar participates through the wearing of tefillin.

Within this role, the two kinds of Torah take up different positions. Torah she-b’al peh is potent as it is, standing alone. It is like the sword itself, which does not need its scabbard to be effective, although it is only through that decorative case that the sword gives honor to the one who bears it. The Written Law, on the other hand, simply does not have practical effect other than in the hands of the believer in the oral law. It is like the ornamental case, which advertises the might of the warrior but is meaningless without the sword inside. The Written Law is of limited value without its connection to Torah she-b’al peh. In this vein it is called totafos/ornaments in the second parshah.

In one way, the two images of the arm-tefillah clash. If it represents subjugating our hearts as it does in the first parshah, all people should wear it on their left arm, near the heart. If, however, it represents the power of the Torah-sword as a weapon in battle, then it should be worn on the side opposite a person’s stronger arm, or the “yad keihah” hinted at by the extra “heh” in the second parshah. The left-handed person would wear his arm-tefillah on his right arm.

Indeed, the halacha allows the second parshah to dominate, and for good cause. Firstly, because the Torah uses the term totafos a total of three times, while it employs zikaron only once. Conceptually as well, the role of tefillin as depicted in the second parshah is more important, because it incorporates the function of the first. While tefillin can directly remind us of our basic articles of faith, their role as Torah weapons indirectly takes us to the same place. Understanding the pivotal place of Torah in protecting and defending us against attack leads us to subjugate our selves to the rule of Heaven. (While a soldier knows his own strength, he is relatively ineffective without the power of the throne that he represents standing behind him. Witnessing the effectiveness of Torah to ward off threats to the Jewish nation makes us aware of He Who protects it, and thus reinforces the basic terms of our relationship with Him.)

Sobered by the realization that the period of the First Temple was drawing to a close, Yoshiyahu ordered the Leviim: “Place the Holy Ark in the Temple…Then you will no longer have any carrying on your shoulder. So know serve Hashem your G-d and His people Israel[7].” Leviim had not carried the Aron in many centuries prior to his order. What could he have meant?

His directive becomcs clear when we return to our theme of Torah-as-weapon, and consider one more detail. Because of the word totafos/ornament, we have explored the role of both the sword and its ornamental case. We can deepen our understanding of their significance when we contemplate that the sword is effective in two very different ways. In times of peace, the sword is a deterrent. It reminds people of the power of authority. It need not be drawn. An old dull sword resting in a an ostentatious case strikes fear in the hearts of those who see it. The threat of using the sword hidden within is often enough to keep order. In a sense, in such times the case is more important than the sword.

On the battlefield, everything changes. The scabbard serves only to hold the sword ready to be drawn. The sword had better be sharp, and there need be many more soldiers wielding them. The masses have to be mobilized to support those soldiers.

So it is with Torah. In the relatively tranquil times of the First Temple, it was the totafos of the Written Torah that were most important. The kohanim and leviim were free to involve themselves in the study of the Written Torah, which as we said before, is nothing more than combinations of holy Names of Hashem. Those of Shevet Levi who studied this Torah grew through the kedushah of those Names, even if there sword was dull, i.e. if they were not expert in the give-and-take of Torah she-b’al peh. To absorb kedushah they had to distance themselves from the affairs and company of other men. The rest of the populace, however, was influenced by the presence of the Leviim in their community, because their kedushah was evident for all to see. “Then all the peoples of the earth will see that the Name of Hashem is proclaimed upon you, and they will revere you.”

Yoshiyahu realized that the coming destruction of the Beis ha-Mikdosh meant that Klal Yisrael would be thrown into a fierce battle which would endanger all of its values. Torah was the weapon with which to fight. New “soldiers” would have to be recruited, as well as the support of the masses. The soldiers would have to be adept in the Torah martial arts, i.e. they would need to be proficient in subtle depth learning of Torah she-b’al peh. Their swords would have to be sharp.

This is what Yoshiyahu told the Leviim. For hundreds of years you have served in quiet contemplation as “carriers” of the Shechinah. You abstracted yourselves from the masses, and devoted yourselves to extracting kedushah from the Names in the Written Law. You carried that Divine Presence in the heads that sit upon your shoulders.

No more. You need to move out among the people, recruiting more Torah soldiers by involving people in learning, and more Torah support from those who could not participate directly. You will “serve Hashem your G-d and His people Israel.” Through all this involvement in the lives of others, you will no longer be able to keep that Torah expertise as a head-trip, born upon your shoulders. You will carry it to the people, in an explosion of Torah study.

You will not “carry upon your shoulders,” but Torah will emerge as a potent weapon for all times.

1. Based on Ha’amek Davar, Shemos 13:2,3,1116 and Harchev Davar 13:16

2. Shemos 13:3

3. Shemos 13:11-12

4. Shemos 13:9

5. Devarim 28:10 as explained in Berachos 57A

6. Moed Katan 16A

7. Divrei ha-Yamim2 35:3-4