Did the Talmud Suggest G”d Has a Head? Learning to Interpret Rabbinic Legend

English320px-Talmud_setAdam Kirsch, writing in Tablet Magazine, mentions his astonishment, as he took up the daily regiment of Daf haYomi (a folio from the Babylonian Talmud every day), upon discovering some of the stranger Aggadot (rabbinic exploration of a non-legal nature, particularly legends, metaphors and exegisis). Thus, astounded at the Talmud teaching that G”d, too, has tefillin, he writes:

… the question nags: How exactly can God wear tefillin? Can we imagine God with an arm and a forehead? The rabbis apparently could, quite literally…

While noting that later commentaries dealt with his questions, Kirsch is still convinced that the Talmud tolerated or even championed views that are nowadays theologically problematic.

While Kirsch brushes upon a separate issue, on which a lot has been written, namely, whether there could exist a view in the Talmud which becomes halakhically obsolete (for example, Rabbi Hillel’s view that the Messiah had already come in the days of Kind Hezekiah), he mostly stumbles upon the nature of the entire genre of Aggaddah/Aggaddeta. So let’s ask his question the other way around. Did the Talmud really suggest that G”d puts on tefillin, and that He consequently has an arm and a head to wrap those around?

Let’s first review the text:

Babylonian Talmud 6a (translation from the Soncino Talmud)

”ר אבין בר רב אדא א”ר יצחק: מנין שהקב”ה מניח תפילין, שנאמר {ישעיה סב:ח}: נשבע ה’ בימינו ובזרוע עוזו. “בימינו” זו תורה, שנאמר{דברים לג:ב}: מימינו אש דת למו. “ובזרוע עוזו” אלו תפילין, שנאמר {תהילים כט:יא}: ה’ עוז לעמו יתן. ומנין שהתפילין עוז הם לישראל? דכתי’ {דברים כח:י}: וראו כל עמי הארץ כי שם ה’ נקרא עליך ויראו ממך, ותניא ר’ אליעזר הגדול אומר, אלו תפילין שבראש.

א”ל רב נחמן בר יצחק לרב חייא בר אבין: הני תפילין דמרי עלמא, מה כתיב בהו? א”ל {דברי הימים א יז:כא}: ומי כעמך ישראל גוי אחד בארץ. ומי משתבח קוב”ה בשבחייהו דישראל? אין, דכתיב {דברים כו:יז}: את ה’ האמרת היום (וכתיב) וה’ האמירך היום; אמר להם הקב”ה לישראל אתם עשיתוני חטיבה אחת בעולם, ואני אעשה אתכם חטיבה אחת בעולם. אתם עשיתוני חטיבה אחת בעולם, שנאמר {דברים ו:ד} שמע ישראל ה’ א־להינו ה’ אחד, ואני אעשה אתכם חטיבה אחת בעולם, שנאמר: ומי כעמך ישראל גוי אחד בארץ.

אמר ליה רב אחא בריה דרבא לרב אשי: תינח בחד ביתא, בשאר בתי מאי? א”ל: {דברים ד:ז} כי מי גוי גדול ומי גוי גדול, {דברים לג:כט} אשריך ישראל, {דברים ד:לד} או הנסה אלהים, {דברים כו:יט} ולתתך עליון. אי הכי נפישי להו טובי בתי?! אלא “כי מי גוי גדול ומי גוי גדול” דדמיין להדדי, בחד ביתא; “אשריך ישראל” “ומי כעמך ישראל” בחד ביתא; “או הנסה אלהים” בחד ביתא; “ולתתך עליון” בחד ביתא. וכולהו כתיבי באדרעיה:

R. Abin son of R. Ada in the name of R. Isaac says: How do you know that the Holy One, blessed be He, puts on tefillin? For it is said (Isaiah 62:8): The ETERNAL hath sworn by His right hand, and by the arm of His strength. ‘By His right hand’: this is the Torah; for it is said (Deuteronomy 33:2): At His right hand was a fiery law unto them. ‘And by the arm of his strength’: this is the tefillin; as it is said (Psalms 29:11): The ETERNAL will give strength unto His people. And how do you know that the tefillin are a strength to Israel? For it is written (Deuteronomy 28:10): And all the peoples of the earth shall see that the name of the ETERNAL is called upon thee, and they shall be afraid of thee, and it has been taught: R. Eliezer the Great says: This refers to the tefillin of the head.R. Nahman bar Isaac said to R. Hiyya bar Abin: What is written in the tefillin of the Master of theUniverse? — He replied to him (I Chronicles 17:21): And who is like Thy people Israel, a nation one in the earth. Does, then, the Holy One, blessed be He, sing the praises of Israel? — Yes, for it is written (Deuteronomy 26:17): Thou hast avouched the Lord this day . . . and the Lord hath avouched thee this day. The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel: You have declared me a unique entity in the world, and I shall make you a unique entity in the world. ‘You have made me a unique entity in the world’, as it is said (ibid. 6:4): Hear, O Israel, the ETERNAL our G”d-Almighty, the ETERNAL is unique. ‘And I shall make you a unique entity in the world’, as it is said: And who is like Thy people Israel, a nation one in the earth.R. Aha bar Raba said to R. Ashi: This accounts for one compartment, what about the other [three] compartments [in the tefillin]? — He replied to him: [They contain the following verses]: For what great nation is there, etc.; And what great nation is there, etc. (Deuteronomy 4:7); Happy art thou, O Israel, etc. (ibid. 33:29); Or hath God assayed, etc. (ibid. 4:34); and To make thee high above all

nations (ibid. 26:19). If so, there would be too many compartments? — Hence [you must say]: For what great nation is there, and And what great nation is there, which are similar, are in one compartment; Happy art thou, O Israel, and Who is like Thy people, in one compartment; Or hath God assayed, in one compartment; and To make thee high, in one compartment. And all these verses are written on [the tefillin of] His arm.

One could, of course, like Adam Kirsch, take this Aggaddah at face value, that indeed, there is a pair of physical tefillin up in heavens, and G”d puts them on daily. However, besides Kirsch’s theological objection that G”d has no arms and no head to attach tefillin to, there is also a simpler objection, which requires us to recognize that we asked the wrong questions and didn’t begin to understand what our Sages actually wanted to convey. You see, why would G”d don tefillin in the first place? The Torah’s commandments are our obligation to G”d. They are contingent upon people, more specifically, mostly on that subset of people called the Nation of Israel; they are not commandments upon G”d. In fact, many commandments make absolutely no sense if we thought of them as contingent upon G”d. Take the commandment to love G”d with all our heart, all our soul and all our might / all we own. As a commandment for man, they convey the obligation of absolute loyalty to G”d, even if that means giving up one’s own life or forsaking his property. Does any of that makes sense in terms of G”d, Who cannot give up His life, so to speak, and Who cannot be coerced into becoming disloyal, especially not to Himself?

Thus, the first question one should be aroused to ask upon reading R’ Abin bar Ada’s teaching is actually: why would G”d put on tefillin and what does it mean that He does?!

The dominant of the two tefillin is the head tefillin. It has four distinct compartments, an in each of those is a parchment inscribed with a paragraph from the Torah. As I learned from Rabbi Prof. Sol Cohen of the University of Pensylvania at Philadelphia, a headband with a diadem (Totafot/Totefet) of four compartments is not uniquely Jewish. There is archaeological evidence for such diadems among early Semites. These were probably considered as a talisman conveying protection. That would explain R’ Eli’ezer the Great’s above cited exposition upon the verse “And all the peoples of the earth shall see that the name of the ETERNAL is called upon thee, and they shall be afraid of thee, ” that it refers to the head tefillin. How would the nations of the world understand, upon seeing Jews dressed with head tefillin, that the name of the ETERNAL is called upon thee? But if the item was known throughout antiquity, especially among semites, they could then focus on what is particular about the Jewish head tefillin.

What is unique about the Jewish head tefillin is that although it, too, conveys protection, it does not stem from any magical properties of tefillin. Rather, the tefillin’s significance lies in the texts incorporated into it. A detailed analysis of those texts should wait for a full length article, but all of them convey Israel’s obligation of loyalty to G”d; they are Israel’s sign of its covenantal obligations. Other such signs are the mezuzah, tsitsit and the circumcision. I have in the past elaborated upon the relationship between these different signs of the covenant in rabbinic midrash, in my shiur on Tehillim 12, and further develop that theme in a forthcoming article.

So, the Jewish tefillin underline the Jewish covenantal obligation to G”d, through the four particular texts contained within it. Upon seeing how that headband is different from the usual magical Semitic diadem, ancient Near Eastern man might very well have exclaimed: Hey, why is your diadem diffferent from all other diadems,” and upon learning of its nature, quickly come to recognize that “the name of the ETERNAL is called upon thee.”

The verses contained with the Divine tefillin are a mirror image of the earthly artifacts: they attest to G”d’s covenant with Israel. G”d has no obligation to don tefillin and it is absurd to assume that the Torah’s obligations simply devolve upon G”d, as well. But, as His Word, they do convey Divine values, which do find an expression in how G”d relates to man. Thus, G”d’s tefillin convey the idea that the covenant between G”d and Israel is not onesided, and G”d constantly conveys His loyalty to us, too.

Seen in this light, it is far less interesting whether G”d actually has quasi physical tefillin, than that this concept is actualized by Him. Consequently, the question of whether the Talmud implies G”d has an arm and a head to don the tefillin upon is moot, as that is not at all what the teaching is about.

Adam Kirsch also raises some other questions in his article, particularly regarding demonology in the Talmud, which deserve separate treatment, but the blogosphere had immediately hit upon those, so I leave those issues to the others who already addressed them.

5 Responses to Did the Talmud Suggest G”d Has a Head? Learning to Interpret Rabbinic Legend

  1. Lisa Liel says:

    “Rabbi Hillel’s view that the Messiah had already come in the days of Kind Hezekiah”

    “There is archaeological evidence for such diadems among early Semites.”

    Can you please provide some sources here? I’m not familiar with the former, and in terms of the latter, I’m interested in finding out where and when this evidence was from.

    • Arie Folger says:

      Regarding the former, many have written on the topic in both the Slifkin controversy and the controversy surrounding Marc Shapiro’s Limits of Orthodox Theology.

      R’ Gil Student treats the topic here: http://torahmusings.com/2010/06/was-rabbi-hillel-a-heretic-2/

      Hakira also ran an article.

      Regarding the latter, it is really not my Torah. I learned it from R’ Prof. Sol Cohen from Philladelphia. You can see an example of the evidence in André Parrot, Sumer and Akkad, though the exact page evades me. Parrot did not notice the tefillin-like accoutrement, Cohen did.

  2. Toby Katz says:

    A foolish man wrote, “How exactly can G-d wear tefillin? Can we imagine G-d with an arm and a forehead?” — a very foolish man who imagines that he is the wise man and the rabbis of old are the fools.

    You answered him very well and explained what is meant by G-d’s tefillin, basing your answer on the gemara. But I want to add my own remarks, based on a piyut that is said in many shuls every Shabbos.

    In “An’im zemiros” it says, “Dimu oscha velo kefi yeshcha, vayashavucha lefi ma’asecha” which means, “They have compared You [or described You] but not as You are, rather they described You [or allegorized You] according to Your deeds.”

    The piyut goes on to say that Hashem has often been described in physical terms, but these are all allegorical. “Vayechezu vecha zikna uvacharus” — they have visualized You in both old age and in young manhood, as a white-haired old man on the Yom Hadin and as a black-haired young man in war time, when Hashem fights our enemies for us.

    Then it says, “Pe’eiro alai ufe’eiri alav” — His splendor is on me and my splendor is on Him — referring to His tefillin that we wear and our tefillin that He wears. “Kesher tefillin her’ah le’anav” — He showed the knot of His tefillin to the humble one, i.e., to Moshe Rabbeinu. Moshe was only allowed to see the back of Hashem after He passed by but could not see His face — in reality, He could not see His back either, but saw something that looked like a figure wrapped in a tallis, and saw the tefillin knot worn at the back of the neck. What Moshe saw was not anything physical in reality, but the effects of Hashem having passed by.

    That Hashem wears tefillin expresses an idea that Hashem is tied to us with bonds of love, as we are tied to Him with love. What does a man say in the morning when he puts on tefillin? He repeats Hashem’s words to us, as written in Sefer Hoshea, “Ve’eirasteech li le’olam, I will betroth you to Me forever.” That Hashem wears tefillin indicates that He loves us and is bound to us in a relationship that can never be severed.

    Many of the phrases and words in An’im Zemiros are quoted and borrowed from Shir Hashirim, in which the relationship between the Ribono Shel Olam and Am Yisrael is allegorized as a relationship between a husband and wife who love each other and who see each other as beautiful beyond compare. The description of the “beloved man” is all physical — black hair, lips of honey, fingers of ivory with precious stones inlaid, legs of marble and so on — yet no one would imagine that this is meant to be an actual description of a physical presence! It is all allegory beginning to end, and that is exactly what An’im Zemiros says.

    In that very piyut it talks about Hashem’s tefillin, which — it could not be stated more clearly — is allegorical. “Dimu oscha velo kefi yeshcha.”

    This is not news, that physical descriptions of Hashem are meant allegorically. An’im Zemiros was written in the twelfth century, and Shir Hashirim was written by Shlomo Hamelech.

    There are people who imagine that they are oh so intellectual and sophisticated to read poetry allegorically, while the chachamim of old were childlike and unsophisticated and read poetry literally. Such people are dishonoring our ancestors and merely flattering themselves.

    I would like to add a word about poetry — about shira. In poetry it is possible to find a depth of emotion, of love and longing and yearning, that one cannot express in plain prose. A person with a poetic heart and mind will read about Hashem’s tefillin and feel that poignancy and that depth of love that Hashem has for His people and the yearning that we have for Him, especially in Elul. “Ani ledodi vedodi li.”

    A person who just thinks pragmatically — “So, exactly how /does/ Hashem put on His tefillin, and were our ancestors more or less mentally sophisticated than we are?” — is just so, so, so MISSING THE POINT! Missing the whole beauty, depth and intensity of the bond between the Ribono Shel Olam and Am Yisrael.

  3. Eliyahu Grossman says:

    I tip my kippa to Rabbi Folger for this well written response, and to Toby who also added to the conversation – very nice.

    One problem with someone just getting into Daf Yomi is that, in my experience, there is little time spent on grappling with Midrash, or even a statement the sounds silly.

    For example, in 14b the one-liner by Rabbi Abahu about “EMET” being used twice, and having a dispute by another that someone who does so is gripped by “EMET EMET” caused a little chuckle and the group moved on.

    It is unlikely that many paused to consider that Rabbi Abahu was the Rosh Yeshivah during the tme of Constantine’s rule, the first Christian Emperor, but before the Council of Nicea, meaning, a belief in a dualism existed. And when you read of Rabbi Abahu, 90% of what you read concerns the impact and debate of the “minim” during that time. Historically, the “minim” were infiltrating the shuls, and various techniques were being used to oust them. Eventually a period had to come where this mistrust of fellow members had to end, and the wrestling with “two truths” (“Hashem Elokeychem Emet” verses the statement in John 14:6 “I am…the truth”) would eventually result in one giving up one of them and moving onto the other. It was an important part of the debate.

    But in Daf Yomi, there is no time to focus on something for any period of time, so it is up to the person to have someone more knowledgable to that is willing to listen to “Ok, can you explain why…”. Sometimes those Daf Yomi groups get so caught up in getting through a page or getting ahead, that the “new guys” who jump right in are swept away by topics of “sex and poop” (as my wife calls it, as she overhears a shiur that I am listening to from my computer) or about ghosts, demons, anthropomorphisms, that cause some to just drop out because “I just don’t get it.”

    Perhaps a good introduction sould be made required reading or learning before someone just jumps in. Or maybe a focus on “the weird saying of the day” to address something that would cause many to go “Huh?”. Or a shiur on a sugya that most might gloss over to inspire some extra learning.

    To succeed at this, one needs humility (“If I don’t understand it, it’s not because it’s stupid”) and a learning partner. Learning alone isn’t going to help at all, since you are being your own teacher. Sitting in with a dozen or so other people listening to a leader trying to get through a page and a half in a half our or less isn’t going to do more than give you a glossing overview. And I think that’s the major flaw in Daf Yomi for the new guy who wants to be part of it who never studied in a Yeshivah or ever had a regular chavrutah.

    I have tried to learn with some who take everything very literally, and some who make everything into a metaphor, and then, rarely, someone who has been a good fit for me. A literalist would not be a good partner for one who would run away screaming if you told him that Yaakov Aveinu’s neck turned to stone and broke Esau’s teeth, nor visa-versa. But it is the responsibility of the one who wants to learn to keep looking for anwers and find that learning partner, which is more responsible than ranting about “how stupid is this?”

  4. I agree that “Why does God wear tefillin” really warrants the question “what does wearing tefillin mean”? And Rabbi Folger hit the main points well. I didn’t know about other cultures use of such bindings, so I found that interesting. Wearing two sets is also an interesting variant, especially those who wear both at the same time.

    As stated if you consider it to be binding one to his creator, then one could also interpret it as God binding Himself, connecting Himself, if you will, in reciprocal way. And just as seeing the head tefillin on the head of a man would inspire fear, even moreso would be that symbol on His “head” (“You cannot see my face and live” from which was said “God showed Moshed the knot (back) of His head tefillin”).

    Finally, I believe that we were less sensitive about anthopamorphisms back then than we are today.

    According to Isreal Drazin on his introduction to Onkelos: “The Rabad of Posquieres, a 12th century talmudist, in his “hasagot”, caustically castigated Maimonides, claiming that there were far greater rabbis than Maimonides who felt that God was coporeal. See Isadore Twersky, ‘Rabad of Posquieres’ (Philadelphia: JPS, 1980) 128 ff. See Also Nachmanides’ critique of Maimonides on this subject in his commentary on Genesis 46:1.”

    Personally, I can empathize with someone who reacts strongly against the use of anthropamorphic literature that was written during a period where it was an acceptable expression. I don’t do it myself, but I do respect those Ba’ali HaMidrash.

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