Tefillin on the Left?


By Rabbi Moshe Meir Weiss

The posuk teaches us, “Vahoya l’os al yod’cha – Tefillin should be a sign upon your hand.”  The Gemora expounds the word yod’cha to be a composite of yad keiha, upon your weaker hand, and it is from here that we learn the Halacha that one who is right handed should put his tefillin upon his left hand.  This law prompts the immediate question, Why don’t we put our tefillin on our right hand?  We are always careful to do mitzvahs with the right hand!  It is related (cf. ArtScroll Biography of Reb Yakov Kamenetsky) that when Reb Yakov was in the hospital, a nurse saw him struggling with his right hand to pick up a cup of water.  She questioned him, “Rabbi, you have many tubes running into your right hand while your left hand is unencumbered.  Why don’t you hold the cup in your left hand?”  He patiently explained to her that he was making a blessing on the water and therefore, in honor of the blessing, he was holding the cup in his right hand.

So, too, when making havdalah, we grasp the wine goblet in our right hand but, when we say the blessing on the besomim, the fragrant spices, we switch the cup to our left hand and grasp the besomim in our right hand.  Likewise, when we make the brachah on the lulav and esrog, we hold the lulav in our right hand and the esrog in the left.  This is because the lulav has more prestige because it contains three mitzvos, the lulav, the hadas, and the arovah, while the esrog is only one.  Furthermore, the lulav is taller and it is the lulav that is mentioned by name in the blessing.  If you remember your zaidy giving you a coin to give to tzedakah, charity, you might remember him instruction you, “Geb mit da rechte hant – Give it with your right hand.”  And finally, we are always instructing our children to give shalom aleichem with their right hand (which sometimes means a shift of the lollipop, momentarily, to the left hand).

So, how come we put the tefillin, which the Rosh says is the single most important mitzvas asei, positive command, (cf. Be’er Heitiv, Hilchos Tefillin) upon the left hand?

The Chizkuni gives several answers.  The first answer he offers is that the mitzvah is actually, “Uk’shartom l’os al yodecha – To TIE the tefillin as a sign upon your hand,” and as such we put it on the left so that we can tie with the right hand.  He then offers a second suggestion: that since we do most of our daily activities with our right hand, the right hand finds itself in all kinds of unclean places.  Since tefillin contain many of Hashem’s holy Names, it is safer to put it upon the left hand which is more often the cleaner one.  The most common answer to this difficulty is that since the hand tefillin is supposed to be opposite the heart, to bind our emotions to Hashem, we therefore put it on the left hand since anatomically the heart is on the left side of the chest.  So, therefore, when reflecting upon why we put our tefillin on our left hand, we should contemplate the aim of the tefillin which is to remind us that our hearts should be suffused with Torah emotions such as love for our fellow human beings, the special love for the righteous convert, the love of Hashem, the love for our spouse, and the fulfillment of “Lo sisna es achicha bilvovecha – Do not carry in our hearts hatred for any or our brethren.”

The Ohr HaChaim HaKodesh offers a novel answer to our question.  He says that one of the primary purposes of tefillin is to remind us of the great miracle of the Exodus.  At the time of the exodus, Hashem’s ‘hand’ caused destruction and devastation upon the Egyptians.  This is midas hadin, the attribute of Hashem’s strict justice.  The manifestation of Divine retribution is depicted by the left hand, while Hashem’s chesed and rachamim, mercy and kindness, is symbolized by the right hand. Since at the time of Yetzias Mitzrayim it was the attribute of retribution that was paramount, we therefore remember it by putting tefillin on the left hand.  This is similar to the famous Talmudic dictum about proper chinuch, education.  “L’olam y’hei smol doche u’yamin m’kareves – (If the need arises to discipline) it is always the left that should push, away while the right hand should draw near.”

May it be the will of Hashem that when putting on our tefillin we have these thoughts in mind and in that merit may Hashem bless us with long life, good health, and everything wonderful.

Sheldon Zeitlin takes dictation of, and edits, Rabbi Weiss’s articles.

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