Shabbat Parashat Ki Tetzei| 5765
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We publicized this question two years ago. However, the problem is recurring or longlasting enough to merit periodic repetition. The answer has been re-edited.
Question: Where is the exact place to put the tefillin shel rosh? It appears that many men put them too low in front, and no one says anything!
Answer: There is nothing new under the sun. Rav Kook wrote a pamphlet called “Chevesh P’er” to strengthen the fulfillment of the mitzva of tefillin. His main complaint was that men wear the tefillin shel rosh too low (forward) on their heads and urged leaders to rectify the matter.
The gemara (Menachot 37a) learns (as opposed to the Tzedukim) that the Torah, although instructing to place the tefillin “bein einecha (between your eyes),” refers to the part of the head that can be shaved, not the forehead. Thus, the forward-most part of the tefillin may go no lower than where the roots of the hairline exit the scalp (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 27:9). If that front part does not sit directly on the head but is suspended (which is sometimes a sign that they are too low), one draws an imaginary, perpendicular line to where it would touch.
There is a machloket among Rishonim whether the upper part of the tefillin (where they are fastened) can be placed anywhere on the top of the head or only on the front half. The gemara (ibid.) talks about putting tefillin on, or up to and including, the place of a baby’s soft spot (see Beit Yosef, OC 27 and Biur Halacha on 27:9). The most stringent opinion is that the tefillin must fit in the first 4 finger-widths (or slightly more) of the head, starting from the hairline (see Kaf Hachayim 27:41). This is based on the gemara that there is room on the head to place two pairs of tefillin (Eruvin 95b), assuming a minimum of two finger-widths for tefilliin (see Mishna Berura 32:189). Poskim agree that it is more crucial that the tefillin not be even slightly too low than that they not extend too far back (Chavosh P’er, 2; Biur Halacha, ibid.).
Why do so many men put their tefillin too low or too close for comfort? When large tefillin are fastened (by the part which is furthest back) so that they feel secure on the head (which is usually when they are relatively forward), they are likely to extend beyond the end of the hairline. (While it is easier to make mehudar tefillin that are big, when they are too big, it increases the problems of improper placement.) What usually happens is that people are fitted when they get new tefillin or retzuot, expecting that they are set for life. But the retzuot stretch as they are used, and the tefillin extend further forward. Few people know how to adjust the knot to compensate and many don’t know that this is periodically necessary. Even someone who knows the halachic element, but is bald or has a receding hairline, is likely to assume that all is well and that the tefillin look low because of a receding hairline. Although we do follow the original hairline, many exaggerate how low it was and have no way of checking other than memory or comparing themselves to the younger generation. (Old pictures don’t always show the roots.).
It is important to correct people whose tefillin slip down and certainly those whose retzuot are so loose that they may not have fulfilled the mitzva in years and make a beracha l’vatala daily (see Rav Kook’s appeal). However, one must be very careful how he corrects others (see Rashi, Vayikra 19:17). It’s best if the rabbi periodically urges men to ask him to check and/or adjust. If this isn’t done, an individual may have little choice but to gently approach those who need help. For some, it pays to leave an anonymous note. (The sensitivity issue is usually more acute for older people, who are more likely to resent being approached by someone much younger.) Asking, “Do you want your kesher adjusted?” is preferable to, “Your tefillin are on wrong”). It takes little dexterity and training to do the trick, and it does not require undoing the knot.
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