Shabbat Parashat Toldot| 5764
Ask the Rabbi
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 “Chavosh P’er” to strengthen the fulfillment of the mitzva of tefillin. His main complaint was that men wear the tefillin shel rosh too low on their heads, and urged community leaders to rectify the matter.
The lowest part of the tefillin may go no lower than where the roots of the hairline grow from (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 27:9). If the front is suspended, one draws an imaginary line to where it would touch. The gemara (Menachot 37a) learns (as opposed to the Tzedukim) that the Torah, although instructing “bein einecha,” refers to the part of the head that can be shaved, not the forehead.
There is a machloket 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 not to be where it is arguably too high (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 their higher part) so that they feel secure on the head, the bottom will be quite low. (While it is easier to make big tefillin that are mehudar, ones that are too big can cause 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 over time and the tefillin get lower. Few people know how to adjust the knot to compensate and many don’t know that this is periodically necessary. They assume all is well and that the tefillin look low because of a receding hairline. (We do follow the original hairline, but many exaggerate how low it was).
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. One can ask others if they want their kesher adjusted (preferable to, “Your tefillin are on wrong”). It takes little dexterity to do the trick. One loosens and slides and doesn’t undo the knot.
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