Jewish Law

“What’s the Truth about . . . Starting to Wear Tefillin?”


Misconception:1 All boys must begin putting on tefillin thirty days before their bar mitzvahs.

Fact: There are two main opinions in halachah: boys should either begin laying tefillin several years before their bar mitzvah or on the actual day of the bar mitzvah. However, in some circles, there is a widely accepted practice for boys to start wearing tefillin approximately thirty days prior to their bar mitzvah.

Background: A Jew becomes Biblically obligated in mitzvot upon reaching halachic adulthood, at age twelve for females and thirteen for males. However, there is a rabbinic obligation to educate younger children in the performance of mitzvot, according to the child’s maturity level. A Tosefta (Chagigah 1:3; cited in Sukkah 42a and Arachin 2b) specifies that a child who knows how to properly wave the lulav is obligated in the mitzvah of lulav, and if he can “wrap himself, ” he is obligated in tzitzit. Today this is the standard practice; young children are encouraged and taught to perform various mitzvot.

The Tosefta goes on to say that when a boy is of age to guard the sanctity of tefillin, his father should purchase a pair for him.2 Rashi explains this to mean when he appreciates their holiness and knows not to take them into the bathroom. Others explain the Tosefta to mean that the child knows not to sleep in them. No specific age is provided by the Tosefta for this obligation, but rather it depends on an individual’s level of maturity. It would seem to be addressing an under-bar-mitzvah-age boy, and this is indeed the understanding of the overwhelming majority of the early commentators. The Shulchan Aruch (OC 37:3) follows this opinion and rules that a minor who can follow the halachot of tefillin should be given a pair.

The notable exception among the early authorities is the Ba’al Ha’Ittur, who understands the Tosefta to be discussing a post-bar mitzvah boy. The Rema (OC 37:3) cites this position and says that such is the practice and it should not be changed, and the Gra (OC 37) finds support for this position in the mishnah on Berachot 20.3 In sixteenth-century Krakow, boys began putting on tefillin no earlier than their bar mitzvah day. The difference between tefillin (for which the Rema says to wait until the bar mitzvah) and all other mitzvot (which the Rema agrees young children should be trained in) is that regarding other mitzvot, there is little down-side. However, due to the sanctity of tefillin, if one is not obligated, he is discouraged from performing the mitzvah due to the potential for desecration.

The Bach (OC 37) was surprised at the Rema’s comment discouraging laying tefillin before a boy’s thirteenth birthday, which opposes the overwhelming majority of early authorities. The Bach, who hailed from Central Europe and lived in the early seventeenth century, says the custom he is familiar with is that even a twelve-year-old boy who can follow the halachot can wear tefillin. He says the Rema must be referring to those who cannot treat their tefillin properly, but all others should certainly wear tefillin before their bar mitzvahs.

The custom in Poland was for a minor to start wearing tefillin with just enough time before the bar mitzvah to give him practice. Thus, the Magen Avraham (37:4), cited by the Mishnah Berurah (37:12), the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (10:24 [in Hungary]) and the Shulchan Aruch Harav (37:3), say that the custom is to start two or three months early. The Biur Halachah (37: v’yesh omrim and 37: d’hai) explains that Ashkenazim actually follow the Shulchan Aruch’s conclusion that one may start when the child is ready, and that possibly the Rema’s strict ruling was due to the fact that in his time, tefillin were worn all day, unlike today.

The Aruch Hashulchan (37:4) in principle also sides with the Shulchan Aruch in understanding the primary sources, but says that the Talmudic rule of starting years early was specific to the Talmudic era, when people were more careful about kedushah. Today, however, he recommends that boys not wear tefillin too far in advance of their bar mitzvahs. Rather, the Aruch Hashulchan posits that the custom in late nineteenth-century Lithuania was to start a month before the bar mitzvah so that the bar mitzvah boy would learn to lay tefillin properly. Rav Moshe Israel records (Misgeret Zahav 10:7 on the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch) the same custom and suggests that it is based on the Talmudic dictum to begin studying the laws of Pesach thirty days prior to the holiday.

The practice among many Chassidim is to follow the Rema and begin putting on tefillin on the day of the bar mitzvah (Minhag Yisrael Torah, vol. 1, p. 126).

Historically, Sephardim followed the Shulchan Aruch and had their sons put on tefillin when they were ready. The eighteenth-century Shulchan Gavoha (37:5) records that in the city of Salonika (Thessaloniki, Greece), known for its Torah scholars, the custom was for boys to begin wearing tefillin at age eleven or twelve.4 Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yechave Da’at 2:4; Yabia Omer 6; OC:3) says that Sephardim should follow the Shulchan Aruch and start wearing tefillin whenever they are ready, about a year or two before bar mitzvah. He quotes many Sephardi posekim who rule as such, and cites Rabbi Yitzhak Palagi, the early nineteenth-century Turkish rav, who says that his esteemed father, Rav Chaim Palagi, gave him a pair of tefillin at age eleven.

The Yemenites, who follow the Rambam (Hilchot Tefillin 4:13), would often start wearing tefillin as early as age nine or ten. Nowadays, in Israel, this is usually not done, although some of the Yemenite and Sephardic leaders have encouraged their followers to maintain this tradition.5

A painful question was posed to Rabbi Ephraim Oshry (Shu”t Mima’amakim 5:10) during the Holocaust. Among a group of young boys Rav Oshry taught was a twelve-year-old who wanted to start wearing tefillin because he didn’t know if he would make it to his thirteenth birthday. Relying on the Beit Yosef and the Bach, and because the boy was serious about the halachot and was within three months of his bar mitzvah, Rav Oshry permitted it.6

A question related to the issue of when to start putting on tefillin concerns the recital of the berachah of Shehecheyanu. The Likutei Maharich (early twentieth century; 19b), citing the Teshuvot Beit HaYotzer (OC 3, 4), states that those who follow the Rema should recite Shehecheyanu when putting on tefillin for the first time on their bar mitzvah day. This berachah is usually recited over cyclically repeating mitzvot (e.g., shaking a lulav), and joyous occasions, including the purchase of a significant new item. There is a halachic discussion on whether or not the berachah should be recited on the occasion of the first performance of a mitzvah. The Rema (YD 28:2) says that the first time one slaughters an animal, he should not recite Shehecheyanu because a living being was harmed, but for the mitzvah of kisui hadam, covering the blood, Shehecheyanu should be recited. Both of these rulings would seem to indicate a requirement to recite Shehecheyanu when performing a new mitzvah. The Shach (YD 28:5) disagrees and rules7 that the blessing is only recited for cyclical mitzvot or those that involve simchah. Regarding the mitzvah of tzitzit, the Shulchan Aruch rules (OC 22:1) that one should say Shehecheyanu, not solely because of the mitzvah, but also because of the new garment.8 The Mishnah Berurah (22:2) rules that one should not recite Shehecheyanu when performing a first-time mitzvah.9

There may be an additional reason to recite Shehecheyanu prior to laying tefillin for the first time—it is a new item that brings one joy. And indeed, that is how the Rambam (Pe’er Hador 49)10 rules. However, the Kaf HaChaim (22:2), the Mishnah Berurah (22:2) and Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yabia Omer 4 OC 50:5)11 all state that one should not recite Shehecheyanu when performing the mitzvah of tefillin for the first time.

A painful question was posed to Rabbi Ephraim Oshry during the Holocaust. Among a group of young boys Rav Oshry taught was a twelve-year-old who wanted to start wearing tefillin because he didn’t know if he would make it to his thirteenth birthday.

Is the debate regarding the recitation of Shehecheyanu moot if one started to put on tefillin prior to one’s bar mitzvah? According to the Tzitz Eliezer (13:24), it is. In the course of discussing whether a newly married woman should say Shehecheyanu the first time she lights Shabbat candles, he quotes the Tvu’at Shor (28:5), which says that it is obvious that a minor who puts on tzitzit or tefillin should not say Shehecheyanu, and once he reaches thirteen, he should not recite it either because it’s not the first time he is performing the mitzvah. The Tzitz Eliezer also mentions in passing that the custom he is familiar with (Yerushalayim, mid-twentieth century) is to start putting on tefillin one, two or three months before the bar mitzvah.

Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach’s sons started laying tefillin a month before their bar mitzvahs, but he explicitly told them that he was not giving them tefillin until their bar mitzvah day (Halichot Shlomo 4:14). He would then give them tefillin as a present and instruct them to say Shehecheyanu, which covered both the laying and the acquisition of the tefillin.

The Chatam Sofer (Shu”t OC 55) disagreed with those who said that one makes a Shehecheyanu the first time one performs a mitzvah; rather, he believed, like the Peri To’ar (YD 28:4), that the berachah is recited when one does a mitzvah for the first time after becoming obligated. Thus, he believed that every bar mitzvah boy should recite Shehecheyanu upon putting on tefillin on his bar mitzvah day, irrespective of whether he wore tefillin as a minor.

It would appear that two basic streams of halachah are either to start laying tefillin years in advance of the bar mitzvah or to start on one’s thirteenth birthday.12 Many Jews today begin a month prior to the actual bar mitzvah, and this has, inter alia, simplified the debate regarding saying Shehecheyanu since in most cases, it is not recited.

As mentioned, tefillin must be treated with caution and respect due to their tremendous holiness. Indeed, it should be noted that if one treats tefillin with proper care, he will merit reward. Also, Rambam (Tefillin 4:25) says that the tefillin’s sanctity is so great that when one has tefillin on his head and arm, he is led in the path of modesty and fear of Heaven, and is not drawn toward levity and idle chatter. They protect him from bad thoughts and direct his heart toward truth and righteousness.

1. This column was written in honor of my son Menachem Binyamin’s bar mitzvah, Parashat Lech Lecha 5776.
2. This halachah is also found in the Mechilta on Shemot 13:10, following the position of Rav Yossi Haglili in Menachot 36b.
3. Also, see Encyclopedia Talmudit, vol. 9, pp. 509-511.
4. Although he also reports that he saw in Yerushalayim that the custom was not to wear tefillin until age thirteen.
5. Rav Yosef Kapach, K’tavim, vol. 1, pp. 38-46.
6. Unfortunately the boy’s foreboding came true and on 3 Nissan 5704 (March 27, 1944) he was taken with the majority of the other children in the ghetto to be murdered.
7. He was following Tosafot (Berachot 37b, s.v. “Haya” and Sukkah 46a s.v. “Ha’oseh”) who argues with Rashi (Menachot 75b s.v. “Haya omed”).
8. See the lengthy Gra on this topic, where he discusses the principles and how they apply to various mitzvot.
9. It seems that the practice is to not say Shehecheyanu for a first-time mitzvah; ba’alei teshuvah are not instructed to say it for each new mitzvah.
10. See footnote 3 in the 1984 edition by Rav David Yosef for a summary of the positions of the Rishonim regarding reciting Shehecheyanu on a first-time mitzvah.
11. Rav Eliyahu Katz suggested (Be’er Eliyahu, OC 2:53) a novel reason why he thinks Shehecheyanu should not be recited on new tefillin. He says that Shehecheyanu is not recited on leather items, as stated by the Rema (OC 223:6), and therefore, Rav Katz suggests, there is an additional reason not say it on new tefillin. Note that the Rema does not say that. Rather the Rema says some people refrain from wishing another well on a new garment [“t’ivaleh v’titchadaish” (“May you wear it out and get a new one,”)] if it is made of leather. And many authorities explicitly rule that one should recite Shehecheyanu on leather items (e.g., Peri Megadim, Mishbetzet Zahav 22:1). On this statement of the Rema, see:
12. Among those Chassidim who also wear Rabbeinu Tam tefillin, many do so only after marriage, although some start also on their bar mitzvah day (see Daniel Sperber, Minhagei Yisrael [Jerusalem, 1994], 3:62).

Rabbi Dr. Ari Z. Zivotofsky is on the faculty of the Brain Science Program at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

This article was featured in the Winter 2015 issue of Jewish Action.
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