Monday, January 14, 2013

TOTAFOT Explained!

Parashat Bo
Exodus 10:1 - 13:16
8 Shevat 5773 / Jan. 18 - 19, 2013

TOTAFOT Explained! 
by Zvi Bellin, MHHQ

You might be familiar with the word TEFILIN – the black boxes attached to leather straps that are traditionally bound to one’s arm and forehead during morning prayer, Sunday through Friday. (Here is a photo of Barbie rocking her tefilin: In the past though, men wore tefilin throughout the day, taking them off only in the evening. There are still some people that maintain this practice as a way to keep a constant reminder that God is present. 

You will not find the word tefilin in the Torah, rather we have two words that are used. The first is the word OT (אות), this translates to sign or symbol. As in, “a sign upon your hand.” The second word, which is more baffling, is the word TOTAFOT (טוטפות). It has no direct or easy translation into modern Hebrew. Yet it appears at the very end of this week’s Torah portion (13:16):

“These words shall be a sign on your hand and for TOTAFOT between your eyes, for with a strong hand YHVH brought us out of Egypt.”

We see from this verse that the TOTAFOT refers specifically to the part of the tefilin that goes on one’s forehead. Rashi, the most well-known Torah commentator, teaches that the word TOTAFOT is actually a contraction of two words that come from two different ancient languages.

“Since they consist of four compartments they are called TOTAFOT. TAT in the Kathphi language is two, PAT in the Afriki language is two.”

Now indeed, the head tefilin we have today are comprised of four separate compartments, each containing a single scroll with the words of one short section of Torah that talks about tefilin and the exodus from Egypt. (Learn more at:
It is amazing to me and also a good reminder that sometimes we have to look outside of our own culture in order to understand ourselves. Languages generally develop in a chain and biblical Hebrew has its roots in other languages that we often do not think about.

In this week’s portion Moshe refuses to leave Egypt without every man, woman, child, goat, and sheep that was part of the Israelite family. The reason being is that every single being has a role to play in the great festival that the Israelites want to celebrate in the desert. When I read about the meaning of the word TOTAFOT, I get a sense that our religion should not be seen as existing in a vacuum either. Every culture has a purpose and is part of LIFE which is the ultimate Divine celebration.

Rashi goes on to record that the word TOTAFOT also has Hebrew roots related to an obscure word that is translated as speaking. He concludes his interpretation by stating that whoever sees the TOTAFOT on someone else’s forehead will remember the great miracles of the Exodus and will speak about it.
How often do we notice something miraculous occur and then overlook it or write it off as nothing special at all! An airplane flies overhead. A colony of ants invades our cupboard. A baby laughs. Just because something can be scientifically explained does not make it less awesome and wonderful! In our world today, where many of us do not see TOTAFOT, and if we do, we do not generally associate it with anything miraculous, let’s tune in to the many signs and wonders all around us within our own culture and in the other cultures  that we encounter daily. There are moment to moment miracles that occur in the four compartments of human experience – body, mind, heart, soul. Let us learn that when we come across something that reminds us of the amazement of life that we should share it with others in order to spread the wonder of being alive. 


Post a Comment