Cosmic Tefillin and the Oneness of God

A while back, I came across this interesting FaceBook post[1] (in a group titled “God is the King” [HaShem hū ha-Melekh]):

gods-tefilin

The Hebrew text translates to the following:

In the parchment of our tefillin, it is written ‘hear o Israel, the LORD, our God, the LORD is one’ [Deuteronomy 6:4]. The Holy One, blessed be He, puts on tefillin every day. And what is written in His tefillin? ‘And who is like your people, Israel, one nation in the land’ [1 Chronicles 17:21].

While one could say that’s just some social media post, the line of thought expressed therein does have support in the Rabbinic corpora. So it seemed it would be fun to compose a lighthearted blog entry exploring the subject.

For a brief bit of introduction, tefillin are collections of straps and black cubes[2] which Jews wrap around themselves for prayer. Inside the cubes are passages from the Torah, including Deuteronomy 6:4. The practice is based on somewhat of a rather literal[3] interpretation of verses like Deuteronomy 6:8.

Now, the social media post at the beginning of this blog entry followed the Rabbinic corpora in declaring that God, too, puts on tefillin.[4] For example, the Zohar[5] states bluntly “the Holy One, blessed be He, puts on tefillin”. The Babylonian Talmud[6] also states that God wears tefillin, and that specifically the above mentioned verse from 1 Chronicles is found within God’s tefillin.

What is particularly fascinating, here, is the juxtaposition of Deuteronomy 6:4 and 1 Chronicles 17:21 (and specifically the word eHad [אחד] in each verse). A similar line appears in the Zohar[7], declaring “just as He [i.e. God] is one, so too Israel is one”. Getting back to the tefillin, it is interesting to think of human tefillin declaring that God is one [eHad], while God’s tefillin declares that Israel is one [eHad], as the oneness of Israel does not necessitate that Israel is therefore unipersonal.

On an interesting closing note, the previously cited text from the Talmud also quotes God as declaring the following to Israel:

7a9ibah-a7at

Translation: You have made me one unit [HaTībah aHat] in the world, as it is said ‘hear o Israel, the LORD, our God, the LORD is one,’ and I will make you one unit [HaTībah aHat] in the world, as it is said ‘and who is like your people, Israel, one nation.’[8]

__

NOTES

(1) At the time of this writing, the post can be found here (but sharing a screen shot seemed prudent, in case it later disappears): https://www.facebook.com/king613/posts/92656194586

(2) Muslims may find the cubes of interest, as there does seem to be something of an at least mild visual parallel in Muslims circumambulating the Ka`ba and Jews wrapping tefillin around their arms. In one case, the man moves around the cube, while in the other, the cube —a cube which has within it a declaration of the oneness of God, no less— moves around the man, though perhaps one could say it’s all relative to one’s frame of reference.

(3) As a disclaimer, there are rabbis who would argue that the approach to the relevant verses is neither strictly literal nor strictly allegorical. See for example Rabbi Jacob Immanuel Schochet, “G-d Centered or Machloket-Centered: Which is Normative Judaism? A Response to Rabbi Chaim Dov Keller of Chicago,” Algemeiner Journal, 27 March, 1998, p. B4.

(4) I would hope that it goes without saying that I do not assume such has to be intended literally.

(5) Cf. parshat Wayetse, para. 6, in the Sūlam, which can be seen on the second page of this PDF: http://www.ashlagbaroch.org/Zohar/Vaizea.pdf

(6) Talmūd Bavlī, tractate Berakhot 6A.

(7) Cf. parshat Shemot, para. 288, in the Sūlam, which can be found on page 92 of this PDF: http://www.ashlagbaroch.org/Zohar/shmot.pdf

(8) Technical note: the word HaTībah can mean unit, group, brigade. However, Marcus Jastrow’s entry on the word proposes that, in the case of the relevant Talmudic text, it means “object of love”. See Marcus Jastrow, Dictionary of Targumim, Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature, (New York: G.P. Putnam & Sons, 1903), p. 449.



Categories: Bible, Judaism

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4 replies

  1. Shalom Denis, glad to see you back in BT

    I can sympathize with you trying in vain to find rabbinic text for support of triune God but looking at the text in the Talmud you’v given from muslim/jewish perspective when it is written   ואני אעשה אתכם חטיבה אחת בעולם va ani e’esheh et’khem chativah achat ba olam  (I will make you  one entity [chativah] in the world) it is easy to see that it means one as group. Likewise when it is written אתם עשיתוני חטיבה אחת בעולם atem ashituni chativah achat ba olam (You made ME one entity [chativah] in the world) when referring to God it can only mean a Tawheed   a single, absolute, unqualified one. The distinction lies in the context in the exact same way the word “one” is understood in any language.

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    • Greetings Eric, and thank you for your comment.

      I must confess, I would be reluctant to describe this blog entry as “trying in vain to find rabbinic text for support of [the] triune God;” rather, the intention, here, was to share an interesting detail which might bring a bit more nuance to some discussions on the terms employed. Case in point, if an entity is described as eHad (or even as Hatībah eHat), that in itself does not necessitate that the entity is unipersonal. Personally, I don’t think that’s a controversial point, but it seems helpful to have examples on hand, as there are some out there who are unaware of this reality, and put forth arguments which lack the necessary nuance.

      Now, in your own post, you put emphasis on the the first person singular pronomial suffix, however, I would note that pronomial suffixes are essentially the same as pronouns, and thus, just as a singular pronoun need not necessitate a unipersonal ontology, neither does a singular pronomial suffix. However, of course, I’m not claiming the relevant Talmudic text was intended in a Trinitarian way, nor am I making any claims about the intentions of the author of the relevant statement/text.

      On a closing note, forgive me if this comes off as a bit trifling to argue about, but I wish to note that even the word tawHīd is not limited to the meaning “single, absolute, unqualified one”.

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      • //if an entity is described as eHad (or even as Hatībah eHat), that in itself does not necessitate that the entity is unipersonal.//

        Im afraid I still fail to recognize that  the word echad employed in classical hebrew offer some “nuance” overshadowing trinitarian god as you propose. Again the word echad in the Hebrew works in the same manner as the word “one” does in the any language. In English it can be said, “We are one jewish nation” or alternatively, “He is just one jewish boy, so the English word “one” can mean either multi- persons in one, as in the case of jewish nation, or one person alone, as in the case of jewish boy.  However this “person” is  a human “person‟, meaning a separate personality with its own will, memories, emotions and voice.  Obviously with your analogy is, if it is applied to God, that it present multiple different divine individual, thus it implies multi-gods.

         

        //On a closing note, forgive me if this comes off as a bit trifling to argue about, but I wish to note that even the word tawHīd is not limited to the meaning “single, absolute, unqualified one”.//

         

        In Islamic terminology which gave rise to and dictate Arabic language,  the word Tawheed mean only one thing that is the belief of absolute, unqualified oneness of Godship, that He alone has the right to be worshiped by His creatures.

         

        ما أنت‏؟‏  قال‏:‏ ‏”‏أنا نبي‏”

        ‏ قلت‏:‏ وما نبي ‏؟‏ قال‏:‏ ‏”‏أرسلني الله‏”

        ‏ قلت‏:‏ وبأي شئ أرسك‏؟‏  قال ‏”‏أرسلني بصلة الأرحام، وكسر الأوثان وأن يوحد الله لا يشرك به شئ‏

         

        “Who are you?” He (ﷺ) said, “I am a Prophet.”

        I asked; “What is a Prophet?” He said, “Allah has sent me (with a message)”.

        I asked, “With what has He sent you?” He said, “He sent me to strengthen the ties of kinship, to destroy idols and (to testify) that Allah is ONE and Only so nothing should be associated with Him” (Riyadus-Salihin)

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      • Greetings again, Eric

        [Please forgive the delayed reply. Between a long commute, long hours at the office, family duties, and increased church attendance and related matters this time of year, my time for posting on the internet has become extremely limited, and thus there are lots of correspondences I am unable to contribute to in a timely manner.]

        The nuance I was referring to was basically the same one you affirmed: that the word eHad has a semantic range overlapping with that of the English word “one,” such that the former can be alternately employed to refer to impersonal entities, unipersonal entities and multipersonal entities.

        I’m not saying that you disputed that point, but over the years I have met many who have, thus it for fun and helpful to have examples on hand.

        Now, as for nations and individual persons, yes, we are already in agreement that the former are multipersonal and the latter are confidently assumed to be unipersonal. But I would put the issue this way: if there is some entity, X, for which there is disagreement regarding whether it is unipersonal or multipersonal, simply pointing to the word eHad will not in itself settle the issue.

        Very quickly, I do not agree that the proposition that one God “comprises” or “encompasses” multiple Persons logically entails a proposition that there are multiple gods. I think William Lane Craig has proposed models for at least a logically coherent description of that basic proposition, though I realize, in the deeper details, from a Catholic or Orthodox perspective, Craig’s model seems potentially (perhaps even consciously) heterodox, so I would share that I have attempted to explore the subject here and here.

        Regarding the subject of tawHid, while I don’t mean this disrespectfully, I would say that some orthodox Muslims attempt to put artificial limitations on the term, but the semantic range is more expansive than some of them let on. I would submit that there is a somewhat relevant discussion on the topic here:

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