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Judaica in Art – the shape of tefillin and its meaning

tefillin boxes and straps

One of the reasons I enjoy drawing and painting tefillin is because the form of tefillin is a cube, which is easily rendered on a two-dimensional surface. Despite its simple design, its shape and color have profound meaning. There’s a commandment in the Torah to place tefillin on the arm and head, but doesn’t give a description of what tefillin looks like. The Talmud elaborates by describing tefillin as square black leather boxes with black leather straps. Indeed, the form of tefillin remains consistent throughout Jewish history.

Tefillin 2, watercolor, © Rhonda Roth, All Rights Reserved

Why Are Tefillin Square?

hebrew letter final mem
The Hebrew letter mem

 Rabbi Yehuda Shurpin looks into the Zohar for an explanation. The Zohar, a Kabbaistic text commenting on spiritual side of the Torah, teaches that the reason tefillin are square comes from the verse: ‘And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them…’ (Exodus 25:8) The last letter in the Hebrew word for ‘among them’ is a mem which has a square shape. Rabbi Shurpin states ‘the closed square mem represents the four sides, or directions, of the world and the square shape of the Holy Temple…’

Why Are Tefillin Black?

The color black, unlike other colors, absorbs all light. Judaism teaches that, in reality, G-d is the only existing entity. Black thus expresses the unity of G-d.

The Meaning of the Letter Shin on Tefillin

tefillin shin
Hebrew letter shin with three crowns
tefillin shin
Hebrew letter shin with four crowns

Two Hebrew letters appear on tefillin, a shin with three crowns and a shin with four crowns. There are several explanations given for the two different shins. One explanation is that the combined four crowns total seven, representing the seven branches of the Menorah in the Holy Temple. Other reasons include: Three crowns correspond to the three patriarchs and the four crowns correspond to the four matriarchs, the letter shin is a part of G-d’s name, the shin alludes to the number of commandments in the Torah. There are other reasons as well, too lengthy to go into here. For further reading see Rabbi Shurpin’s article Why the Four-Headed Shin on Tefillin.

Other Articles About Judaica in Art

Judaica in Art – the Netilat Yadayim Hand Washing Cup


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