Tefillin are the black boxes attached with leather straps that Jewish men wear for morning weekday prayers. The boxes contain four crucial passages from the Torah (Exodus 13. 1-10, 11-16; and Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21) that mandate awareness of God.
Each box is called a tefillah, identical to the word for prayer, which is the activity during which we wear tefillin. The root of the word for prayer is pilel, meaning to intercede, or judge. The verb “to pray” l’hitapalel, means to judge oneself.
Tefillin are usually translated into English as “phylacteries.” Anyone who has ever responded to the question of gawking onlookers on early morning trains or planes “what are those?” with the helpful answer “they are my phylacteries”, knows that it isn’t a very informative translation. In fact it’s a mistranslation.
Phylactery comes from a Greek term used in the Christian gospels (Matthew 22:3) phulaktrion, meaning guards’s post or safeguard, implying that tefillin are about protection. There is nothing in the Torah to suggest this. Rather, the tefillin are meant to induce consciousness of God.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe instituted a tefillin campaign in 1967 which continues today. When asked in the early days of computers where the computer was to be found in the Torah, he famously replied “tefillin”. The rebbe explained that, just as the essence of computers was connectivity, so the essential purpose of tefillin is to connect heart, hand and brain at the start of each day in the unified purpose of serving God.