Menachot 37 – Must an Amputee Wear Tfillin?

Today’s daf – Menachot 37a – addressed the question of whether a person with an amputated arm needs to wear tfillin.  The general focus of the Gemara in this sugya is on the arm upon which the tfillin are put, so presumably here as well we are referring to a case where the “tfillin arm has been amputated, which would be the left arm for righties and the right are for lefties.   We must also assume that some of the arm is still present, or else it is meaningless to talk about an obligation to put on tfillin on that arm.

The Gemara quotes two braitot with conflicting rulings whether such a person is obligated in tfillin or not, and does not give a final ruling.  The Shulkhan Arukh proper does not discuss this case, but Rema does:

גידם שאין לו יד רק זרוע יניח  בלא ברכה (תוספות פרק הקומץ כתבו דגידם חייב ובא”ז כתב דפטור)

An amputee who does not have a lower arm, but only the upper arm, should put on tfillin without a brakha (Tosafot writes that an amputee is obligated and Or Zarau writes that he is exempt).

Shulkhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim 27:1 —  שו”ע או”ח כז:א

So the debate of Tanaim becomes a debate in the Rishonim, with Rema ruling a compromise position – put on tfillin without a brakha.  Note also that Rema states explicitly that the person still has his upper-arm, and thus it is physically possible to put on the tfillin.  Those who say that he is nevertheless exempt would state that although there is a place to put the tfillin on, it can no longer be considered an “arm,” and thus there is no “arm” upon which to put the tfillin.  

Mishne Brurah, in his Beur Halakha, narrows the halakhic category of an “amputee” as it pertains to this case.  He states that according to the recently published manuscript of the Or Zarua, it is clear that if some of the forearm still remains, even the Or Zarua would agree that a person is obligated to wear tfillin, and in such a case all would agree that he would put on tfillin with a brakha.  He also records the position of the Vilna Gaon and many other Achronim that if a person has his upper arm, he would wear tfillin with a brakha.

What is completely rejected as a possibility – implicitly and at times explicitly – is that such a person should put tfillin on his good, right arm.  The requirement that it be placed on the left arm (for righties), does not change just because the person has only one arm.  Thus, if the person’s entire arm was amputated and the tfillin could not be placed on the left arm, the person would be considered an ones, one who cannot perform an obligation due to uncontrollable circumstances, and would be exempt from the mitzvah.

There are, however, to other related cases which are worth exploring.  When I was growing up, there was a post-bar mitzvah boy whose arms were paralyzed.  People in the community helped him put on tfillin every day, binding them for him on his left arm while he was unable to bind them himself, and even to do the small shifting of his left arm which is a very important, yet often overlooked, part of the physical activity of putting on tfillin.

What is the halakha in such a case?  Is this person obligated to put on tfillin if he can’t do so himself?  Does the fact that his left arm is paralyzed exempt him from the mitzvah?  These two questions are addressed, respectively, by the Mishna Brurah and Rav Moshe Feinstein.  Here’s what the Mishne Brurah says about a person who cannot bind his own tfillin:

וכ”ז שנעשה גידם בשמאל דהוא מקום הנחת התפילין אבל אם נעשה גידם בימין אפילו נקטע לו כל היד חייב בתפילין ויבקש לאחרים שיניחוהו עליו

All of this is referring to a (right-handed) person whose left arm, which is the place where the tfillin are to be put,  has been amputated.  However, if a (right-handed) person’s right arm has been amputated, even in its entirety, he is still obligated in tfillin, and must ask another person to put the tfillin on him.

Mishne Brurah, Orah Hayim 27:4

A person who cannot physically put on and bind his own tfillin remains obligated in the mitzvah.  Why is this so?  Is not such a person an ones?  Why is it any different from a person without a left hand?  Apparently, what this ruling is saying is that the mitzvah is to wear tfillin, not to bind or put on tfillin.  If tfillin cannot be worn there is no obligation.  If a person, however, can wear them but cannot bind them, he remains obligated in the mitzvah of wearing tfillin.

The question of wearing versus binding arose earlier in the Gemara.  The Gemara (Menachot 36) records two blessings for tfillin: “Blessed are You … Who has commanded us to put on tfillin” and “… Who has commanded us on the mitzvah of tfillin.”   The first is made before putting on the arm-tfillin, the second before placing the head tfillin.   Why the difference?  Rashi states that this reflects the fact that putting on tfillin is a process.  It begins with the arm-tfillin, hence the use of the imperfect “to put on” to indicate that the process remains incomplete.  Once both tfillin are on a person, however, the process is complete, and one can refer to the entire mitzvah: “… on the mitzvah of tfillin.”   Rashi’s approach relates to the larger question of the connection between the hand and the head tfillin, and to what degree they combine to form a larger whole.  [This is also consistent with Rashi’s appraoch – which is also the halakha for Sephardim – that if one does not speak between the head and the arm tfillin, one makes only one brakha, presumably because it can then be seen as one undivided act and mitzvah.]

From Tosafot, however, a different approach emerges.  Tosafot (35b, s.v. MiSha’at) quotes the position of Rabbenu Eliyahu that a person must make the knots on his arm and head tfillin daily.   Rabbenu Tam disagrees and does not require any regular making of the tfillin knots.  Tosafot concludes by stating that there is a middle position, which is actually the most logical one:

ומסתברא כדברי ר”ת בתפילין של ראש וכדברי רבינו אליהו בתפילין של יד דכתיב בשל יד וקשרתם לאות על ידך דמשמע דכל שעה שמניח צריך לקשירה

Rabbenu Tam’s position makes sense regarding the head-tfillin and Rabbenu Eliyahu’s position makes sense regarding the arm-tfillin, for it is written regarding the arm-tfillin “And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand,” which implies that every moment that a person puts them on, they require binding.

What Tosafot is saying is that, following the Biblical verses, there are two separate mitzvot here.  There is a mitzvah to  bind / knot the arm-tfillin, and there is a mitzvah to wear/have on oneself the head-tfillin.  The Torah uses the verb “to knot” by the arm-tfillin, so that is the nature of that mitzvah.  It uses the verb “shall be” [“shall be for frontlets between your eyes”] by the head-tfillin, so that is the nature of that mitzvah – not that they be bound, but that they be on a person. [As an aside, it should be noted that it is  fascinating and quite rare that Tosafot makes a halakhic ruling directly based on the pshat of a verse.  There are a small number of other examples where poskim rule directly based on verses.  A discussion for another time.]

Even if we – against Rabbenu Eliyahu – do not require one to knot his tfillin daily, it is still reasonable to assume that the mitzvah of the arm and head-tfillin are not identical.  There is a mitzvah to bind the arm-tfillin and to wear, or have on oneself, the head-tfillin.  This, then, would explain the different blessings:  the active “to wear” for the arm-tfillin, and the more static, “the mitzvah of tfillin,” for the head-tfillin.  Alternatively, we could say that if there is no mitzvah to knot the tfillin, perhaps even the mitzvah of the arm tfillin is to wear it, and not to bind it.

There is, of course,  a third possibility that both are true: it is a mitzvah to bind it and to wear it.   Yes, the verb of “you shall bind” applies to the hand-tfillin.  But it does not end there. The verb “and they shall be [as frontlets between your eyes]” does not only apply to the head-tfillin, but to the hand-tfillin as well.   This – admittedly strange – read of the verse is adopted by the Gemara on yesterday’s daf (36a), where the Gemara states that a person should only wear the head-tfillin if he is also wearing the arm-tfillin because the verse “and they shall be” indicates that both tfillin must be worn when the head-tfillin is being worn.  Clearly, that Gemara understands that the verb “and they shall be,” refers to both the hand and the head tfillin.

This might what is at stake in the discussion in today’s daf regarding the basis for putting tfillin on the left, weaker arm.  Most of the derashot focus on defining the arm upon which the tfillin are put – it is the weak arm, it is what the Torah refers to when it uses the word yad, and so on.  However, one drasha that plays an important role in halakha is that of Rav Natan who states that because the Torah juxtaposes the “you shall bind them” of tfillin with the “you shall write them” of the mezuzah, we can learn that the tfillin are only to be bound with a person’s writing hand, which is the right hand for most people.  [This raises interesting questions regarding a person who writes with one hand, but whose dominant hand is the other – see Tosafot, s.v. Mah].   It would seem that the approach that focuses on defining the left hand as the one on which the tfillin are placed, defines the mitzvah as wearing, and asks – wearing on which arm?  In contrast, the one that focuses on defining the hand that does the binding would define the mitzvah as binding and ask – which hand must do the binding?

When we turn back to our case, we realize that this somewhat academic question has profound implications for a person who can wear, but not bind, his own tfillin.  If the mitzvah is to bind, he would be exempt.  If it is to wear, he would be obligated.  As we have seen, such a person is universally assumed to be obligated.  This ruling reflects the consensus in psak, and probably in the way we think about it as well, that the mitzvah is to wear tfillin, and not to bind them.  Again, a middle position is possible, that both mitzvot exist, and thus even if one cannot do the mitzvah of binding, he can still do the mitzvah of wearing.

The final question is whether a paralyzed arm should be considered as one that is amputated, and thus a person with paralysis of the tfillin-wearing arm  would be exempt from the mitzvah of tfillin.    This is addressed by Rav Moshe Feinstein in one of the first teshuvot in Iggrot Moshe (Iggrot Moshe OH 1:8).  Here is what he writes:

אבל במחלת הפאראליז ברור שמוציא דם הרבה כמו ביד בריא לכן אין שייך זה כלל ליבש… וגם אין ניכר בה שום יבשות כלל רק שהוא מחלה כזו שאינו מרגיש בהיד ואינו יכול להניעה וברוב הפעמים אין הסבה כלל בהיד אלא מצד מחלה שבמוח לכן אף שאינו יכול להשתמש בה לא הוי כחסר וממילא מחוייב בתפילין להניח עליה כעל כל יד שמאלית…

וזכורני שאבא מארי הגאון זצ”ל שהיה ל”ע חולה שבעה חדשים האחרונים מחייו במחלת הפאראליז בצדו השמאלית הניח תפילין על ידו השמאלית שהיתה ג”כ פאראליזירטע /משותקת/. 

But [when an arm suffers] the affliction of paralysis, it is clear that there is a lot of blood in the arm, just like the arm of a healthy person [i.e., it is still a health limb].  Therefore, this is in no ways similar to a limb that has shriveled [and has no blood flow, and is considered as if it is amputated]… Also, in this case, there is no desiccation, it is rather an affliction that a person has no feeling in the hand and cannot move it.  Moreover, most of the time, the reason has nothing to do with the hand, but rather with a condition in the brain [nervous system].  Therefore, although he cannot use the arm, it is not like it is not present, and therefore he is obligated to put tfillin on it, just like on any other left hand.

And I remember that my sainted father, zt”l, had – should it not happen to us! – an affliction for the last seven months of his life, where he was paralyzed on his left side.  He nevertheless put tfillin on his left arm, although it too was paralyzed.

It was through the combination of these two rulings that the young man in my community was obligated to wear tfillin despite his paralysis of both his arms.  While this may seem oppressive to make such a daily demand from a person in this condition,  it was, I believe, a tremendous affirmation that he still counted, that he still mattered.   This person remained obligated to wear tfillin, and had the ability to continue to put on tfillin every day, and to continue to make a brakha just like he had done before his condition.

… ואל יאמר הסריס הן אני עץ יבש.  כִּי כֹה אָמַר ה’ לַסָּרִיסִים אֲשֶׁר יִשְׁמְרוּ אֶת שַׁבְּתוֹתַי וּבָחֲרוּ בַּאֲשֶׁר חָפָצְתִּי וּמַחֲזִיקִים בִּבְרִיתִי: וְנָתַתִּי לָהֶם בְּבֵיתִי וּבְחוֹמֹתַי יָד וָשֵׁם טוֹב מִבָּנִים וּמִבָּנוֹת שֵׁם עוֹלָם אֶתֶּן לוֹ אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִכָּרֵת

… And let not the eunuch say, behold I am a shriveled tree.  For thus says the Lord to the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, and choose the things that please me, and take hold of my covenant.  And to them will I give in my house and within my walls a memorial and a name better than sons and of daughters; I will give them a yad va’shem, a “hand and a name” that shall never be cut off.

Isaiah 56:3-5

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About Rabbi Dov Linzer

Rabbi Dov Linzer is the Rosh HaYeshiva and Dean of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, a groundbreaking Orthodox smicha program. Rabbi Linzer spearheaded the development of YCT to create an innovative four year smicha program which provides its students with rigorous talmud Torah and halakhic study and sophisticated professional training in the context of a religious atmosphere which cultivates openness and inclusiveness. Rabbi Linzer has published Halakha and machshava articles in Torah journals and lectures widely at synagogues and conferences on topics relating to Halakha, Orthodoxy, and modernity. He is most recently the awardee of the prestigious Avi Chai Fellowship.
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