Menachot 34 – Order of the Parshiyot – Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam, Rambam and Raavad, God and the Angels

Before we abandon tfillin and enter completely into the discussion of tzitzit that we began this Shabbat, a final word should be said about the Rashi – Rabbenu Tam tfillin debate.  I have posted a source sheet with some of the primary material under Resources, and will be discussing much of this material below.

As is known, Rashi (Menachot 34b, s.v. viHakoreh) states that the order of the parshiyot of the tfillin follow the  order that they appear in the Torah.  Going from right to left, from the position of a person facing someone wearing the tfillin, the order would be: Kadesh, ViHaya ki yiviacha, Shema, and then, on the far left, ViHaya im shamoa.  Rabbenu Tam, however, states that the Shema is in the outermost left compartment, and according to him the order – from right to left – is Kadesh, viHaya ki Yivacha, ViHaya im shamo, and then Shema.


והיה אם שמוע שמע והיה כי יביאך קדש


Rabbenu Tam
שמע והיה אם שמוע והיה כי יביאך קדש

Now, it is important to note that this debate did not originate with Rashi and Rabbebu Tam.  It is clear that both practices were well established for at least a century before Rashi and Rabbenu Tam entered the scene.  Thus, Tosafot (34b, s.v. viHakore) quotes from responsa of the Geonim, including Rav Hai Gaon (939-1038), who aver Rabbenu Tam’s position – havayot bi’emtzah, the sections beginning with והיה go in the middle – already 100 years before Rashi (1040-1105), and close to 200 years before Rabbenu Tam (c. 1100-c. 1171).  Against this, Tosafot quotes from the work Shimusha Rabba, a book on the laws of tfillin written during the Geonic period, perhaps even at its very beginning sometime in the 7th Century, in defense of Rashi’s position.

How far back beyond the Geonic period the debate extends is hard to determine.   Many people believe that both types of tfillin were found in Qumran or in the Bar Kokhva excavations.  The truth is, that while a number of different orderings were found, none were exactly Rashi or Rabbenu Tam.  You can read more about this in the article “The Content and Order of the Scriptural Passages in Tfillin,” by Yonatan Adler, p. 212ff.  To quote his conclusion on page 220:

[T]he limited and fragmentary state of the data provided by the Judean Desert tefillin provides little assistance in elucidating the difficult Talmudic passage found in Bavli Menahot. At most, we may conclude that the order displayed by XQPhyl 1–4 does not comply with the prescriptions recorded in this source (or anywhere else in rabbinic literature), and that 4QPhyl D–F does not comply with the halakhah found in the first baraita recorded there.

So we don’t know how far back the debate actually went, but it clearly was a well established debate – or variance in practices – by the time the Rishonim entered the scene.  While we take it for granted that Rashi’s view was the more dominant one, this is not necessarily the case.  While Rambam (Laws of Tfillin 3:5) agrees with Rashi, Ra’avad takes the opposing position of havayot bi’metzah and quotes Rabbenu Hai as support.

This debate proved challenging.  Because there is no way to “cover your bases,” since only one version can be valid, and because the Gemara is short, terse, and open to either explanation, the Rishonim were forced to make a hard choice with little evidence to base themselves upon.  It is perhaps for this reason that the practice to be strict and play it safe and wear both types of tfillin developed relatively early in the halakhic history, and details of this practice are already spelled out in the Shulkhan Arukh (Orah Hayim, siman 34).

Perhaps the most amusing attempt to resolve this seemingly irresolvable problem was that of the author of שו”ת מן השמים, Responsa from Heaven.  The author of this curious work was, Rabbi Yaakov of Marvege (Korebil), a twelfth century tosafist, who was a kabbalist who used the invocation of Heavenly names to seek answers from God for halakhic questions.  This book is a record of the questions that he asked and the answers that he received, and the legitimacy of the entire enterprise of paskening through Heavenly voices was heavily challenged by later authorities, as it flew in the face of the principle of לא בשמים היא, i.e. God and Heavenly voices do not have a vote in halakhic deliberations.  [See Rav Ovadyah Yosef, Yabia Omer, Orah Hayyim 1:41, section 21 and 30].

Bracketing the larger question of the of the entire of work, the responsum relating to tfillin is particularly interesting because of the answer that he received.  While Rabbi Yaakov had clearly hoped that this question could be laid to bed once and for all: “Now, King of Kings, command Your holy angels to tell me, according to whom is the halakha, and which opinion You favor.” Nevertheless, his hope was not to be realized:

They responded: These and these are the words of the living God. Just as there is a debate below, so there is a
debate above. God says the havayot are in the middle, and the entire Heavenly Retinue says that the havayot are written according to their order (in the Torah)

In the end of the responsum, he is told that the reason God prefers Rabbenu Tam tfillin is because it has the Shema – with its affirmation of accepting the yoke of Heaven – on the outside.  This, it should be said, seems to be a major attraction of Rabbenu Tam’s tfillin – the Shema is not buried on the inside.

While R. Yaakov attempted to resolve this question based on Heavenly voices, Rambam attempted to resolve it based on nuts-and-bolts scholarship.  In a responsum, Rambam tells us that he originally wore the tfillin with the havayot in the middle (“Rabbenu Tam tfillin.”) and that this was the widespread practice in the “West” (presumably Spain, Lunil, Provence, and elsewhere).  He attributes this practice to the influence of a work on tfillin authored by a certain R. Moshe of Cordova.  Although this practice was widespread and it had been his own, when he got to the East – Egypt and the Land of Israel – he reversed his ruling:

And trustworthy sages have told me that they opened the tfillin of Rabbenu Hai Gaon, zt”l, amd they found that they were written according to the order that I specified in my work. And R. Moshe Hadari (originally) did as you did (with the havayot in the middle), and when he came from the land of the West to the Land of Israel his tfillin were like those of the people of your place (Lunil). However, when they showed him the words of the early Gaonim and their proofs, he cast his tfillin away, and he made tfillin according to the sequence that we wrote.

And the clear proof in this matter, is stated in the chapter HaKometz (Menachot 34): “The reader reads according to the
order of the Torah, Kadesh li, ViHaya ki yiviacha, Shema, ViHaya im shamoa.” [Underlined words are not in our texts]. And this version of the text was not in our books in the land of the West, but behold I have found all the old textual witnesses, and it is thusly written in them [as I wrote above]. And we also have the precedent (lit. act of the master) – for the people of the Land of Israel are all scrupulous in this mitzvah, and they have written the sections according to the order that they are written in the Torah, a tradition from one generation to the next.

Given the inability to determine the ruling based on just the text in front of him, Rambam turns to other tools to determine the meaning of the Talmud and the relevant halakha.  He:

  • Inspects artifacts and realia, looking at reports regarding Rabbenu Hai’s actual tfillin
  • Looks at the manuscript evidence, and gives greater weight to those manuscripts which are older and presumably more accurate, and which yields manuscripts that are explicit as to the order of the sections.
  • Looks at the actual practice of the people, giving greater weight to those who seem to have an unbroken tradition.  In other words, rigorously analyzing the data of the variant practices, not to give de facto weight to every practice, but to determine which practice is more authentic

While Rambam also mentions the weight of the rulings of specific sages, the above strategies seem to have yielded the weightiest and most significant findings and to have convinced him that the correct ordering was that the sections should follow the way they are written in the Torah (“Rashi tfillin“).

While Rambam’s methods may seem unconventional to many with a Litvish-yeshivish background, this broader, multi-disciplinary approach to Gemara and Halakha was quite common among the Sefardi Rishonim,. who often turn to manuscripts or direct observation of the realia when a sugya appears impenetrable.  For Rambam, this certainly allowed him to resolve this thorny question.  According to some scholars, it was actually because of this resposum of Rambam, and the strongly convincing arguments that he presented from all different fields, that the practice which had been widespread of havayot in the middle became much more marginalized. [See the article by Gratner on the “History of Wearing Two Pairs of Tfillin,” under Resources] According to this, it is thanks to Rambam that we all today wear Rashi tfillin and not Rabbenu Tam tfillin.  I suppose this provides a nice closure to the responsum from the work Responsum from Heaven, because once again, we are ignoring the Heavenly voice which ruled in favor of Rabbenu Tam, and instead heeding the conclusion determined by the human intellectual and scholarly endeavor, and adopting the ruling of Rambam and Rashi.


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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