Image: Woman reading Torah while wearing tefillin. (1/22/13, by Michal Patelle, some rights reserved.
וּקְשַׁרְתָּם לְאוֹת, עַל-יָדֶךָ; וְהָיוּ לְטֹטָפֹת, בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ
And you shall bind [these words] as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as totafot between your eyes. — Deuteronomy 6:8
What are tefillin?: Our ancestors decided that the way to observe this commandment was to take it literally: write down these words, bind them to our arms, and put them to be totafot (usually translated “frontlets” although no one knows how to translate that either) between our eyes. The words (Exodus 13:1-16, Deut. 6:4-9, and Deut. 11:13:21) are written on tiny parchment scrolls by a sofer, a scribe. Then the sofer rolls them up and puts them into small leather boxes. One box is affixed to the head with leather straps that go around the head. The other box is bound to the inside of the non-dominant arm, and the straps are wound 7 times around that arm, finishing in a special knot on the hand.
Who can wear tefillin?: An adult Jew can wear tefillin. They are not for non-Jews and not for children too young to understand what they are. In some circles, women are not allowed to wear tefillin.
When to wear tefillin?: Observant Jews wear them for morning prayers on weekdays.
What are tefillin made of?: They are made of leather from a kosher animal. As a result of the source and the craftsmanship involved in making them, new tefillin tend to be rather expensive.
Why wear tefillin?: For many Jews, the answer is simply that we are commanded to wear them. Going a bit deeper, though, it is a way of expressing our willingness to bind our hearts and minds to God. In my own experience, it is a very comforting sensation and helps me focus on my prayers.
Phrases to know: Putting on tefillin is “laying tefillin” or “wrapping tefillin.” The other word you will hear for tefillin, “phylacteries,” is a Greek word meaning “amulets.”
For more about tefillin, and a demonstration of how to put them on, here is a YouTube video on the subject. However it is best, if you are interested in learning how to do it, to ask someone who knows how for help.