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When we put on the tefillin shel yad, I've noticed that virtually everyone ties the tefillin up until the actual hand (like a placeholder), puts on the shel rosh, and only then finally completes the tying of the shel yad.

Why is this so? Is it merely to make the tying of the shel rosh easier (by having the left [right] hand available) or is there some deeper reasoning?

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You mean why do they wrap it around their hand, or why do they wrap it around their arm? – Shmuel Brin Jul 19 '11 at 0:27
I actually finish wrapping it up on my hand before I put on Shel Rosh. – RCW Jul 19 '11 at 2:13
I could bring an answer from the Arizal. but I don't want to be going against the Maharsha says in Hagiga (daf 13) and in Kidushin (daf 70) and the Rashba (Shut 1:414) about publicly teaching Kabala. The answer is quite simple, but not simplistic. – Hacham Gabriel Dec 22 '11 at 18:27

This is a case where the universal custom is according to the Arizal.

In Halacha, the Mitzvah of Tefillin shel yad is to bind it to the bicep and then wrap around the fingers three times. The three fingers do not invalidate the binding though. Therefore, according to halacha, one would put the Yad and immediately put the Rosh and only afterwards wrap around the finger.

The Arizal on the other hand holds that the seven circuits around the arm is an intrinsic part of the Mitzvah. He holds this for Kabbalistic reasons. Therefore, according to him, you must complete the wrapping of the 7 circuits before putting on the Rosh.

The universal custom is according to the Arizal.

An interesting question is if the custom was this way before the Arizal and he only gave it a reason or if the custom developed according the the Arizal's teachings. I have never looked into that.

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an interesting point I learn while searching information on the way one wraps the retzuos around the middle finger : the Brisker practice to wrap around the finger before starting on the tefillah shel rosh (see Hilchos HaGra uminhag siman 38, Teshuvot Vehanhagot 1:38 and 4:10 from Rav Sternbuch shlita) – Frank Jul 19 '11 at 7:38
@Frank - whaaat?! I have to see that inside. Thanks for that find! And Aaron, I was taught (by a Brisker, Frank) along those lines that it is wrong to do what most people do, which is wrap it around the hand to help hold it, as that is a Hefsek, and to rather put on the Shel Rosh immediately after the 7 circuits around the arm. – Seth J Dec 22 '11 at 5:12
Now that I think about it, it was emphasized that with the Hefsek of wrapping around the hand, one might as well just wrap around the fingers. Maybe that's why (according to Frank, and I still need to look this up) they have this Minhag. – Seth J Dec 22 '11 at 5:15
Why is something that doesn't invalidate the binding a Hefsek? How is it worse than "pass the salt", or, better yet, Tzitzin sheEinan Miakevin if performing a second Milah immediately after the first Milah? – Double AA Nov 13 '13 at 4:40
How universal is universal? Baladi yemenites don't. – Yitzchak Jul 16 '14 at 18:22

While the reason is not explicitly stated in the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch, it does say that you're not allowed any interruptions between putting on the shel-yad and shel-rosh. My guess is that taking the time to wrap your hand would be such an interruption.

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Mishna B'rura 27:30 says to wrap the strap around your finger after putting on the head t'fila.

That said, I don't know why (which is what was asked), though I have always assumed it was so as to reduce delay.

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I have many source from the Ari, but the I'll bring one from Sha'ar HaKawanot, Tefilin Derush 5. That is the procedure the Ari brings down (first tying the first 7 and then the Shel Rosh).

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Its source is the Arizal.

You would need a Mekubal to answer the question.

The Beis Yosef says just to wrap around bicep then put on Shel Rosh and then finsh wrapping the rest of the arm.

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