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Rambam writes (tefilin 3:12):

וְאֹרֶךְ רְצוּעָה שֶׁלַּיָּד - כְּדֵי שֶׁתַּקִּיף אֶת הַזְּרוֹעַ וְיִקְשֹׁר מִמֶּנָּה הַקֶּשֶׁר, וְתִמָּתַח רְצוּעָה אַחַת עַד אֶצְבַּע אֶמְצָעִית, וְיִכְרֹךְ מִמֶּנָּה עַל אֶצְבָּעוֹ שָׁלשׁ כְּרִיכוֹת, וְיִקְשֹׁר.

The length of the strap of the arm should be sufficient to surround the forearm, tie its knot, and extend until it can be wound three times around the middle finger and tied.

I am looking for Rambam's source for wrapping it around the finger 3 times (and purpose).

If I didn't know better I would say that it would seem to pair well with the 7 windings around the arm which in the world of kabbalah represent the 7 lower sefiros with the 3 finger windings symbolizing the 3 higher ones.

However given Rambam's stance on kabbalah it is highly unlikely that he sees it in this light. In addition to which Rambam does not even mention any suggested arm windings—let alone 7.

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    I came across an informative exploration of this topic here (pp. 65-69). You may find it both enlightening and frustrating :P Dec 31, 2023 at 23:52
  • @Deuteronomy thanks for that. Quite the circuitous route to get there but doesn't he bring in fn 1 from כסף משנה that Rambam potentially got the 3 windings from his interpretation of רב אחא בר יעקב's ומתלית?
    – Nahum
    Jan 1 at 0:25
  • I once saw somewhere that the 3 wraps form a Daleth, which along with the Yud on the top of the arm tefillin and the Shin on the head tefillin spell out Gd’s name, Sha-dai Jan 1 at 1:54
  • @CuriousYid I believe Rambam mentions shapes with regard to the more permanent tefilin knots with the head one mimicking a ד and the hand one a י, see 3:13. There's no mention in 3:12 of winding it to resemble a ש.
    – Nahum
    Jan 1 at 2:04
  • @Nahum yes, I've edited in my answer to include it. I still think there is a bit of an open question here but not necessarily one that is amenable to answer based on the extant material. Jan 1 at 14:08

2 Answers 2

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It is unclear whether according to the Rambam in H. Tefillin 3:12 one must actually tie the strap down to the finger, i.e. wear it that way. The straightforward reading of H. Tefillin 3:12 indicates that his reference is merely to the required measure of the strap.

Indeed we see in a responsum (no. 159 in vol. 2 of the Blau ed.) where he was asked:

?זה הקשר על אצבעו שאחרי הכריכות שאם הוא מחייב בהכרח אם לאו

This knot upon the finger after the windings [of the arm] are they definitively obligatory or not?

to which the Rambam responds:

הרצועה על האצבע היא אחר הברכה ובה תהיה קשירה תמה. ואין הקשר על האצבע מוכרח

The strap on the finger is after the blessing and a complete tying is thereby effectuated. And the tying on the finger is not definitively required.

That said, this is widely presumed to be the basis for wrapping it three times around the finger, which generates your query - where does the Rambam get that from?

The Kesef Mishneh on Tefillin 3:12 writes:

ונראה שרבינו מפרש אצבע צרידא אצבע אמצעי וברצועה של יד מיירי וקטר ליה ומתלית ליה היינו קשר באצבע צרידא ומתלית פירוש קושר סביב אצבעו ג"פ

Suggesting that the Rambam explains the Gemara (Menahoth 35b) where R. Aha b. Ya'aqobh would tie and plait them (קטר להו ומתלית להו) to mean that he tied it around his finger three times.

It is unclear if the KM intends that מתלית is being literally interpreted by the Rambam as indicating three (i.e. as משליש making an etymological argument) or that the Rambam is defining a plait (מתלית) as something wrapped/tied three times.

If there was any ambiguity however, the earlier Mordekhai (on 3:12) explicitly makes it an etymological suggestion:

אי נמי מתלית כמו משלש והיא היא

Rabbenu Manoah however did not read it in this novel way (nor do most others) and therefore remains perplexed. On 3:12 he writes:

ואכתי שלוש כריכות למה ואפשר לומר שתקנת הגאונים היא כדי שלא תשמט הרצועה למעלה כנראה בקיבורת וכל רצועה הנכרכת שלש כריכות וקשר אחד לא במהרה תשמט כדכתיב קהלת ד והחוט המשולש לא במהרה ינתק

Rabbenu Manoah here suggests that perhaps it is a Geonic enactment that was instituted to prevent the strap from coming loose - finding an allusion to the strength of such a knot in Qoheleth 4:12 "a threefold cord is not quickly broken"

Finding an explicit Geonic source corroborating Rabbenu Manoah's speculation remains a desideratum. I'll update if I come across anything else.

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  • I see now that @IsraelReader beat me to the punch! I'll leave this up as it includes the language of R. Manoah and a possible reason for why the number three Dec 31, 2023 at 23:27
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    @IsraelReader nice finds... would be great if we could find any direct Geonic support to corroborate Rabbenu Manoah. Dec 31, 2023 at 23:35
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    @IsraelReader so it seems that many were already perplexed by this requirement particularly with the emphasis on precisely 3 windings. I second Deuteronomy's sentiment regarding locating a hard source. Thanks guys 🙏
    – Nahum
    Dec 31, 2023 at 23:43
  • תלת means 3 in Aramaic so it seems definitional.
    – Nahum
    Jan 1 at 14:31
  • yes but מתלית does not... either way, if there was any ambiguity - the Mordekhai (which predates the KM by a wide margin) makes the argument explicit Jan 1 at 14:38
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Rabbeinu Manoach (ad loc.) suggests that this may be an enactment by the Geonim, so that the Tefillin strap remains in place. Here is the text of his words:

ואיפשר לומר שתקנת הגאונים הוא, כדי שלא תשמט הרצועה למעלה, וכל רצועה הנכרכת שלש כריכות וקשר אחד, לא במהרה תשמט, כדכתיב (קהלת ד יב) והחוט המשולש לא במהרה ינתק

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  • A good rational explanation—todah! (Left unexplained is why precisely 3 but I guess that that is what is most secure from a practical perspective.)
    – Nahum
    Dec 31, 2023 at 23:12
  • The Zohar Pinchas as well ..see Kiryas Melech (Reb Chaim Kanievsky)
    – sam
    Dec 31, 2023 at 23:22
  • I unchecked it as theyre more speculative in nature
    – Nahum
    Dec 31, 2023 at 23:44
  • @sam any chance you have the text handy?
    – Nahum
    Dec 31, 2023 at 23:46
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    @Nahum I hear what you're saying, so I deleted the מעשה רוקח. Jan 1 at 8:29

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