Related to this question.

Rashi, on Shemot (13:16): "...וְהָיָה לְאוֹת עַל יָדְכָה וּלְטוֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ " writes:

and for ornaments between your eyes: Heb. וּלְטוֹטָפֹת, tefillin. Since they are [composed of] four compartments, they are called טֹטָפֹת, ‎טט in Coptic meaning two, and פת in Afriki (Phrygian) meaning two (Men. 34b) [thus 2+2=4 boxes of tefillin]...

The second part of this Rashi derives the word 'totafot' from a different source:

...Menachem (Machbereth Menachem p. 99), however, classified it [טוֹטָפֹת] with “Speak (הַטֵף) to the south” (Ezek. 21:2) and “Preach not (אַל-תּטִּיפוּ)” (Micah 2:6), an expression of speech, like “and as a remembrance” (Exod. 13:9), for whoever sees them [the tefillin] bound between the eyes will recall the miracle [of the Exodus] and speak about it.

Why does the Torah 'choose' to ascribe a non-Hebrew word for such a holy symbol/item as the tefillin (according to the opinion that the word is of Phrygian origin)?

Furthermore, if the Torah documents the tefillin as being 'totafot', when is the first instance that they are referred to as tefillin, and why?

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    I think it's important to distinguish between a drasha to explain a known halachah (4 compartments) and the absolute foreignness of a word. IMHO, the Talmud is using linguistics to give textual source to a Halacha Le'Moshe MiSinai (something it often does), NOT to tell us that this is de facto a foreign word. Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 20:43
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    As for your last question, the first instances of "תפילין" are in the two Aramaic translations of the Torah (Yontan ben Uziel, Onkelos), both from the period of the Tannaim.
    – Cauthon
    Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 20:44
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    To add another point, the Torah view of linguistics (migdal bavel, etc.) enables the use of other languages when useful as they are, ipso facto, descendants of the Lashon HaKodesh used in the Torah. Commented Feb 23, 2016 at 20:46
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    – Menachem
    Commented Feb 24, 2016 at 6:18
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    While not on point, the use of foreign words is not unusual in trying to elucidate the Torah. For instance Rashi relies upon the Arabic fadan [literally "field"] in interpreting B'rashith (Genesis) 25.20. Commented Jul 16, 2018 at 1:04

5 Answers 5


Be’er Mayim Chaim, by Rav Chaim ben Betzalel, the brother of the Maharal, to Deuteronomy 6:8 explains that Chazal had a tradition that these two words actually originate from before the story of the Tower of Bavel (Genesis Chapter 11). Back then everyone spoke loshon hakodesh, Hebrew. After the dispersion and the creation of new languages, these two words remained and were used by the people who spoke Katpi and Afriki.

So really the Torah is using a Hebrew word, but in Rabbi Akiva's time it was more in use by other nations.

He says that the same idea is found in the works of the Shela HaKadosh. In Shenei Luchos HaBris Maseches Pesachim Matzah Ashira Drush 3 LeShabbos HaGadol Shechal BeParshas Metzorah (§ 341 in the new editions, s.v. בזוהר in the linked edition), he says that all the 70 languages have some Hebrew words mixed in, but he doesn't explain why. However, in Ibid Torah Sh'B'al Peh Klal Peh Kadosh (§ 385 in the new editions) he writes like the Be'er Mayim Chaim.

A later source which states this idea is the Biur HaAmarim Mevo L'Midrash Tanchuma § 19 by Rav Avraham Meir Rosen (19th century). He doesn't cite a source.

Your second question is I think suitable for its own post, but I'd venture to say Targum Onkelos is the first source...

  • This approach, while popular in some circles, wouldn't answer words that the Torah itself testifies are not originally Lashon Hakodesh, like Yigar Sahadusa.
    – user6591
    Commented Apr 14, 2020 at 0:18
  • @user6591 the question didn't ask that, cl but why shouldn't the Torah use other languages? Is there a source that implies it all should be in loshon hakodesh? Commented Apr 7, 2021 at 5:06

Arguably, because טוטפות is actually a Hebrew word. It's used twice in Mishnayos Shabbos, chapter 6. In Mishnah 1, it says (translation follows Sefaria):

לֹא תֵצֵא אִשָּׁה ... וְלֹא בְטֹטֶפֶת וְלֹא בְסַנְבּוּטִין בִּזְמַן שֶׁאֵינָן תְּפוּרִין

A woman may not go out [on Shabbos] ... nor with a frontlet [on her forehead] nor with bangles if they are not sewn.

And in Mishnah 5:

יוֹצְאָה אִשָּׁה ... וּבְטֹטֶפֶת וּבְסַנְבּוּטִין בִּזְמַן שֶׁהֵן תְּפוּרִין

A woman may go out [on Shabbos] ... with a frontlet [on her forehead] or with bangles if they are sewn.

Why, then, does the Gemara expound based on African? I imagine that's just normal exposition.

On the other hand, I could be looking at this entirely backwards, and the frontlets that women would wear got their name based on this not-Hebrew word ordinarily ascribed to Tefillin...

  • Does this answer suggest that is appearance in the mishnah means it's Hebrew (or Hebrew derived)? There are plenty of words in the mishna that are not Hebrew. "Sanbutin", which is quoted next to totafot doesn't sound Hebrew.
    – bondonk
    Commented Jun 21, 2021 at 11:32
  • @bondonk Plenty of words appear in the Mishnah that come from Aramaic or Greek, true. But if the same word appears in both the Mishnah and the (written) Torah, it’s a lot less likely that the word comes from outside Hebrew.
    – DonielF
    Commented Jun 22, 2021 at 14:54

The Uraeus (plural Uraei or Uraeuses; from the Greek οὐραῖος, ouraîos, "on its tail"; from Egyptian (iaret), "rearing cobra") is the stylized, upright form of an Egyptian cobra, used as a symbol of sovereignty, royalty, deity and divine authority in ancient Egypt.

Certainly Moshe and Aharon saw Pharaoh wearing the Uraeus in his court and no doubt all of Egypt, including the Children of Israel knew what the symbol meant. In Western culture we don't expect to see royalty wearing "a snake-like crown," yet in some parts of the world "head-dresses" are a common occurrence:

In India the maangtika is a traditional head piece worn most often at weddings, traditionally by the Hindu bride. It consists of a metallic string, with an attractive pendant attached at one end, which may be of any shape and adorned with precious or semi-precious stones. The maangtika is worn at the middle parting of the hair. Muslim brides wear a jhoomar, which is a similar beautiful ornamental head piece, on one side of the forehead.

Bajuband and Vanki are traditional armlets worn on the upper arm. They often have to be secured in place with a gold string. Armlets were traditionally worn by Indian men and women. Some common designs on them include creepers or snakes entwining.

While these Egyptian and Indian customs symbolize different things their relevance to the meaning of tefillin should be apparent even though these customs do not explain the usage of the words totafoth (tefillin shel yad and shel rosh) or totafeth (appuzainu, an ornament worn on the forehead.") in the Torah and the Mishnayoth.

For a discussion of the term totafoth see this article http://www.balashon.com/2007/01/totafot.html where Tigay also suggests "headband", but derives the word totafot from the Arabic tafa - "go around, encircle".

Tigay discusses the derivation in this article here: On the Meaning of T(W)TPT on JSTOR.

Rashi on Shmoth (13:16) says the totafoth are to be worn as "an ornament" between the eyes; although the Torah (Shmoth 13:9) refers to the totafoth as a zikkaron (remembrance - memorial) for whoever sees them [the tefillin] bound between the eyes will recall Pesach and the miracle [of the Exodus] and speak about it, as it says, "that the Law of HaShem may be in your mouth" (13.9).

When we say a Bracha over the Hand tefillin we say it with the intention that the Bracha covers the Head tefillin as well. It is explained that the single bracha covers both because, it says, "bind them for a sign upon your arm and let them be for a remembrance between your eyes;" and them is written in the plural (them being the words of Torah).

We read in Shmoth 33.4-6 "And when the people heard these evil tidings, they mourned; and no man did put on him his עֶדְיוֹ ornaments. And the L-RD said unto Moses: 'Say unto the children of Israel: Ye are a stiffnecked people; if I go up into the midst of thee for one moment, I shall consume thee; therefore now put off thy ornaments עֶדְיְךָ from thee, that I may know what to do unto thee.' And the children of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments אֶת-עֶדְיָם from mount Horeb onward."

The Hebrew root used for ornaments is ayd (witness): Maimonides writes in his Mishnah Torah (4.26) that "one who prays the Shema without wearing Tefillin violates eight precepts of the Torah and bears false witness against himself!"

Isaiah 43.10 states "Ye are My witnesses, saith the L-RD, ...."

Thus, we see from non-Jewish cultural traditions or customs and from Jewish custom that the totafoth (ornaments) serve as a symbol of sovereignty, authority, and royalty; and should be for Jews as a constant reminder of Pesach, of the Exodus and that the Jew is always a witness of HaShem's miracles; which, upon seeing the totafoth worn on the forehead would elicit or inspire a discussion of HaShem's Oath to the Patriarchs and of HaShem's as well as Israel's sovereignty, authority, royalty and the miracles leading up to the sanctification of the firstborn, the Passover Festival, the Exodus and the conquest of and settlement of Canaan (Eretz Yisrael).

  • I'm not sure this answers the question about the word totafos and why a non Hebrew word is in the Torah.
    – robev
    Commented Apr 14, 2020 at 0:06
  • This really does nothing to answer the question. In truth though I've often wondered about the connection between chazzal explanation of Totafos and the Snake-Vulture combination. I think the vulture is a better lead than the snake. According to wiki the first person to wear the vulture crown was named Tetisheri. I never found an actual name for the vulture, whereas the Uraeus is well known. Also, once male rulers started wearing the vulture alongside the snake, was there a combined name? Another possible lead is the Egyptian Atef. But who knows.
    – user6591
    Commented Apr 14, 2020 at 0:32

You might want to look at the following website.


It is possible that Totafot or Totaf is an Egyptian word signifying the Ureaus (a Greek term) - referring to what the Pharaoh wore in court. If that is correct, Totaf or Totafot was an Egyptian word - and everyone in Egypt knew what it meant - and so did the Jews leaving Egypt. So the Torah felt no need to explain the word - but used it without comment.

Where the term Tefillin arose - most likely in the Talmud - a Bar Ilan search can easily discover these appearances.

All of this (so far) conjecture is explained at the link above

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    Welcome to the site. This seems to be your own website you're linking to; if so, you need to explicitly state so. Please read the help center for more information about this.
    – Glorfindel
    Commented Dec 30, 2017 at 18:30

This is tentative answer. I found two clues in Tanakh. It is 1 Melachim 4:11 and Iyov 29:22. It seem that the word "totafot" probably comes from the word "nataf" (Shemot 30:34). totafot probably means "inspirations/prophecies" (plural). So perhaps the proper translation of Shemot 13:16 should be "and it becomes for a sign on your hand and for inspirations/prophecies between your eyes, for in strength of a hand brought us Yahuah from Mizraim". "for inspirations" because you can't see it, only others can see it and would be inspired by it. What do you think?

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    Are you looking at טפת in Kings 1:4:11? That's a name, not a verb.
    – Double AA
    Commented Feb 25, 2016 at 4:20
  • @Double AA: what is "Yahuah from Mizraim"? Commented Apr 13, 2020 at 12:28

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