In this week’s parasha, we have (yet again) the mitzva of tefillin:
I want to look at that word, טוֹטָפֹת. What is (or are) a טוֹטָפֹת? The targum is not helpful; it just translates it as תפלין. We know what it is, but what does the word mean?
The King James English translation similarly describes what it is, but it is still unclear what the word comes from:
The word appears 2 other times, but only in the same context:
The hint we have is the parallel pasuk in פרשת בא:
And that is one translation cited by Rashi (it’s his second. We will bring the first one later):
However, Ibn Ezra really doesn’t like that interpretation:
He attributes it to המכחישים, ”the deniers“. He is not claiming Rashi is denying anything; he is talking about the Karaites, who denied the nature of תורה שבעל פה:
So Rashi, who has no issues with Karaites in his community, has no problem with saying that the פשט of טוטפת is “memorial” even though you might argue that it is metaphoric and means “keep these words in mind”, while the דרש expresses the law by which we make that memorial concrete. Rashbam, in his commentary on the לאות על ידך, makes this explicit:
Ibn Ezra, on the other hand, had a major problem with the Karaites and does not want even a hint of their heresy in his commentary:
That’s all fine, but Rashi actually brings another interpretation first:
Now that is just weird. Why would the Torah use foreign words for tefillin, and why is 2 and 2 so important (and if so, why not just a Katpi or Afriki word for four?). And is Afriki, “African”? It sounds like it, but there’s no single African language. The original gemara only makes things worse. It discusses the proof that the head-tefillin has four compartments:
What is רבי ישמעאל saying? He’s making an analogy from another דרשה:
So if we look at the way the words are written, it has סכת, which could be see as סֻכַּת in the singular, twice, and סֻכּוֹת, which is clearly plural, once, adding up to 4 walls of the sukkah. But this דרש doesn’t work with טוֹטָפֹת since the ו is in the wrong place. It doesn’t indicate a plural:
So it’s a very weak דרש. And רבי עקיבא basically says this: אינו צריך, it’s not necessary (necessary for what? It’s either the correct פשט or not). I can derive the four compartments from these obscure languages. What languages are they? The Soncino Talmud just transliterates Katpi and Afriki but the footnotes cite the possibility that they mean “Coptic” and “Phyrgian”. Now that means something!
So these are actual languages from the descendents of יפת and חם; they are not Semitic languages at all. Why would the Torah use them? The footnotes in the תורת חיים chumash (published by Mossad haRav Kook; I’m not sure who actually wrote the notes) tries to justify this:
But again, that’s weak. If ה׳ confused all the languages, then there should be no etymological connection between them and Hebrew. However, if you Google ancient Egyptian and Phrygian, you find a very interesting story:
This is Herodotus, the “father of history”. Every educated person in Tannaic times had read Herodotus. I’m sure רבי עקיבא knew Herodotus, and Herodotus says that Coptic and Phrygian are the most ancient languages.
So I have a hypothesis. רבי עקיבא and רבי ישמעאל faced their own version of Ibn Ezra’s Karaites; there were plenty of Jewish sects that denied the validity of the תורה שבעל פה. They would have claimed that והיו לטוטפת בין עיניכם was metaphoric, and tefillin was a custom made up by the rabbis. And the truth is that every detail of what makes “tefillin” is הלכה ממשה מסיני, the ultimate form of תורה שבעל פה. רבי עקיבא and רבי ישמעאל aren’t claiming that the four chambers are actually derived from the pasuk. They are making an argument against the מכחישים.
If טוֹטָפֹת means anything like “a thing with four parts” then it isn’t metaphoric. And רבי עקיבא can say, “Even if you don’t accept the way we interpret the Torah, clearly this unique word comes from the most ancient languages in the world, and it meant ‘two plus two’ in ancient Egyptian. לטוטפת בין עיניכם must mean a literal, physical thing.” And even if it’s not a proof, it is at least an argument that can help keep the מכחישים at bay:
We, who live with the תורה שבכתב and the תורה שבעל פה on an everyday basis, know exactly what טוטפת are. Questions of etymology are fun but not central to our faith.