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Age to Begin Wearing Tefillin

My son is almost twelve. When is it best for him to start putting on tefillin (he is a responsible, religiously eager child)? We are ba’alei teshuva (without family minhagim).


Rabbi Daniel Mann

Adar I 30 5782
Question: My son is almost twelve. When is it best for him to start putting on tefillin (he is a responsible, religiously eager child)? We are ba’alei teshuva (without family minhagim).

Answer: We will start with sources in the gemara. The mishna (Berachot 20a-b) lists tefillin among mitzvot that women and children are exempt from. On the other hand, a baraita (cited in Sukkot 42a and Arachin 2b) lists tefillin among mitzvot that a katan is trained in at the appropriate age. Notably, while the description of readiness for the other mitzvot involves the ability to fully perform the mitzva, the age by tefillin is defined according to his ability to protect the tefillin. Rishonim raise three required protections: from entering the bathroom, from sleeping, and from releasing gas. They broadly assume that this comes at a later age than for other mitzvot and after the child can effectively fasten the tefillin to his arm and head.

Most Rishonim and the Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chayim 37:3) posit that the baraita refers to a child under bar mitzva and seem to view the age determination as dependent on the individual child (see Yechaveh Da’at II:4). Some Sephardi poskim (see Darchei David, OC 7) encourage it for mature children as young as 10. Yalkut Yosef (OC 37:3.1) mentions a year or two before bar mitzva as reasonable.

The Itur (Tefillin 61b) is in the small minority (Rashi, Berachot 20b might agree) who understand that the katan who wears tefillin is a thirteen year old (who still must pass the carefulness test). Surprisingly, the Rama (OC 37:3) reports and strongly supports the minhag to wait until the child is thirteen to don tefillin. There are two ways to view the essential denial of chinuch (i.e., starting a mitzva before bar mitzva) for tefillin. It may be a fundamental ruling – no mitzva of pre-bar mitzva tefllin donning was instituted. It might be just a practically conservative approach to determining when children are ready (which some poskim use to explain the minhag in old Sephardi communities to wait until bar mitzva – see Yechaveh Da’at ibid.). Some practical differences follow.

The Magen Avraham (37:4) reports his time’s prevalent minhag to start two or three months before bar mitzva, and he and the Mishna Berura (37:12) seems to support it. The latter also cites the Bach’s opinion that a learned child can don tefillin at age 12 (Be’ur Halacha, ad loc.) (There was also a controversial minhag that orphans started at age 12 – see Teshuvot V’hanhagot I:53.) Many understand the Magen Avraham to fundamentally accept the Rama, just modifying it to start a little earlier to build up experience before the bar mitzva (see Tzitz Eliezer XIII:10). As some saw the Itur/Rama as fundamental, many (see Even Sh’ti’ah 14, Tzvi Latzaddik 23) raise the question if a child during his practice period should make a beracha on putting on the tefillin. However, almost all poskim accept, for a wide variety of reasons, the minhag that whenever a child starts putting on tefillin, it is with a beracha.

The most prevalent minhag nowadays (the Aruch Hashulchan, OC 37:4 already mentioned it) among non-Chasidic Ashkenazim is to start a month before the bar mitzva. Tzitz Eliezer (ibid.) presents two of the conjectures of the significance of a month (a known time for learning a topic – Pesachim 6a; since many who are born in Adar and have a bar mitzva in a leap year start with tefillin in Adar I (see Living the Halachic Process II, H-12) everyone starts a month early). The explanations are less important than the fact the minhag is along the lines of the Magen Avraham and is reasonable.

There are different planes of explanation (see Divrei Yatziv, OC I:11) for the Chassidic minhag to wait until bar mitzva – halachic, spiritual (sanctity of tefillin), practical (people might think he already is a gadol), and educational (reinforcing the need to respect tefillin’s sanctity is crucial chinuch).

Our practical advice for a non-Chasidic Ashkenazi is a month and for a Sephardi in a Sephardi community is to follow local practice.

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