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A Tale of Two Totafot

On the mysterious and much debated origins of a seminal biblical term

Stanley Dubinsky and Hesh Epstein
January 07, 2022
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine
Tablet Magazine

The world of words is filled with what are called “folk etymologies” (popular ideas about a word’s origins that are fascinating but false). We often find, however, that the real origins are more interesting and insightful. The word acorn for example was popularly thought to be some sort of fusion of the two words oak and corn (i.e., oak-corn) as they are the fruit of oak trees. In fact, though, the word is actually related to the German/Dutch word aker/ecker, meaning “the fruit of any forest tree” and is related to the words acre and agriculture.

In much the same way, we find there to be (somewhat mysterious) words in the Torah and in Jewish liturgical tradition that also have fascinating stories about them, which may turn out to be untrue and not nearly as revealing or inspiring as their likely source. Totafot (טוֹטָפֹת) may be one such word, which makes its appearance in Exodus chapter 13—in Parshat Bo, the Torah portion read this coming Shabbat—and in Deuteronomy chapter 6, the latter of which features the Shema (שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד “Hear, O Israel: the LORD our God, the LORD is one.”), followed by the V’ahav’ta prayer (… וְאָהַבְתָּ, אֵת יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ “And thou shalt love the LORD thy God …”).

It is within this latter paragraph that we find the familiar verse Deuteronomy 6:8.

And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes.
וּקְשַׁרְתָּם לְאוֹת עַל-יָדֶךָ וְהָיוּ לְטֹטָפֹת בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ

It is so familiar because it is part of a prayer that is incorporated into every prayer service and one that Jews are commanded to recite twice every day.

In Orthodox Jewish practice, the totafot or frontlets are one of the two parts of the tefillin that are worn (tied with leather straps to the arm and the head) during morning prayers. Each of these consists of a box containing four verses from the Torah (Exodus 13:9 and 13:16, and Deuteronomy 6:8 and 11:18). These verses are contained together in one compartment in the box tied to one’s arm and are each inserted into one of four separate compartments in the box tied to one’s forehead. The latter of the boxes is referred to as the totafot.

Given that totafot only appears twice in the entire Hebrew Bible (Exodus 13:16 and Deuteronomy 6:8) and only in the phrase “as frontlets between your eyes,” its meaning is far from clear and there is a considerable amount of discussion and speculation in this regard. The most important and best-known commentary on totafot comes from the 11th-century Torah scholar and commentator Rashi, who offers two possible etymologies for the word. The one that we discuss here is the more important of the these:

… 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).

The source of this comment is the Talmudic sage, Rabbi Akiva (Talmud Tractate Menachot 34b), who writes:

The word tat in the language of the Katfei means two, and the word pat in the language of Afriki also means two, and therefore totafot can be understood as a compound word meaning: Four.

In this explanation, it is claimed that the first syllable of the word, tot, is borrowed from a Coptic (Katfei) word for “two,” tat, and the last syllable of the word, fot, is borrowed from a Phrygian (Afriki) word for “two,” pat.

This makes some linguistic sense, given the form of the word totafot and the construction of the box itself. Since totafot was understood to be a feminine plural noun, the tradition of having one compartment in the arm tefillin (the ‘ot “sign”) and four in the head tefillin (the totafot “frontlets”) may have been inspired by ‘ot being singular, and totafot being plural. Thus, Rabbi Akiva’s suggestion regarding tot and fot each meaning “two” could be seen as an explanation for why the head tefillin had four compartments, rather than two or three.

So, totafot is a Hebrew word in the Torah, from about 1300 BCE (following traditional sources). If it was borrowed from Katfei (Coptic) and Afriki (Phrygian), then we would need to establish that the Hebrews were in contact with both peoples, or that these peoples were in contact with each other. We would also need some evidence that they were actually borrowed—that “two” was tat in Coptic and pat in Phrygian.

It should first be noted that languages ordinarily do not borrow number words from other languages, especially the lower numbers one through 10. It was linguist Morris Swadesh who observed there to be certain word categories that languages almost never borrow (e.g., personal pronouns, numerals, animal names, body parts, colors, kinship terms, and natural objects/phenomena). He states: “Pronouns and numerals … are occasionally replaced by other forms from the same language or by borrowed elements, but such replacement is rare.” His 1971 list of 100 words least likely to be borrowed has “two” ranked 12th.

But even if we assume biblical Hebrew to be exceptional in this regard, we must ask from what languages did the words come. Taking the proposed sources in turn, we first ask: “Who are the Katfei?” We assume that Katfei refers to the Copts. The Coptic language arose as a last stage of Egyptian in the second century CE (spoken from about 300 until 1000 CE) and is understood to be a direct descendant of Ancient Egyptian. The word Copt itself is related to the “gypt” in Egyptian and appears to be a shortening of the name of the great temple of Memphis (the capital of ancient Egypt), which was called Hut-ka-Ptah, “the enclosure [hut] of the soul [ka] of Ptah.” The “k” in ka and the “p” and “t” in Ptah find their way into the consonants of CoPT and eGyPT. So, Copt is essentially just another word for Egyptian.

Obviously, the Israelites of the Exodus period did not have contact with the Copts of the second century CE, but perhaps Katfei/Copts simply refers to Egyptians. So could the Coptic/Egyptian word for the “two” have been tat or something similar? Probably not. The Coptic word for “two,” ’esnavor snauand, contains the sounds “s,” “n,” and “u/v” but no “t.” The Ancient Egyptian pronunciation of “two,” which the Israelites might have known, is likely to have been something like: si’nuwwaj. Notice that the “s,” “n,” and “w/v” sounds of Ancient Egyptian are also in Coptic. So, whatever the word for “two” might have been in Egyptian/Coptic, it wasn’t tot.

Turning to the second language referred to in the commentary, we ask: “Who are the Afriki?” If we follow Rashi’s understanding of Rabbi Akiva, the Afriki are Phrygians. Now, ancient accounts of who the Phrygians were are not uniform. According to Herodotus, the Phrygians migrated from the Balkans into Anatolia, before which they were called the Bryges. In the biblical account, elaborated by Josephus, they are descended from Noah’s son Japheth. One of Japheth’s seven sons is Gomer, and from Gomer are descended Ashkenaz, and Riphath, and Togarmah. The descendants of this last son, Togarmah, are called Thrugammeans and identified by Josephus as the Phrygians.

Linguistic evidence, though, makes it clear that the Phrygians were an Indo-European people and that their language belonged to the Indo-European language family (which includes the Germanic, Italic, Celtic, Baltic, Slavic, and Balkan languages). According to Hamp, Phrygian is most closely related to Italo-Celtic languages (such as Latin and Irish), while Woodhouse claims that it is closest to Greek. According to Woodhouse, Phrygians “occupied a sizable chunk of what is now modern Turkey [and] their inscriptions … date from the late 8th century BCE and continue down to the 4th century.”

Since the Phrygians were contemporaneous with Ancient Israel, the Israelites might have known of them, and their inclusion in the “family of nations” passages in Genesis 10 is unremarkable. However, the Phrygians were in central and western Anatolia (i.e., modern Turkey), and their capital, Gordia, was about 850 miles from Jerusalem (a 40- to 50-day journey over land). The Israelites would not likely have had direct contact with the Phrygians, despite them being contemporaneous. It is thus implausible that Hebrew borrowed words from Phrygian at or after the time of the Exodus.

However, on the remote chance that the Phrygian word for “two” hitched a ride on a camel and wound up borrowed by the Israelites, let us look at what that word might have been. Unlike Ancient Egyptians and Copts, Phrygians left few written records. There is a small corpus of inscriptions, and only a few hundred Phrygian words are attested, with the meaning and etymologies of many unknown. So, bearing in mind that Phrygian was an Indo-European language and related to Italian, Irish, Welsh, and/or Greek, the second-best way to determine whether the word for “two” was pat (or something like it) is to examine these related languages. From this we can say that Phrygian “two” would not have sounded anything like pat. The number “two” in the related languages are: (i) Irish dá/dó, (ii) Welsh dau, (iii) Latin duō, and (iv) Greek δύω dúō. In all of these, the word for “two” begins with a “d” or a “t” and has a “u” or “w” sound following. Nothing like pat or fot here.

Summing up what we’ve observed: Coptic/Ancient Egyptian had no word for “two” sounding anything like tat or tot (but had ‘esnav instead), and the Phrygian word for “two” would not have begun with “p” or “f” (pat or fot), but rather with a “d.” Finally, third century CE Copts and eighth century BCE Phrygians were separated by 1,000 years and 1,200 miles. The likelihood that they were in contact with each other, or that the Israelites were in contact with both, is nearly zero.

This leaves us to continue searching for the meaning of totafot. There is a promising Mishnaic account in Shabbat 6:1 that discusses laws for a woman wearing jewelry on Shabbat out of concern that she might remove it and carry it in her hand in public, which is prohibited by Torah law. The Talmud Shabbat 57b says: “a woman may not go out with the ornament called a totefet טוֹטֶפֶת.”

The Gemara asks: What is a totefet? Rav Yosef said: A packet of spices to ward off the evil eye. Rav Yehuda said in the name of Abaye: A totefet is an appuzainu (a string of obsidian or gold beads), an ornament worn on the forehead. Rabbi Abbahu said: Totefet is that which goes around her forehead from ear to ear.

The Ramban appears to side with Rabbi Abbahu, saying that the totafot is, according to the rabbis of the Talmud, “an object which lies upon the head” or in Rabbi Abbahu’s terms “a forehead-band extending from ear to ear.”

So based on the Mishnaic texts, we see that: (i) the word totafot/totefet was familiar to the rabbis of the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods, though how it applied to women’s jewelry might have been murky for some of them (hence the discussion), (ii) the word had always referred to some kind of amulet or band worn on the head, and (iii) both Rashi and Rabbi Akiva likely knew the vernacular usage of the word but sought to explain its original use in Exodus and Deuteronomy.

This Mishnaic commentary leads in two directions. First is the possibility that a totefet was an amulet, adapted from other similar customs and worn to ward off evil, and second is that it describes an object worn around the head. The first conjecture was presented by Herbert Rand, and the second, and more likely, by Jeffrey Tigay. We consider each in turn.

Rand argues that the use of the totafot is an adaptation of Egyptian traditions of placing magical words on one’s body to protect oneself from evil and that the word totafot is a made-up word whose parts are borrowed from Ancient Egyptian words. Citing Shorter 1937, Rand describes the Egyptian custom of wearing an amulet on the head or chest inscribed with the name of a god, when one was seeking from that god to be healed from an illness. He says the use of totafot arose from the Hebrews copying this foreign tradition of wearing protective amulets with protective words written on or in them. And so, according to Rand, in receiving and remembering the laws given on Mount Sinai, the mitzvah given to the Israelites might have been an adaptation of the Ancient Egyptian tradition of wearing an amulet on the head to protect the wearer against evil, and “elevating” this tradition by a mitzvah to use verses of the Torah. In this regard, Rand seems to agree with Rav Yosef who said it was used to “ward off the evil eye.”

As to the word totafot itself, Rand notes the extensive record of biblical Hebrew words borrowed from Ancient Egyptian. Rand proposes that totafot, rather than wholly borrowed from Egyptian, is “a coined word [based on other Egyptian words] which had no prior existence before it appeared in Exodus.” According to him, totafot is a rhyming duplication, similar to hocus-pocus or humpty-dumpty, and the two key syllables, tot and fot, are an irreverent (or even sacrilegious) play on the names of Egypt’s two most important gods, Thot (the god of learning and wisdom, and scribe for the god Ptah) and Ptah (the creator of the world). For the Hebrews in Goshen, he says, the initial “p” sound in Ptah could have softened to “f” in totafot, just as Paroh often softens in the Hebrew text to Pharaoh.

Thus, in Exodus, wherein Pharoah’s gods are shown to be powerless before the God of the Israelites, Rand suggests that the Israelites’ term for an Egyptian amulet was a word that denigrated or demeaned those gods. Whether or not this is the source of totafot (and it likely is not), Rand’s suggestion is perfectly in accord with the Mishnaic interpretation of Deuteronomy 12:3, which commands regarding idols that the Israelites are to “break down their altars, and dash in pieces their pillars, and burn their Asherim with fire; … hew down the graven images of their gods; and … destroy their name out of that place.”

Tigay argues for an interpretation much more in line with that of Rabbi Abahu and the commentary of the Ramban, wherein totafot is a headband, and suggests that the use of the word is as much metaphorical as it is literal. Tigay explains the probable source of the word’s root meaning (i.e., something that encircles), illustrates how its use in Exodus could be understood metaphorically (i.e., something one holds close), and points out that contemporaneous Egyptian and Assyrian art from the eighth century BCE shows the wearing of headbands to be typical of peoples (e.g., the Israelites) living in the region northeast of Egypt.

In discussing the earliest translations of totafot, Tigay notes that it is almost always used in reference to something that “completely encircles the part of the body on which it is worn” (p. 325). Tigay draws further support for the “encircling” sense of totafot by examining the word’s consonantal root. The basic meaning of Hebrew words is found in their consonants, and the consonantal sequence for totafot is:

ת-פ-ט-ט (tet-tet-pey-taf) or ṭ-ṭ-p-t

Tigay considers the final “taf” not to be part of the root (but added as a plural suffix). This leaves totaf with the following consonants:

פ-ט-ט (tet-tet-pey) or ṭ-ṭ-p

Comparing totaf to other words like it, Tigay shows that the “o” in totaf was originally another “p,” such that totaf is derived from something like taftaf or taptap, as shown here:

פ-ט-פ-ט (tet-pay-tet-pey) or ṭ-p-ṭ-p

From this we see that the word has a four-consonant root (which most often involves a doubled two-consonant root) and the two-consonant source for taftaf, the single syllable taf, is etymologically related to the Arabic verb tāfa, which means “go around, encircle, encompass.” In fact, in Egyptian and Gazan Arabic today, taftaf is a colloquial word for a small bus or train that runs a short circuitous route (e.g., “the electric train which runs between the Visitors Center and the tombs in the Valley of the Kings”).

Given that four-consonant words in biblical and Modern Hebrew frequently refer to things that repeat, such as galgel “roll,” tiktek “tick” (like a clock), dishdesh “trample,” pirper “shake,” and gimgem “stutter,” we see how the word relates to something encircling the head. Thus, taftaf “encircle” becomes totaf, which becomes totafot “a headband.”

Tigay goes further in establishing the metaphorical connotations of totafot, showing there to be little motivation for grouping it with amuletlike things designed to ward off evil. In one text after another, drawing from Proverbs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Haggai, Song of Songs, and Job, Tigay shows that references to garments and ornaments that wrap around the body in various ways are often metaphorical allusions to “things which are kept constantly in mind or close to the wearer or held dearly by him or typify him.” Accordingly, Exodus 13:16 commands that the Exodus out of Egypt and the teachings surrounding it should be treated as totafot encircling one’s eyes and head—that is, something “as dear to the Israelite and close to him or on his mind as these ornaments are.” This metaphor for wrapping oneself in something dear for the sake of remembering it is prefigured seven verses earlier in Exodus 13:9, which says that these things should be “as a memorial (zikaron) between thine eyes.”

וּלְזִכָּרוֹן בֵּין עֵינֶיךָ [ul-zikaron beyn ‘eyneycha]

Taking totafot “headband” to be used metaphorically—treating the teachings as something one wraps around one’s head in order to remember them—it should be clear how it aligns with other similar expressions. The same verse (Exodus 13:16) says that one should “bind them (uk’shartam) as a sign on your hand,” where the root ר-ש-ק (kuf-shin-resh) q-sh-r means “connect.” So, in addition to wrapping oneself in them, one must also connect them to our hands—indicating perhaps that our hands (i.e., our actions) should be connected to them and guided by them. Similarly, the term for “sacrificial offering,” qorban, is etymologically related to the root ב-ר-ק (kuf-resh-bet) q-r-b which means “close” and refers thus to something that brings us close to G-d.

We are thus left with a way of understanding totafot as an ordinary word, as the Ramban would have it, neither borrowed from Egyptian, Coptic, or Phrygian, nor connected to other cultures’ magic rituals for dispelling evil. And rather than involving some mysterious allusion to the construction of the head tefillin, its meaning is a straightforward metaphor reminding us how important it is to keep the teachings close to us and foremost in our minds.

For the authors acknowledgements and bibliography, kindly click here.

Stanley Dubinsky is a Professor of Linguistics in the Department of English Language and Literature at the University of South Carolina. Rabbi Hesh Epstein is the (founding) Executive Director of Chabad Lubavitch of South Carolina and oversees the Chabad-Aleph House Synagogue in Columbia, S.C.