Is it one bracha or two brachot that men recite when wearing tefillin? It turns out that this is one of the differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazic practice, whose roots go back at least to the time of the Rishonim. Rashi, the Rif and the Rambam argue that in usual circumstances, only one bracha is recited. On the other hand, Rabbeinu Tam and the Rosh believe that the bracha of LeHani’ach Tefillin is recited on the shel yad, and the bracha of Al Mitzvat is recited upon placing the shel rosh on the head.
Maran Rav Yosef Karo rules in accordance with Rashi, the Rif and the Rambam, and the Rama notes that the custom among Ashkenazic communities is to follow Rabbeinu Tam and the Rosh. Sephardim follow Rav Karo and Ashkenazim follow the Rama. It is typical for Rav Karo to rule in accordance with the majority opinion among the Rif, Rambam and the Rosh. It is also the norm for the Rama to rule in accordance with the commonly accepted practices among Ashkenazim. Not only was the Rama a great Torah scholar, he was also an alert observer of Jewish practice in his broader area.
The Gemara in Brachot 60b serves as solid support for the Ashkenazic practice. This passage presents the order of brachot to be recited upon awakening. It specifically instructs that when placing the tefillin on the arm, the bracha of Lehani’ach is recited, and when placing tefillin on the head, the bracha of Al Mitzvat Tefillin is recited.
However, the Gemara in Menachot 36a serves as solid support for the Sephardic approach. This Gemara states that if one does not talk between affixing the tefillin shel yad and the shel rosh (as is proper conduct), one recites only one bracha; and only if one (improperly) interrupted with conversation is a second bracha (Al Mitzvat Tefillin) recited.
The Rishonim endeavor to interpret the text that does not fit smoothly into their respective approaches. Rashi, Rif and Rambam interpret Brachot 60b to be speaking about a situation when one spoke between placing the shel yad and the shel rosh. Rabbeinu Tam interprets Menachot 36a as referring only to the shel rosh. Normally, only one bracha is recited, but if one spoke then two brachot should be said upon placing the shel rosh on the head.
Most interesting is the Rama’s addition, observed by Ashkenazim, to recite “Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto” after saying Al Mitzvat Tefillin. This phrase is uttered if one mistakenly made an unnecessary bracha. In the context of tefillin shel rosh, it is recited out of respect to the opinion of Rashi, the Rif and Rambam who believe this bracha is unnecessary.
This practice appears unusual, since if the Rama and Ashkenazic Jews truly felt a concern for a bracha l’vatala (unnecessary bracha), the bracha would have been omitted entirely. Indeed, the Rama does not recommend saying Baruch Shem in any other situation when Ashkenazic Jews make a bracha that Sephardic Jews do not utter, such as a bracha on the recital of Hallel on Rosh Chodesh. I am under the impression that Kabbalistic concerns are at play regarding the recital of Baruch Shem Kevod Malchuto after saying Al Mitzvat Tefillin.
In any event, the Mishnah Berurah emphasizes that Ashkenazic Jews should not say Baruch Shem until after the tefillin shel rosh are completely in place, so as not to create an unwarranted interruption between placing the shel yad and shel rosh.
What should an Ashkenazic Jewish man do when visiting a Sephardic beit knesset for Shacharit on a day in which tefillin are worn? Should he refrain from reciting Al Mitzvat Tefillin on his shel rosh in deference to the practice of the beit knesset? I posed this question to Rav Amar during his visit to Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck, in August 2017. Rav Amar responded that the Ashkenazic Jew should recite the bracha but do so in an inconspicuous manner so that he is not blatantly distinguishing himself from the tzibur (community). Rav Amar suggested that he face the wall while reciting the bracha or cover his mouth.
It is a wonderful experience for Ashkenazic Jews to visit a Sephardic beit knesset. It is recommended, though, to be aware of Sephardic customs so that while following one’s practices he also shows respect to the community he is visiting.
By Rabbi Haim Jachter
Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.