Yalkut Yosef vs. Divrei Shalom Ve’Emet
This is a hotly debated issue! Chacham Yitzhak Yosef (Yalkut Yosef (25:71) notes that “our” custom is for men to place tefillin shel yad while seated. However, Divrei Shalom Ve’Emet (1:41), an important work authored by Rav Shlomo Toledano that defends the customs of North African Jews, strongly responds that most Sephardic men stand when placing the tefillin shel yad. Moreover, he insists that this is the original custom of all Sephardic Jews!
Rav Yosef Karo and the Rama
The Rama (Orach Chaim 25:11) records a debate about this matter. He first cites the Agur who quotes the Zohar, which teaches that men should sit while placing the tefillin shel yad. The Rama then notes that the Ashkenazic practice, though, is to stand while placing tefillin shel yad.
Rav Yosef Karo in the Shulchan Aruch is silent about this matter. One may reasonably infer from this that he believes that one should stand while placing the tefillin shel yad. The bracha on mitzvot is typically recited while standing, following the teaching stated explicitly in the Talmud Yerushalmi. The silence of the Shulchan Aruch indicates that he believes that the bracha for tefillin shel yad is not different than the bracha for other mitzvot and should be recited while standing. This seems to support Rav Toledano’s assertion that the original Sephardic custom is to stand while reciting the bracha on tefillin shel yad.
Ben Ish Chai and Kaf HaChaim
The Ben Ish Chai (Parshat Vayera, year one, number eight) notes that according to straightforward halacha, one should stand while reciting the bracha on tefillin shel yad. However, he notes that according to the Kabbalah one should sit. He writes that although the position of the Ari is not clear about this matter, the practice in his hometown Baghdad is to recite this bracha while sitting. Ben Ish Chai concludes that this is the proper practice.
The Kaf HaChaim (Orach Chaim 25:33) adopts an even stronger pro-sitting stance. He writes that the Ari believes that one should sit when reciting the bracha on tefillin shel yad. He also notes that this is the practice of the venerated Yeshivat Beit El for Mekubalim located in Jerusalem and the ruling of the important Sephardic halacha work Chessed LaAlaphim (25:4).
Thus, with the backing of the Ben Ish Chai and the Kaf HaChaim, Yalkut Yosef seems in a strong position to assert that the Sephardic practice is to sit while reciting this bracha. While normally Yalkut Yosef argues that Halacha trumps Kabbalah in case of conflict, in this case Yalkut Yosef sides in favor of the prevailing Sephardic custom, which follows the Kabbalah.
The Custom of North African Jews
While Rav Toledano argues that the custom of North African Jews is to recite the bracha on tefillin shel yad standing (since Halacha should trump Kabbalah), the well-accepted Moroccan Siddur Darke Avot writes that it should be recited while sitting! Rav Mordechai Lebhar in his Magen Avot resolves this issue by noting that while the dominant practice among North African Jews is to sit while reciting the bracha, some do stand for this bracha. He adds that some make a compromise and recite the bracha standing but place the tefillin while sitting. Derech Abotenou (the compendium of Moroccan practices written by Dr. Adam Ohayon and Ariel Picillo) adopts this approach as well. The Moroccan members of Shaarei Orah confirm that this is a correct assessment.
Conclusion: Synagogue Visitors
Yalkut Yosef writes that a Sephardic Jew should place his tefillin shel yad while sitting even when visiting an Ashkenazic congregation. It would seem that an Ashkenazic Jew who visits a heterogeneous Sephardic congregation such as Congregation Shaarei Orah may stand while placing the tefillin shel yad since some Sephardic Jews follow this practice as well.
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.