Phylacteries / Tephillin
This booklet is written with the idea of providing a means to get started in this study. It is by no means an effort to answer every question or give you all the proof you need. To truly understand, you need to do some research on your own. Most of the Scriptures quoted are from The Interlinear Bible, by Jay P. Green, Sr., as general editor and translator.
In reading and studying, I understood what phylacteries or tephillin were and I had seen pictures or diagrams of them. But I never saw them in use until we were on an El Al flight to Israel in 1999. About sunrise, the religious Jewish men got up from their seats, put on these items and their tallits and went to certain areas of the plane to face towards Jerusalem and conduct their morning prayers. It was like watching a performance on stage to see all the things they went through, step by step.
Where do these objects come from? Does Yahweh require them? What are they?
The words "phylacteries" or "tephillin" do not appear in the Old Testament. Only once it appears in the New Testament. The word "phylacteries" is the Greek #5440, phulakterion, meaning a guard-case, i.e. 'phylactery' for wearing slips of Scriptural texts.
These four sets of Scriptures are the ones that the Jews use to back up their use of tephillin. A tiny scroll of each of these is what will be found within the boxes on the tephillin.
Exodus 13: 1-10
And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying,
Set apart every first born to Me, the one opening every womb among the sons of Israel among men and among livestock - it shall be to Me.
And Moses said to the people, Remember this day in which you went out from Egypt, from the house of the slaves. For by the might of His hand Yahweh brought you out from here. And no leavened bread shall be eaten.
Today you are going out in the month of Abib.
And it shall be when Yahweh brings you into the land of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites, which He swore to your fathers, to give to you, a land flowing with milk and honey, you shall do this service in this month.
Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day keep a feast to Yahweh.
Unleavened bread shall be eaten the seven days. And leavened bread shall not be seen for you, and leaven shall not be seen for you in all your boundaries.
And you shall tell your son on that day, saying, it is because of what Yahweh did to me, in my going out from Egypt.
And it shall be a sign to you on your hand, and for a memorial between your eyes, so that a law of Yahweh may be in your mouth, for with a strong hand Yahweh brought you out from Egypt.
And you shall keep this ordinance at its appointed time, from days to days."
Exodus 13: 11-16
And it shall be, when Yahweh brings you into the land of the Canaanite, as He swore to you and to your fathers, and gives it to you
You shall set apart to Yahweh every one opening the womb, and every firstborn young of the animals which are yours; the males are to Yahweh.
And every firstling of an ass you shall redeem with a flock animal. And if you do not redeem it, you shall break its neck. And every firstborn of men among your sons you shall redeem.
And it shall be, when your son asks you in the future, saying, What is this? You shall say to him, Yahweh brought us out from Egypt by the might of His hand, from the house of slaves.
And it happened when Pharaoh hardened himself against sending us away, Yahweh killed every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of men and to the firstborn of animals. For this reason I sacrifice to Yahweh every one opening the womb, the males; and I redeem every firstborn of my sons.
And it shall be a sign on your hand, and frontlets between your eyes. For Yahweh brought us out from Egypt by the might of His hand."
Deuteronomy 6: 4-9
Hear, O Israel, Yahweh our Elohim is one Yahweh.
And you shall love Yahweh your Elohim with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
And these words that I am commanding you today shall be on your heart.
And you shall point out them to your sons and shall speak of them as you sit in your house, and as you walk in the way, and as you are lying down, and as you are rising up.
And you shall bind them for a sign on your hand; and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.
And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house, and on your gates."
Deuteronomy 11: 13-21
And it shall be, if you carefully listen to my commands which I command you today, to love Yahweh your Elohim, and to serve Him with all your heart, and with all your soul
that I will give the rain of your land in its season, the former rain and the latter rain, that you may gather in your grain, and your wine, and your oil.
And I will give grass in your fields for your livestock; and you shall eat and be satisfied.
Take heed to yourselves, that your heart not be deceived, and you turn aside and worship other gods, and serve them
And the anger of Yahweh glow against you, and He shut up the heavens, and there be no rain, and the ground not give her increase, and you perish quickly from off the good land which Yahweh is giving to you.
And you shall lay these words up in your heart, and in your soul, and shall bind them for a sign on your hand. And they shall be for frontlets between your eyes.
And you shall teach them to your sons by speaking of them as you sit in your house, and as you go in the way, and as you lie down, and as you rise up.
And you shall write them on the sideposts of your house, and on your gates.
That your days may be multiplied, and the days of your sons, in the land which Yahweh has sworn to your fathers, to give them, as the days of the heavens over the earth."
That's it, for instructions from the Torah. Now let's look to see how those Scriptures were used and what was done to try to follow what they saw there.
Journey Through Judaism, Alan D Bennett, editor, page 126 -
"Archeologists discovered tefilin in the Bar Kochba caves, which makes their use at least two thousand years old. Orthodox and Conservative males are required to put on tefilin (leather boxes with straps for head and arm containing parchment scrolls of selected biblical passages) once they reach the age of thirteen years and one day. Though the requirement of wearing tefilin is ascribed to four biblical passages, this mitzvah is derived from the commandment 'and you shall tie them for a sign upon your hand and they shall be for frontlets [or memorials] between your eyes' (Deuteronomy 6:8). However, whether this really means tefilin as we know it today is a matter of dispute."
The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, Dr J H Hertz, C H, editor, page 261 -
"The reminders on arm and forehead are called tephillin, a late Hebrew plural of tephillah, prayer. Four sections from the Torah (Ex. XIII, 1-10, 11-16; Deut. VI, 4-9 and XI, 13-21) are in the tephillin; and 'these four sections have been chosen in preference to all the other passages of the Torah, because they enhance the acceptance of the Kingdom of Heaven, the unity of the Creator, and the exodus from Egypt - fundamental doctrines of Judaism'. (Sefer ha-Chenuch.) The purpose of the tephillin is given in the Meditation recited before putting on the tephillin (Authorised Prayer Book, p. 15): - 'Within these Tephillin are placed four sections of the Law, that declare the absolute unity of God, and that remind us of the miracles and wonders which He wrought for us when He brought us forth from Egypt, even He who hath power over the highest and lowest to deal with them according to His will. He hath commanded us to lay the Tephillin on the hand as a memorial of His outstretched arm; opposite the heart, to indicate the duty of subjecting the longings and designs of our heart to His service, blessed be He; and upon the head over against the brain, thereby teaching that the mind, whose seat is in the brain, together with all senses and faculties, is to be subjected to His service, blessed be He'."
"The tephillin are not worn at night, nor on Sabbaths or Festivals, as these are themselves called 'a sign' of the great truths symbolized by the tephillin. The commandment of tephillin applies to all male persons from their thirteenth birthday, when they attain their religious majority (Barmitzvah). On the Sabbath following that birthday, the Barmitzvah is called to the Law, publicly to acknowledge God as the Giver of the Torah."
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, W Gunther Plaut, editor, page 472 -
"Tefillin is the postbiblical Hebrew term for two small boxes containing Torah passages written on pieces of parchment, with leather bands attached to the boxes in such a way that one may be worn on the forehead, between the eyes, and the other tied to the arm. Tefillin (from tefillah, prayer) is the name of a small tractate in the Talmud that assembles the relevant prescriptions of tradition.
"The Torah demands four times that words of the law be put as signs on the hand and as frontlets (or symbols) between the eyes (or on the forehead). Just what the Torah itself had in mind when these admonitions were set down can no longer be ascertained. They may have implied a demonstrative display similar to that of the mezuzah (with which they are linked in Deut. 6:8-9) or they have been meant figuratively, as was maintained as late as in the Middle Ages by the Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir, in his commentary on the Torah.). These commandments, he writes, 'shall be for you a reminder as if they were written on your hand. They are to be taken [fig] just as in 'Set me as a seal upon your heart'' (Song of Solomon 8:6). At any rate, the custom of writing down some representative laws which could then be worn goes back to ancient days and may be connected with ideas that the wearing would have some prophylactic effect similar to that of amulets, or perhaps would show the wearer's membership in a sacred community. The Rabbis still had a tradition, however, that made it clear that some regulations pertaining to the tefillin were a post-Torah development, and they held that such rules went back only to the soferim (scribes), that is, to the early teachers of the Oral Law, but no farther.
"…traditional Judaism has stressed the great spiritual importance of carrying out the commandments. Says Maimonides: 'The sanctity of tefillin is very great. So long as the tefillin are on the head and arm of a man, he is modest and God-fearing … and will devote his thoughts to truth and righteousness'."
Illustrated Dictionary of the Bible, Herbert Lockyer, Sr, editor, pages 840-841 -
"Phylacteries consisted of two small hollow cubes made of the skin of clean animals. These boxes were attached to leather straps which were used to fasten them to the left hand and to the forehead during morning worship.
"The discovery of portions of phylacteries in the Dead Sea caves reveals they were not standardized before the time of Christ. Certainly not all the people wore them, but the Pharisees possibly wore them constantly during the time of Jesus.
"The word phylacteries occurs only once in the New Testament: 'They [the scribes and Pharisees] make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments' (Matt. 23:5). In this passage, Jesus criticized the display of some religious leaders who wanted to impress people with their piety."
Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible, J I Packer and M C Tenney, editors, page 482 -
"To counter the idolatrous practice of wearing amulets, Hebrew men began wearing phylacteries. There were two kinds of phylacteries: one worn on the forehead between the eyebrows, and one worn on the left arm. The one worn on the forehead was called a frontlet. It had four compartments, each of which contained a piece of parchment. On the first was written Exodus 13:1-10, on the second was written Exodus 13:11-16, on the third was written Deuteronomy 6:4-9, and on the fourth, Deuteronomy 11:13-21. These four pieces of paper were wrapped in animal skin, making a square package. This small bundle was then tied to the forehead with a thong or ribbon.
"The phylactery worn on a man's arm was made of two rolls of parchment, on which the laws were written in special ink. The parchment was partially rolled up, enclosed in a case of black calfskin, and tied with a thong to the upper left arm near the elbow. The thong was then wound crisscross around the arm, ending at the top of the middle finger."
Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, page 638, regarding Exodus 13:9 -
"and … frontlets between their eyes - for bands or fillets, particularly strips of parchment, containing sentences from the Mosaic law, which the Israelites wound round the forehead. Perhaps Moses meant the metaphorical language in the eighth verse to be taken in the same sense also. But as the Israelites interpreted it literally many writers suppose that a reference was made to a superstitious custom borrowed from the Egyptians, who wore jewels and ornamental trinkets on the forehead and arm, inscribed with certain words and sentences, as amulets to protect them from danger. These, it has been conjectured, Moses intended to supersede by substituting sentences of the law and so the Hebrews understood him, for they have always considered the wearing of the Tephilim, or frontlets, a permanent obligation."
Commentary on the Whole Bible, Matthew Henry, volume 1, page 586-587, regarding Exodus 13:9 -
"They shall be as frontlets between thy eyes, and thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house - It is probable that at that time there were few written copies of the whole law, only at the feasts of tabernacles the people had it read to them; and therefore God appointed them, at least for the present, to write some select sentences of the law, that were most weighty and comprehensive, upon their walls, or in scrolls of parchment to be worn about their wrists; and some think that hence the phylacteries so much used among the Jews took rise. Christ blames the Pharisees, not for wearing them, but for affecting to have them broader than other peoples, Matt. 23:5."
International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, volume 4, page 2393 -
"It may be rendered then as a mark or ornament or jewel, and used figuratively of Jehovah's Law as an ornament or jewel to the forehead of the Israelite, a reference to the charm or amulet worn by the pagan. The word used in the Talmud for the phylactery is tephillah, 'prayer,' or 'prayer-band', indicating its use theoretically as a reminder of the Law, although practically it might be esteemed as an automatic and ever-present charm against evil: an aid within toward the keeping of the Law, a guard without against the approach of evil; a degradation of an Old Testament figurative and idealistic phrase to the materialistic and superstitious practices of the pagans.
"It is evident that the words in Exodus are beyond all question used figuratively; a careful reading of the verses in Deuteronomy in close relation to their contexts, in which are other figures of speech not to be taken literally, is sufficient proof of their purely figurative intention also. Only the formalism of later ages could distort these figures into the gross and materialistic practices of the phylactery. Just when this practice began cannot accurately be determined. While the Talmud attempts to trace it back to the primitive, even Mosaic, times, it probably did not long ante-date the birth of Christ.
"In the New Testament passage (Mt 23:5) Our Lord rebukes the Pharisees, who make more pronounced the un-Scriptural formalism and the crude literalism of the phylacteries by making them obtrusively large, as they also seek notoriety for their religiosity by the enlarged fringes, or 'borders'."
Jewish Literacy, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, page 661 -
"Certain Jewish groups - including probably the Sadducees, and definitely the medieval Karaites - understood the last verse (De 6:8) to be figurative; it means only that one should always be preoccupied with words of Torah, as if they were in front of one's eyes. The Pharisees, however, took the text literally; the words of the Torah are to be inscribed on a scroll and placed directly between one's eyes and on one's arm."
Illustrated Dictionary of Bible Life and Times, Reader's Digest Association, Inc, page 272 -
"Phylactery - In the time of Jesus, Jewish men wore phylacteries - small, black leather boxes strapped to their forehead and left arm - while praying. Inside each box were Bible passages transcribed on tiny parchments. The passages included the ten commandments and a statement of loyalty to God (Deut 6:4-9). The custom of wearing phylacteries, which continue today, may have started as early as 250 B C, growing out of the command to take the words of God and 'bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an EMBLEM on your forehead' (Deut 6:8)."
Everyman's Talmud, Abraham Cohen, page 153 -
"Their purpose was to make the precepts of the Torah a controlling and guiding force in life, so that the ideals of Judaism should mould the thoughts and direct the actions of man."
To Be A Jew, Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin, page 151 -
"If a person has no tefillin and enters a synagogue to join the congregation in prayer, it is preferable that he wait until after the services and borrow a pair of tefillin from another worshipper so that he may at least read the Shema and the Amidah while wearing tefillin, rather than pray with the congregation without tefillin.
"The tefillin is part of the religious uniform worn by adult males during the weekday morning service. To engage in morning weekday prayers without them is a mark of disrespect. It is to approach the Lord, as a soldier in the army of God, improperly attired… To deliberately refuse to put on tefillin while reciting the Shema; where the commandment to put on tefillin appears twice, is looked upon as an act of arrogant contempt before the Lord. The Sages said: 'Whoever recites the Shema without tefillin, it is as if he bears false witness against himself,' i.e., accuses himself of falsehood (Brakhot 14b).
"When the tefillin are put on, a male Jew testifies to his identification with the Jewish past, its present, and its future. Whether one prays in the synagogue or in the privacy of one's own home, tefillin is a required daily weekday observance."
"…in reality the Karaites and Sadducees never wore Tefillin at all, let alone between their eyes because this is simply not what the verse is talking about. One Rabbinite polemicist asked, 'How can you Karaites know how to make Tefillin without all the specifications laid down in the "Oral Law"?'. The answer is we can not because the "Oral Torah" made the whole thing up."
"The brilliant Rabbanite commentator Rashbam (Rashi's grandson) was wise enough to realize the true meaning of this expression. Commenting on the verse 'And it shall be for a sign upon your hand and a remembrance (Zicharon) between your eyes' he writes:
" 'For a sign upon your hand' According to its plain meaning (Omek Peshuto), 'It shall be remembered always AS IF it had been written upon your hand' SIMILAR TO 'he put me as a seal upon your heart' (Cant 8,6). 'Between your eyes', LIKE a piece of jewelry or gold chain which people put on the forehead for decoration' (Rashbam on Ex 13,9)."
"Rashi's grandson rightfully interprets the 'Tefillin passage' as a metaphor which demands that we remember the Torah always and treasure it like a piece of fine jewelry. Rashbam and the Karaites realize that not everything in the Torah is to be taken literally as a command. The classic example of this is 'And you shall circumcise the foreskin of your heart' (Dt 10,16). Obviously God is not commanding mass suicide but is rather commanding us to figuratively circumcise the foreskin of our hearts, i.e. remove our impurity and stubbornness and commit to his covenant with our hearts."
"In all the passages, apart from Exod. 13:9 were it has zikkaron, 'memorial', the word totafoth 'frontlets' is in the plural and not in the singular totefeth, if the above mentioned passages were meant to be taken literally and not figuratively then surely more than one frontlet should be worn between the eyes, and why give them various names, 'signs', 'frontlets' and 'memorial' if they are supposed to represent the one and same thing? Thus it would seem likely that the expressions 'signs', 'frontlets' and 'memorial' are intended to be taken figuratively, as are other expressions in these same passages ('the Tora of YHWH may be in your mouth', Exod. 13:9; 'you shall place these words upon hour hearts and upon your souls', Deut 11:18)."
"While rabbinic commentators on the Bible take the verses in Exodus and Deuteronomy as literally commanding the wearing of the phylacteries (see, however, Shemuel ben Meir [Rashbam] on Exod. 13:9), the rabbis of the Talmud were aware that the Bible gives absolutely no description of phylacteries or the laws concerning them."
"Karaite and Samaritan commentators explain 'And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand' as a general exhortation to moderate the actions of the human person, and especially the actions of the hand, likewise 'and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes' is taken as referring to learning Tora on which the proper understanding of the Word of God depends. In other words our thoughts and actions should be guided by the teachings of the Tora and that it is not enough just to study Tora but one should act upon their knowledge and in the same vein it is not enough just to obey the Tora but one has to understand the precepts that one is commanded to fulfill. Also Philo clearly does not know of the rabbinic practice of tefillin and explains these verses allegorically in his writings."
"At what date did the Pharisees begin to wear phylacteries and to interpret the passages from Scripture literally? The LXX translates the word totafoth as asaleuton, 'that which is fixed, immovable'. This implies that in Egypt in the middle of the 3rd century BCE the institution of phylacteries was not yet known."
"Taking into account these Aramaic linguistic details one can come to the conclusion that the Pharisaic custom of tefillin, which itself is an Aramaic word, was introduced when Aramaic had replaced Hebrew as the day to day spoken language of the Jews in Israel. As already mentioned the Samaritans do not accept the precept of tefillin, this suggests that prior to the Jewish-Samaritan schism the literal interpretation of the verses in question was not accepted. Bearing all of the above facts in mind, it therefore seems prudent to attribute the introduction of phylacteries to the period between the 2nd century BCE and 1st century CE."
"The custom of wearing phylacteries was not as widespread in the first two centuries of the Common Era, as the Rabbis would have us believe. For the wearing of phylacteries was seen as one of the criteria distinguishing a haver (member of the rabbinic 'society') from an 'am haares (one not observing rabbinic customs). According to Josephus, himself a Pharisee, there were only about 6,000 of them in Israel during the late Second Temple period (Ant. 7:2:4), out of a possible Jewish population in Israel of some 2,000,000. Thus the 'am haares formed the overwhelming majority of the population, and the wearing of phylacteries was limited to a small group."
Oxford Concise Companion to the Jewish Religion, Louis Jacobs, page 265 -
"Tefillin - The cube-shaped black leather boxes, containing four scriptural passages. Attached to the head and arm that are worn during the morning prayers. It is purely coincidental that the word tefillin so closely resembles the word for prayer, tefillah, since, although, eventually the tefillin were only worn for the morning prayer, in Talmudic times they were worn all day and had no special association with prayer.
"In four Pentateuchal passages it is stated that certain words should be on the hand and between the eyes. Many commentators, including Rashbam, hold that the plain meaning of these passages, is that the word of the Torah should be constantly in mind, as in the verses: 'Set them as a seal upon thy heart, as a seal upon thine arm' (Song of Solomon 8:6) and 'Let not kindness and truth forsake thee; bind them about thy neck write them on the table of thy heart' (Proverbs 3:3). The Karaites understood the passages in this figurative way and did not wear tefillin. But very early on Jews understood the passages in a literal sense and wore these four sections on the head and the arm, the words being those in the sections themselves."
Okay. So what is your conclusion? Do you reach the same concept of Yahweh's words being fulfilled in these objects?
Points to think about ---
- There is no description of the tephillin in the Torah - no mention of leather, boxes, small scrolls or straps.
- There is no mention in the Torah of the ways or times these should be worn, if at all.
- These did not come into use until around 250 B.C. or later - that is from history.
- These are to be worn only when reciting the prayers. But aren't we to remember these words all the time?
These tephillin are worn only during the prayers, when reciting things like the Shema or the Amidah. The words of the Shema are in the Scripture, but there is no instruction there for them to be recited repeatedly, several times a day. The Amidah is nowhere in Scripture. It is a prayer written by a man, like most of the prayers and blessings they use. They repeat them endlessly, often not understanding the Hebrew words they are saying. And what does Scripture say about that?
Matthew 6: 6-7
But you, when you pray, enter into your room, and shutting your door, pray to your Father in secret. And your Father seeing in secret will repay you in the open.
But when you pray, do not babble vain words, as the nations, for they think that they shall be heard in their much speaking."
The Scriptures mentions several times that Yahshua prayed - but there is no mention of Him donning these objects.
"And they do all their works to be seen by men. And they make their phylacteries broad, and enlarge the borders of their robes."
Maybe Yahshua did not say they were wrong in wearing these, but neither did He mention anywhere that all needed to be using them. He was condemning the attitude of the Pharisees. They were making these phylacteries and their fringes bigger and better - to look more religious.
Sometimes it seems that the wearers of these objects worship the idea of appearing religious in front of others with their tephillin, kippah, tallit and beard. Do their attention and thoughts really focus on Yahweh or on all these objects and the right wording of the memorized prayers? When you take the time to pray, is Yahweh checking to see if you are wearing these things and that you have your prayerbook handy? Or is this what He is looking for?
"Yahweh is near those who are broken hearted, and saves those who have a contrite spirit."
"The sacrifices of Elohim are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O Elohim, You will not despise."
"…But I will look toward this one, to the afflicted, and the contrite of spirit, even trembling at My word."