Phylacteries

"A Sign Upon Your Hand and
as Frontlets Between Your Eyes."

by Hakham Meir Yosef Rekhavi

The word "phylactery" derived from the Greek phylakterion also known by the Aramaic word tefillin, is the name given in rabbinic sources to two black leather boxes containing scriptural passages which are worn on the forehead and left arm. The Mishna, Shebu. 3.8, 11, requires males thirteen years and older to wear tefillin each day. Women are explicitly exempt from this religious obligation (m. Ber. 3.3). The basis for wearing phylacteries was derived by the rabbis from four biblical verses:

1. "And it shall be to you as a sign upon your hand and as a memorial between your eyes so that the Tora of YHWH may be in your mouth because with a strong hand YHWH brought you out of Egypt." (Exod. 13:9)

2. "And it shall be to you as a sign upon your hand and as frontlets between your eyes because with a strong hand YHWH brought us out of Egypt." (Exod. 13:16)

3. "And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes." (Deut. 6:8)

4. "And you shall place these words upon your hearts and upon your souls and you shall bind them as a sign upon your hands and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes." (Deut. 11:18)

(Note: Exod. 13:9 has zikkaron, "memorial", instead of "frontlets".)

Thus both the head and hand phylacteries contain four passages from Scripture which include these verses: Exod. 13:1-10, 11-16; Deut. 6:4- 9; 11:13-21. The head phylactery consists of four compartments, each containing one section of Scripture, while the hand phylactery has one compartment containing all four passages on one parchment. The boxes of the phylacteries must be exactly square made from the hide of a kasher animal, and both the boxes and the straps which hold them firm must be painted black. The head phylactery is imprinted twice with the Hebrew letter shin: once on the side which is to the left of the wearer, and once on the opposite side. The shin on the right has four rather than the usual three prongs, as a reminder of the four scriptural passages contained in the phylacteries (b. Menah. 35a). Each box is sewn to a base of thick leather with twelve stitches, one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel (b. Shabb. 8b). The phylacteries are not worn at night, nor on festivals or the Shabbath (b. Menah. 36a-b). The hand phylactery is donned first: the box is placed on the inner side of the upper arm (facing the heart) and the strap is wound seven times around the arm. The head phylactery is placed in the middle of the forehead, with the two ends of the strap hanging over the shoulders. The placing of each phylactery is accompanied by certain blessings. They are worn during the morning prayer and removed in the reverse order in which they were placed on the body.

The first question is thus whether the "signs" and "frontlets" of Exodus and Deuteronomy were intended to describe objects in some way similar to phylacteries, (as understood by Rabbanites) or if they were figurative terms, (as understood by Karaites, Samaritans and Falashas). The figurative intent of Exod. 13:9, 16 seems clear when one considers the grammatical subject of "shall be to you as a sign upon your hand and as a memorial/frontlets between your eyes" in those verses. The subject cannot be the biblical passages themselves, since they are not mentioned in the texts. The subject must be either a) the fact "that YHWH brought the Israelites out of Egypt" (vv. 9b,16b); in that case, the verses mean that YHWH's mighty deeds must be remembered (like a sign on the hand and a memorial/frontlets between the eyes), or b) the grammatical antecedents of "shall be", namely "this day" or "this practice" i.e the Feast of Unleavened Bread in Exod. 13:3-10 and the sacrifice/redemption of the firstborn in verses 11-16; in that case, the verses mean that these things must be remembered (like a sign on the hand and a memorial/frontlets between the eyes), so that YHWH's teaching will be remembered. In neither case does "it shall be a sign" represent an additional observance beyond those mentioned in verses 3-8 and 11-15. "This institution" in verse 10 explicitly refers to an annual practice, namely the eating of unleavened bread in verses 3-8, not to a daily rite such as tefillin. Hence Exodus 13 is using sign, memorial and frontlets figuratively to indicate that certain historical events and ceremonies are to be remembered. The middle part of the verse of Exodus 13:9 "so that the Tora of YHWH may be in your mouth" has a definite figurative connotation to it, thus lending the same understanding to the first part of the verse. Neither of these two ceremonies can be understood to be literally bound upon the body of the Israelite; rather, they are to serve as perpetual reminders of how God redeemed Israel from the hands of the Egyptians. The passages in Deuteronomy must also be read figuratively, because "these words" (Deut. 6:6 and 11:18) when read in context must refer to the recitation of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy chap. 5 when referring to Deut. 6:6, and to the discourse in Deuteronomy chaps. 10-11 when referring to Deut. 11:8, if not in both cases to the entire Tora. 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 your hearts and upon your souls", Deut 11:18). Additional biblical sources for understanding these verses figuratively are:

"Place me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm." (Song of Songs 8:6)

"Hear my son, the reproof of your father and do not abandon the Tora of your mother. For they are a graceful garland for your head and a necklace for your throat." (Prov. 1:8-9)

"My son, forget not my Tora, and in your heart keep my commandments. Piety and truth shall not forsake you, bind them upon your throat, write them upon the tablet of your heart." (Prov. 3:1&3)

"My son, keep the commandments of your father and do not forsake the Tora of your mother. Bind them always upon your heart and tie them upon your throat. When you are walking it shall lead you, when you lie down it shall keep you, and when you awake it shall converse with you." (Prov. 6:20-22)

"Keep my commandments and live, and my Tora as the pupil of your eye. Bind them upon your finger, write them upon the tablet of your heart." (Prov. 7:2-3)

"I will place my Tora in their inward parts and upon their hearts I will write it." (Jer. 31:32)

The above verses must be therefore seen as the proof texts for a figurative understanding of Exod. 13:9,16 and Deut. 6:8 & 11:18. If the verses in question are meant to be understood figuratively and not literally then what is the meaning behind 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 fulfil. Also Philo clearly does not know of the rabbinic practice of tefillin and explains these verses allegorically in his writings.

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. 13:19), the rabbis of the Talmud were aware that the Bible gives absolutely no description of phylacteries or the laws concerning them. These laws were understood by the rabbis as an example of a biblical precept whose details are elaborated only in the oral law (m. Sanh. 11:3), and all the details of their construction are attributed to those oral laws which God purportedly taught Moshe at Sinai (b. Menah. 34b-37a). Given the tenuous relationship between the laws of phylacteries described in the Talmud and the alleged scriptural basis for them, it is far from apparent at exactly what point in the history of Pharisaic Judaism phylacteries were introduced.

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. Rather, the four scriptural passages were interpreted as meaning that the laws and rituals of Exodus 13 and Deuteronomy 6 and 11 should remain the unchanging subjects of one's thoughts, as also understood by Karaites, Samaritans and Falashas. The earliest explicit reference to phylacteries in a literary work is the Letter of Aristeas, sec. 159, where only the phylactery of the hand is mentioned. Scholars differ as to the dating of this text. Most place it in the 2nd century BCE, though some claim that parts of it, including secs. 128-71, date from the 1st century CE. It must also be noted that all names referring to parts of the phylacteries casings are in Aramaic, e.g titora, which is the square base of thick leather, another example is ma'abarta, which is the hollow projection at the back of the phylactery through which the strap is passed. 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.

All statements as to the nature of phylacteries in pre-Mishnaic times were mere conjecture until the discovery some forty years ago of the remains of phylacteries at the Murabba'at caves, which were occupied by refugees at the time of the Bar Kokhba revolt (135 CE), and at the caves at Qumran. Scientific examination revealed that three of the four scriptural passages from the capsule of head phylacteries were still in their original compartments. The form of the phylacteries, the material used for the parchment and the tying, all conform to the regulations given in the Talmud. Most surprisingly, the difference of opinion between Rashi (1040-1105) and his grandson Rabbenu Tam (1096-1171) two 12th-century Talmudists, as to the order of arranging the four scriptural passages in the head compartments is reflected in the Qumran fragments. Thus we know that the dispute did not originate during the medieval period, as some scholars had previously thought, but reflected divergent traditions which go back to the 1st century CE. Another stage in the development of phylacteries was revealed when it was discovered that the Qumran phylacteries contained the Decalogue. As early as 1927, Mann claimed that pre-rabbinic tefillin contained the Decalogue. Mann also points out that m. Sanh 11.3 expressly forbids the use of five rather than four passages in the phylacteries. Since Sifre to Deuteronomy, secs. 34-35, uses two exegetical interpretations to justify the exclusion of the Decalogue from phylacteries, it seemed logical to Mann that the fifth forbidden passage is the Decalogue. (According to both Palestinian and Babylonian traditions the use of the Decalogue was suspended because some sectarians claimed "these alone were given to Moshe at Sinai" [y. Ber. 3c; b. Ber. 12a] ). Mann's hypothesis was confirmed by the evidence at Qumran. Since those phylacteries found at Qumran contain the Decalogue while those at Murabba'at do not, it is clear that the Mishnaic reform mentioned above had taken effect by 135 CE. Thus we see that while the physical elements of the phylacteries, i.e., the case, the parchment, the ties, etc., were already fixed by the 2nd century CE, the final uniformity of the text was not established until later, and even then, two traditions remained as to the ordering of the four passages.

It has been suggested because of the find of tefillin at Qumran, that the "Qumran Sect" believed in the literal interpretation of Exod. 13:9,16 and Deut. 6:8 & 11:18, if this was so then how come only a few pairs of tefillin were found? For surely there would be more remains than the pitiful few artefacts found, due to the size of the Qumran community. Also there is no mention of tefillin what so ever in any of the Qumranic literature, whether halakhic or other wise. If these tefillin did not belong to the Qumranic community, then where did they come from? Various biblical scholars i.e Allegro, Driver, Roth, Vermes, Yadin, de Vaux and others claim evidence that during the first revolt against Rome (66-73 CE) there was the presence of a contingent of Zealot Sicarii (who were ardent Pharisees) at Qumran. Is it not then plausible that these phylacteries belonged to the Zealots rather than to the "Qumran Sect"!

If the so called oral law is so pedantic about the materials used for the parchments and in the making of the tefillin, and also the manner in which tefillin are to be worn, then surely such a major issue as the order of arranging the four scriptural passages in the head compartments would also be standardized by the so called oral law? This issue as seen from above, was not finalized until the 12th-century, thus showing that the commandment to wear tefillin is not derived from the Tora, but has been developed over the centuries and is therefore due to rabbinic misinterpretation of Exod. 13:9, 16 and Deut. 6:8 & 11:18. The Mishna (m. Sanh 11.3) expressly forbids the use of five rather than four passages in the phylacteries. This Mishnaic reform is not a warning against the inclusion of an extra passage in the phylacteries but is informing the reader that a passage that had already been included should be now excluded from the phylacteries. The reason for this reform is verified by y. Ber. 3c; b. Ber. 12a. Now let us suppose that there is such a thing as the oral law and if there was, by suspending the use of the Decalogue as the fifth passage from the phylacteries, as mentioned above, then the Rabbis are surely going against the oral law and are therefore in their own eyes breaking a divine commandment, and if the Rabbis say that they are not breaking a divine commandment then they are surely negating their whole belief in a divinely transmitted oral law.

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.

The word tefillin appears a number of times in lists with qamea', "an amulet" (m. Miqw. 10.2; m. Kelim 23.1; m. Shabb. 6.2). In fact all three terms, Aramaic tefillin, Hebrew qamea' and the Greek phylakterion literally mean "amulet". While there is no evidence in rabbinic literature that phylacteries were ever regarded as amulets, it is possible that at the time they were first adopted, the masses regarded them as possessing magical properties similar to those of the qamea', which were also written on parchment by a professional scribe and worn on one's body. Indeed, the very custom of wearing phylacteries might have emerged as a popular superstition, one which was then made normative by the Pharisaic scholars, who stripped the symbol of its original magical overtones and infused it with a more "legitimate" religious significance. The choice of the term tefillin, seen as the plural of "prayer", would thus be part of the rabbinic polemic to replace the original prophylactic nature of phylacteries with the liturgical nature of tefillin.