Probing the Earliest Origins of Tefillin (phylacteries) Part I
The commandment to wear tefillin, referred to as ‘phylacteries'(from an ancient Greek term meaning ‘amulet’), is based on four different verses in the Pentateuch:
And it shall be for a sign for you upon your hand, and for a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth; for with a strong hand did the Lord bring you out of Egypt.
And it shall be for a sign upon your hand, and as totafot between your eyes; for with a mighty hand did the Lord bring us forth out of Egypt.
And you shall bind them as a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as totafot between your eyes.
You shall put these words of mine on your heart and on your soul; and you shall tie them for a sign upon your arm, and they shall be as totafot between your eyes.
W. Gunther Plaut in his The Torah: A Modern Commentary, page 472 explains:
“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.
Earliest Jewish Sources
The Alexandrian native and Hellenist-Jewish philosopher, Philo (circa 20 CE to 40 BCE) writes (The Works of Philo by C. D. Yonge, Hendrickson Publishers, 1993, pp.629-30):
(137)The law says it is proper to lay up justice in one’s heart, and to fasten it as a sign upon one’s head, and as frontlets before one’s eyes, figuratively intimating by the former expression that one ought to commit the precepts of justice, not to one’s ears, which are not trustworthy, for there is no credit due to the ears, but that most important and dominant part, stamping and impressing them on the most excellent of all offerings, a well approved seal; (138) and by the second expression, that is is necessary not only to form proper conceptions of what is right, but also to do what one has decided upon without delay. For the hand is the symbol of actions, to which Moses here commands the people to attach and fasten justice, saying that it shall be a sign, of what indeed he has not expressly stated, because it is not a sign as I conceive of one particular thing, but of many, and I may also say, of everything with which the life of man is concerned. (139)And by the third expression, he implies that justice is discerned everywhere as being close to the eyes.
Moreover he says that these things must have a certain motion; not one that shall be light and unsteady, but such as by its agitation may rouse the sight of the spectacle manifest before it; for motion is calculated to attract the sight, inasmuch as it excites and rouses it; of, I might rather say inasmuch as it renders the eyes awake and sleepless.
What we have read so far, leaves us with an unmistakable understanding that Philo took the aforementioned verses metaphorically and was not at all familiar with Phylacteries as we know them today. However, in the proceeding passage (142), Philo clearly talks about a tangible ‘mezuzah’, not unlike the ones used by Samaritans to this day (although, I want to focus this post on tefillin only, I think it is interesting to note that his interpretation of וכתבתם על מזוזות ביתך ובשערך, literally “and you shall write them on the doorposts of home and your gates” ,which follows directly the verse on ‘tefillin’ in Deut. 6:9, differs sharply with his interpretation of the preceding verse). I saw that the Biblical scholar S.R. Driver was bothered by this as well, and therefore came to his conclusion that since the first part of the verse is speaking of a tangible object, so must it be the case with the latter part as well. Anyway back to Philo:
(142)Moreover, he ordains that those who have written out these things should afterwards affix them to every house belonging to a friend, and to the gates which are in their walls; that all people, whether coming in or going out, whether citizens or strangers, reading the writing thus fixed on pillars before the gates, may have an unceasing recollection of all that ought to be said or that ought to be done; and that every one may take care neither to do nor to suffer injury; and that all persons, whether going into their houses or going out of them, men and women, children and servants,may do all that is proper and becoming to one another and to themselves.
The Jewish historian Josephus (circa 37 CE to 100 CE) in his Antiquities, Book IV, Chap. VIII, 13 (translated by William Whiston, Kregel Pub. 1960):
Let every one commemorate before God the benefits which He bestowed upon them at their deliverance out of the land of Egypt, and this twice every day, both when the day begins and when the hour of sleep comes on, gratitude being in its own nature a just thing, and serving not only by way of return for past, but also by way of invitation of future favours. They are also to inscribe the principle blessings they have received from God upon their doors and shew the same remembrance of them upon their arms; as also they are to bear on their forehead and their arm whose wonders which declare the power of God, and his goodwill towards them, that God’s readiness to bless them may appear everywhere conspicious about them.
This account differs from Philo’s and it seems as if Josephus is indeed speaking about actual objects. This must have prompted the editor (Whiston) to comment there in a footnote: “whether these phylacteries and other Jewish memorials of the law here mentioned by Josephus, were literally meant by God I much question. The Karaites who keep close to the written law think they were not literally to be understood”.
Now whether Whiston questions Josephus’ interpretation or our possibly faulty understanding of this passage is unclear to me.
From the Letter of Aristeas (a Hellenic work dating to the 2nd century BCE) included in the Pseudepigrapha and translated into Hebrew הספרים החיצונים ed. by Avraham Kahane, and published in Jerusalem, 1969, עמוד מט:
וכל זמן ומקום קבע לזכור ולחשוב תמיד על האלהים השליט והשומר…ועוד נתן לנו אות זכרון בכנפות בגדנו וכן צונו לקבוע בשערים ובפתחים את הפרשיות למען נזכור מציאות אלהים. ואף צוה בדברים ברורים לקשור את האות סביב היד..אף הוא צווה להגות בשכבנו ובקומנו ובלכתנו במעשי אלהים ולא רק בדבור כי אם גם בעיון-מחשבה…
Aristeas here uses the words “he hath commanded us with indubitable words to tie the sign around the hand”
More on the Jewish customs decribed in Aristeas here
In the New Testament, there is the famous mention of the Pharisees and their tefillin, however only the ones for the forehead are mentioned: ‘They [the scribes and Pharisees] make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments” (Matt. 23:5). Interestingly enough, while in the original Greek the word used is ‘phylacteries’, which is an obvious tangible object (and therefore a non-metaphoric one), in the Hebrew translation of that passage in Mathew, published by the Bible Society in Israel (1991), the meaning of the word is a bit more ambiguous: הסופרים והפרושים יושבים על כסא משה….ועושים את כל מעשיהם כדי להראות לבני אדם, בהרחיבם את תפילהם ובהאריכם את ציציותיהם. (מתי, כג 5
Now it might be a bit of a stretch but in this interpretation (incidentally, the book of Mathew is the only book in the entire New Testament that was originally composed in Hebrew), Jesus might not be referring to phylacteries at all but rather to prayer תפילהם; they lengthened their prayers.
At any rate, in the Greek translation, it appears that he is referring to an amulet that the Pharisees tied to their foreheads; no mention of a tefillin of the arm is made. Interestingly enough, see L. Ginsberg, Die Haggadah, pp. vi, 105-6; and the late 9th c. testimony of R. Nahshon, Gaon of the Yeshiva of Sura, who reported that he had before him an ancient fragment of the Talmud that differed from his own version. Whereas his (and our) normative text of Babylonian Talmud Menahot 43B reads “whoever has tefillin on his head and tefillin on his forearms…there is complete presumption that he will not sin”, the ancient fragment reads, “tefilllin on his head and a sefer torah on his arm”. The latter is understood to denote the 10 Commandments.
in Commentary on the Whole Bible, by Matthew Henry, volume 1, page 586-587, regarding Exodus 13:9, the latter pointedly comments on the passage in Mathew that “Christ blames the Pharisees, not for wearing them, but for affecting to have them broader than other peoples”.
So in summation, it appears the earliest Jewish sources are ambiguous, at best, about tefillin- and none of them speak of a separate hand and head tefillin, as we know them today. Quick recap: Josephus refers to “a remembrance upon the arms” (which as mentioned, may or may not be figurative), Aristeas similarly refers to a “sign around the hand” (same), whereas the NT speaks of the Pharisses “enlarging their Phylacteries to show off to the people”, obviously referring to tefillin of the forehead, this one is almost certainly referring to a physical object, as the Greek word ‘phylakterion’ means amulet.
Ancient non-Jewish sources:
From אנציקלופדיה מקראית published by the Bialik Institute in Jerusalem 1982 p. 883-94:
In a Mandaen Source (the exact source is not given there, but it is clearly referring to ‘the story of Miriai’ as recorded in the Mandaean Book of John- j.d.) there is a story about a Jewish women who rejected Judaism and its customs, and one of those customs is referred to as טוטיפתא (totiftha) instead choosing a ‘headband’ or as it’s referred to in the article: a זר רענן .
טוטפתא there could either be referring to tefillin shel rosh (which would indicate that women likewise wore tefillin. Indeed in that same story Miriai speaks of the Synagogue and of men and women engaged in study there) or to a head adornment worn by Jewesses at the time (and would correspond well to the ‘totafot’ mentioned in Mishna Shabbat 10A and the targum to Shmuel bet 1:10, which may also be perhaps the same as the one mentioned in the list of adornments in Joshua 3:19- there called נטיפות)
- The tefillin as a ‘phylaktrion’, an amulet for self-protection.
It appears from Rabbinic literature that many Jews regarded their tefillin as amulets and talismans and the two are very often mentioned /lumped together . In fact the two were so similar in nature that they were likely to be confused for one another (see Yerushalmi, Shabbat 6B; Ibid 8B; Erubin 6A; Ibid 10A; Ibid 96B-97A; Shabbat 61A-B; Ibid 115B; Mishna, Shabbat 6B; Mishna Shekalim 3B; Mishna Mikvaot 10B; Mishna Kelim 23A; Berkahot 23 A-B; Sifra, Shemini 8,6; עיין גם תרגום שיר השירים ח’ ג’ ועיין באוצר הגאונים י’ חלק התשובות עמוד 12 מספר 26, עיין גם רמב”ם , הלכות עכו”ם, 11-12)
Similar amulets and talismans abound in the ancient world, including Christians who wrote amulets with verses from the NT, especially popular were those inscribed with the Lord’s Prayer. Muslims would carry tiny copies of the Quran on their person as protection. Even followers of Manichaenism- the followers of Mani, would carry a small scroll containing the biography of their founder Mani.
Also interesting to note, that some Jews in the Medieval period ascribed magical powers to the Book of Jonah and would carry tiny scrolls of it for protection.
In an ancient Ugaritic description of the Baal (Ugaritica V RS 24.245:5), it says:
ופירושו לפי טיגאי: על ראשו תפלה,טלי בין עיניו
In one of the Elephantine Papyri (30 קאולי מס’ 81 שורה)
there is mention of תפילה זי כסף
According to the ed. היינו תפלה של כסף (compare Mishna Megilla 4,8 where it discusses overlaying the tefillin boxes with gold. This custom was apparently accepted among Qumranites and also Boethusians, see also Shabbat 108A
It appears to the ed. that the tangible mitzvah of tefillin was accepted by all Jewish second temple sects. He also cites the Church Father, St. Jerome who mentions this custom among the Jews of his day, in his writings, although Jerome himself understood the verses metaphorically (PL XXVI, col. 168).
As mentioned, I don’t think the findings of tefillin at Qumran and at the “Bar Kochba” caves proved that all Jews wore tefillin. One must bear in mind that all these caves housed multiple occupants at various different times.
- But there is also evidence of non-acceptance among certain communities
Aside from the ‘amei haaretz’ and the slackers mentioned in Talmudic literature, there are also echoes that this was merely a custom of the ‘hassidim’ and not of the common folk (see for instance Shabbat 118B; Yerushalmi Berakhot 2,3 and 4, p. 3.
In the ancient paintings at the Dura Europos Synagogue (incidentally founded by a thriving community of Jews with strong connections to the major Jewish population of Babylonia), we see representation of Jews wearing ‘sisit’ but not one of tefillin.
Even in the geonic period there is mention of laxity of this commandment, see Saadiah Gaon commentary on shemot parahsat bo, and sefer shibolei haleket, “inyan tefillin”. Even the tosafists call it מצוה זו רפויה בידנו see Shabbat 49A תוס’ ד”ה כאלישא.
See more on this later in “Tefillin in Western European Jewish Communities”
Did the Ancient Sadduccees Wear Tefillin?, What about the Essenes?
According to the Talmud, the Sadduccees would take the commandment of ‘wearing it between the eyes’ literally, and instead of the forehead, they would place their phylacteries on the bridge of their nose. Although we have no corroborating evidence that the Sadducees did in fact wear tefillin at all, it is a matter of great debate. Regarding the Essenes, it appears that they indeed took the commandment literally, as is evident by the archaeological discoveries of tefillin at Qumran (if indeed we accept the most commonly held theory about an essene community on the site), however the possibility that the tefillins found there may have come from Jewish Zealots who later overtook these fortresses cannot be completely discounted. Philo interestingly remarks about the essenes “all ornamental dress they detested”.
Nolb also relates another piece of archeological evidence: hundreds of phylacteries found in several of the caves. Nolb denies, however, that these phylacteries could have belonged to those who wrote the sectarian writings in the Dead Sea Scrolls, arguing that the authors of the “Manual of Discipline” interpreted the literal injunctions of the Pentateuch as metaphors, thus it is unlikely that the phylacteries belong to them. In addition to this, the texts on the phylacteries vary and show no distinguishable consistencies. Therefore, Nolb concludes, these phylacteries can have no connection with the sectarians who wrote the scrolls because a sect would have produced phylacteries with some sort of uniformity.
Possible Influence of Hellenism
According to J I Packer and M C Tenney, in Illustrated Manners and Customs of the Bible, 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”.
This theory is also apparently alluded to by Prof. Saul Lieberman in his Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, p. 108, n. 50:
A very interesting illustration of similarity of the attitude on the part of the Jews and the Greeks towards the Scripture and the books of Homer respectively is avaialable in the ancient Jewish sources. The Jewish rule is that the king must always wear the Scroll of the Torah on his person (see Deut. 17:19), TB Sanhedrin 21B and 22A). remarks to this effect: אותה שיוצאה ונכנסת עמו עושה אותה כמין קמיע ותולה בזרועו “that scroll which is to go in and out with him he shall make in the form of an amulet and fasten it to his arm”. This is exactly what the Roman Emperor Julian reports about his treatment of Homer and Plato (Letters to his uncle Julian, ed. Bidez, No. 80) ” and these (i.e. Homer and Plato) are like amulets and talismans, for they are always fastened one me.” Comp. also Plut. Alex. VIII and the spurious letter ascribed to Julian (Sp.383a, Bidez No. 190).
Perhaps an even earlier (Egyptian) Influence?
Jamieson, Fausset and Brown, in Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, 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.”
Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg writing in the Jerusalem Post of August 31, 2006:
So many Jewish cultic practices come from ancient Egypt that it’s not surprising to see Egyptian monuments showing the Pharaoh wearing a headdress that looks like the tefillin – phylacteries – worn during prayer by observant Jews.
In many depictions, Pharaoh is shown wearing a snake crown from which there projects above his brow a sacred asp or viper and a cobra in aggressive attitudes. They represent the Pharaoh’s power of protecting his land by means of serpents that can both defend the land and attack the enemy when necessary.
Such powers were essential to the rulers of Egypt, whose rich but extended land was always in danger of invasion from the less fortunate peoples of the surrounding deserts.
The deities that supported the Pharaoh also wore appropriate headgear, but in their case not on the brow but further up on the head, above the hairline. In many cases this headgear was in the form of an animal’s head, such as the jackal or the ibis-bird; but in some cases it was just a small black box on a black plate.
Was this a form of tefillin?
A case in point is the goddess Isis, who stands behind her deceased husband, the Pharaoh Osiris, wearing such a black box on her head, as depicted on the mummy of Kep-ha-eses of the second century BCE in the Copenhagen Glyptotek Museum.
Another example comes from the tomb of Anher-Khaou in Thebes, of 1,000 years earlier, where it is again the lady Isis wearing a black, box-like headdress, leading a boat-load of gods that take the deceased to his place in the next world.
What was this black box?
It has a stepped profile and represents the royal throne of the dead Pharaoh Osiris, who ruled over the next world. Isis, his sister and wife, by wearing this black box, could assist the suppliant to reach the world of everlasting life presided over by Osiris.
THE CHILDREN of Israel during their sojourn in Egypt must have been familiar with such depictions, and with the concept of the ruling classes of the country wearing headgear symbolic of their physical and cultic functions. Whether we see these local customs in a positive or negative light, they were representative of the country from which the Israelites were being evacuated. Indeed, a reminder of such customs was to be one purpose of the tefillin, which were to be a “remembrance between your eyes… that with a strong hand the Lord brought you out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:9).
However, in another passage the tefillin to be worn on the head are described as totaphot (Deut. 11:18), which is a completely obscure biblical word. Much later, the rabbis of the Mishna take it to mean just an ornament, but the great Rabbi Akiva looks at the origin of the word and derives it from a doubly foreign source. Alluding to the four sections of the head tefillin, he claims it means two and two in the languages of “Katpi” and “Afriki” (Talmud Sanhedrin 4B), which sound like Coptic and Egyptian. In Rabbi Akiva’s view, then, the connection to Egypt is clear.
These ancient Egyptian depictions were enough to convince an apparently previously wavering believer that Tefillin are in fact tangible and not metaphorical items.
However, all is not simple with this observation either. Isis was a Goddess and herself not a real figure. There are no representation of any of the Pharaohs wearing any such headgear. Moreover, the ‘headgear’ pictured here is a hieroglyph (of a throne)-not a representation of a physical object.
Karaites and Tefillin
Karaites, from their arrival on the scene of Jewish history in early Medieval times until today, always took the Biblical verses to be metaphoric (although I’ve come across a recent unsubstantiated claim, that an offshot of Crimean Karaism, adopted tefillin, claiming that the archaeological discoveries of the past century necessitates a reconsideration of previous interpretation, see here). In fact some Karaite hakhamim were incredulous that these metaphoric commandments were taken literally by the Rabbanites. Hakham Shelomo ben Afida Ha-cohen (b. Constantinople 1836, d. 1893) writes in no uncertain terms in his halakhic work Yeriot Shelomo, p. 122:
וּקְשַׁרְתָּם לְאוֹת, עַל-יָדֶ ך; וְהָיוּ לְטֹטָפֹת, בֵּין עֵינֶי ך. וּכְתַבְתָּם עַל-מְזֻזוֹת בֵּיתֶ ך, וּבִשְׁעָרֶי ך.”
(דברים ז’, ח’-ט’). הפסוקים שנמצאו ביוצא בהם כג…ון: “הֵן עַל-כַּפַּיִם, חַקֹּתִי ך” (ישעיהו מ”ט
ט”ז), “קָשְׁרֵם עַל-אֶצְבְּעֹתֶי ך; כָּתְבֵם, עַל- לוּחַ לִבֶּ ך” (משלי ז’, ג’), הביאונו להוציאם מפשוטם
ולשומם תחת המעבר, לפרשם בדרך משל על העיון וההתמד בדברי התורה להגותם ולקיימם.
וע”ד זה “וּמַלְתֶּם, אֵת עָרְלַת לְבַבְכֶם” (דברים י’, ט”ז), וכיוצא בו, שהוא משל להכנעת התאוות
הגופניות, וכמיועד “וַהֲסִרֹתִי לֵב הָאֶבֶן, מִבְּשָׂרָם, וְנָתַתִּי לָהֶם, לֵב בָּשָׂר” (יחזקאל י”א, י”ט). ואילו
היתה הכוונה במאמרים הנזכרים על המזוזה והתפילין כמאמר: “כִּי- הֲפַכְתֶּם לְרֹאשׁ מִשְׁפָּט, וּפְרִי
צְ דקָה לְלַעֲנָה” 4 היה צריך לבארם הכתוב “דבר אל בני ישראל ועשו להם מזוזה ותפילין”, כמו
שעשה בציצית ובשאר מצוות עשה החיוביות, לא במאמר סובל היותם משל ומליצה על הדרך
שפירשנום. וכן מן הצורך היה לבאר איכות קשירתם וחליצתם, ואיזה לקשר תחילה ואיזה
לחלוץ, לא שיבאר קצתו בכתב וקצתו יניח בקבלה ותפול המחלוקת באיכות המצווה. וכן בשל יד
לבאר הימנית או השמאלית לא להרמיזו בתיבת “יָדְכָה” (שמות י”ג, ט”ז), הבאה בתוספת ה”א
לנתחה ולחלקה לחצאים לומר “יד כהה”, ולהבין מזה להיות הקשירה בשמאלית, והיות הדין
להיכתב ארבע פרשיות בתפילין מן “וּלְטוֹטָפֹת” (שמות י”ג, ט”ז) “טט בנרפי שתיים פת באפריקי
שתיים” הוא חלום שוא ומקסם כזב כי אין כן דרך הכתוב בשום מצווה להרמיזה בלשונות
אחרות וענין המלה ידוע שהוא כענין ציץ ונזר והוא קרוב אל הנאמר “וּלְזִכָּרוֹן בֵּין עֵינֶי ך” (שמות
י”ג, ט’). כי הציץ, שהוא משל על העיון, הוא המביא לזכור ולשמור את אשר נצטווה עליו. וכמו
שאמר אחריו “לְמַעַן תִּהְיֶה תּוֹרַת ה’ בְּפִי ך” (שמות י”…ג, ט’), הן כל אלה יתנו עדיהם, ויצדיקו
מאמר חכמינו עליהם השלום על היות המאמרים הנזכרים משל על המבואר לא על-פי גלויים.
Karaites are also fond of quoting Rashbam to the same effect (although there is no doubt that the latter himself ‘believed’ in tefillin). From the Karaite-Korner website:
“‘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. While this metaphor was easy to understand it is less obvious what kind of metaphor lays behind “and it shall be for a sign upon your hand and a Remembrance between your eyes “. This question is clarified by several passages elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible:
- “Listen my son to the teaching of your father and do not abandon the Torah of your mother; because it is a beautiful wreath for your head and a necklace upon your throat” (Prv 1,8-9)
- “Do net let truth and righteousness leave you; tie them upon your throat, write them upon the tablet of your heart.” (Prv 3,3)
- “Keep my son the Mitzvot of your father and do not abandon the Torah of your mother; Tie them upon you heart always, don them upon your throat” (Prv 6,20-21)
In light of these verses the real meaning of the “Tefillin” passage becomes clear:
“And let these things which I command you today be upon your heart… and you shall tie them for a sign upon your hand and for a remembrance (Totafot) between your eyes and write them upon the doorposts of your houses and your gates” (Dt 6,8-9)
The Torah is to be like a fine bracelet or necklace which we are to wear proudly. In other words, the Torah is supposed to be precious to us and be remembered always. It is worth noting that of the four places in the Torah which use this expression 2 of them are telling us to remember the Torah (Dt 6,8-9; Dt 11,18) while the other two are commanding us to remember the Exodus from Egypt (Ex 13,9; Ex 13,16). It should be noted that the Karaites also interpret the verse “And you shall write them on the doorposts of your houses and your gates” (Dt 5,9; Dt 11,20) to be a metaphor equivalent to “write them upon the tablet of your heart.” (Prv 3,3) and not as referring to the Rabbanite Mezuzah.
From the Karaite Hakham Meir Rekhavi:
“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.”
Also interesting to note that the Karaite author Eliyahu Bashyatzi, while taking the standard Karaite view, explains that the verse “and you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand” is a reference to the Ten Commandments “for there are ten fingers on the hand” (see Aderet Eliyahu, 106d).
Kol Sakhal’s take
The anonymous (or not so anonymous, for those who are familiar with the colorful Rabbi Leone Da Modena) author of the ‘heretical’ tract Kol Sakhal likewise assailed tefillin, setting forth a hypothesis of its late origins. Among other things he notes that nowhere the Torah’s numerous descriptions of garb is there any description of a person wearing tefillin. Kol Sakhal also cites the absence of Rabbinic consensus on the proper order of the scrolls as an implicit sign that the practice in question is not ancient: “for if they had a tradition, how did the disputes arise?….How is it that Rashi and Rabbenu Tam did not know the order of the chapters of tefillin? because they had never seen a pair from their ancestors!”.
See Fishman, Talya. ‘Voice of a Fool,’ an Early Modern Jewish Critique of Rabbinic Culture . pp.46-7 and notes on p. 193
A Controversial Opinion
The scholar, Michael Levi Rodkinson put forth a controversial theory in his book Tefillin, History of Amulets, Charms and Talismans, in which he asserted that the practice of tefillin was dropped in the times of the later Amoraim, only to be resumed in the period of the Geonim as a form of open opposition to the Karaite schism. In an early column in the London Jewish Chronicle of 1892, the scholar Solomon Schechter took Rodkinson to task for that. See here
Tefillin in Western European Jewish Communities
French and Spanish Jewry were particularly lax in this commandment. Rabbi Moses of Coucy states “in the year 126 I was in Spain to reprove them…and there was a wholesale repentance and thousands and tens of thousands began to don tefillin and so it was in other lands, and afterwards my admonitions were accepted in all other places” (Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, positive commandment, 3).
Also see Ibid ‘esin’ 23 about tefillin found from the tomb of Ezekiel which corresponded to Rashi and Maimonides.
The historian Salo Baron claimed that the earliest Western European Jewish communities (particularly France) did not use tefillin or mezuzot. He says that this was due to their isolation from the main centers of world Jewry at the time, which may be true but it may also point to the preservation of an ancient tradition (not unlike the Samaritans) that took the verses to be metaphoric.
Tefillin from the Cairo Genizah
Among the many objects discovered at the famed Cairo Geniza, were conically shaped tefillin, tefillin overlaid with gold, tefillin with the decalogue included etc.
This shows us that even in medieval times, there were schismatic sects who did not follow standardized Talmudic rulings re: tefillin (all of the above are expressly forbidden in the Talmud)
More on conical tefillin here
Samaritans and Tefillin
I was astounded to find a simplistic statement purported to be of historical veracity here that the Samaritans include (present tense!) the decalogue in their phylacteries, when in fact Samaritans never wore tefillin! see here:
השומרונים אינם מניחים תפילין פיזית בשל הטענה כי הנחת התפילין המצווה בספר דברים היא במובן הרוחני.
This, I believe is a modern-day myth, possibly for the purposes of drumming up Jewish tourism (which has increased tenfold over the last years).
According to an acquaintance of mine who recently visited the Samaritans at Nablus, the priest at Gerizim claimed that their mesorah (tradition) for tefillin has been lost. According to this account, the story was that the Samaritan would wear their tefillin all day and therefore provided an easy target for their persecutors, so eventually they gave up/lost the custom.
The myth as recounted to me makes even less sense considering that the word tefillin indicates that it was only used during prayer (although I am aware of the custom already mentioned in the Talmud of wearing them all day long). Although I should point out that the Samaritan ‘tallit’, while very similar to the Jewish one, does not contain ritual fringes. Some Samaritans claim that the tradition of making sisit was lost (others however believe that the ‘fringes’ must come from the garment itself and therefore the Rabbinic interpretation, here too, is mistaken) However, as mentioned before, this has not been the case for Mezuza..