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Why We Do Not Bind Tefillin

In Matthew 23:5, Yeshua criticizes the scribes and the Pharisees for the way they wear their phylacteries (tefillin), “to be seen by men.” This means their goal was to impress men (rather than obey Elohim).

Mattityahu (Matthew) 23:5 NKJV
5 “But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments.”

However, there are a number of ways we can read this passage, so we need to ask, did Yeshua also wear tefillin (phylacteries)? And should we?

To answer these questions, let us study into the subject of tefillin (phylacteries) in light of ancient Middle Eastern use of ritual amulets (i.e., good luck charms).

Tefillin Not Compulsory in the Second Temple Era

Earlier in this study we saw that in the Second Temple era, the synagogues were seen as community study and worship centers. The synagogues made no effort to mimic the temple services as long as the Second Temple still stood.

While some rabbis believed in praying by rote, they were in the minority. The majority opinion was that rote prayer and rigid formats were bad. Yeshua was also adamantly against rote prayers, saying that only the “heathen” prayed using vain repetitions (e.g., Matthew 6:7).

However, we also saw that things changed after the destruction of the Second Temple. Since the temple service was no more, certain rabbis tried to pattern the synagogue service after the temple services (as perhaps they felt this would be a stabilizing factor). It was in this spirit that Rabban Gamaliel II fixed the words of the Amidah, and made it compulsory for all Jews three times a day. Tefillin were also made compulsory, but only on weekdays.

(However, let us remember that in Yeshua’s day, the language of the Amidah was not yet fixed, and neither the Amidah nor tefillin were considered compulsory.)

The Archaeological Evidence of Tefillin

There is an old admonition to “consider well the source.”

Rabbinic Judaism tells us that Moshe (Moses) began wearing tefillin in the wilderness of Sinai, and that tefillin have been in continual use ever since. However, the archaeological evidence does not support this claim.

The earliest known tefillin were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Archaeologists have dated them perhaps as early as the 1st or 2nd centuries BCE, meaning up to 100 or 200 years before Yeshua (but not before then). This indicates that tefillin were not in use in Moshe’s time, or even the time of Kings David or Solomon.

Interestingly, the Qumran tefillin were much smaller than modern-day tefillin, and they contained different texts. As we will see, some scholars believe they were smaller because they were intended to be worn all day as amulets (good luck charms). In Christian and Nazarene Israelite understanding, amulets and other good luck charms are considered idolatrous, but Orthodox Jews do not consider them idolatrous. To understand why each group believes the way they do, let us study into tefillin, starting with the modern standardized version.

The Four Texts of Modern Tefillin

To understand where ancient tefillin came from, first let us look at modern tefillin. Modern tefillin consists of two sets of black boxes with straps. One box is for the left arm, and the other box is for the forehead. Each box contains four Scripture quotes which deal with binding or otherwise placing a sign on the hand, and either a memorial or frontlets between our eyes.

The first quotation is Exodus 13:9.

Shemote (Exodus) 13:9
9 “It shall be as a sign to you on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that Yahweh’s Torah may be in your mouth; for with a strong hand Yahweh has brought you out of Egypt.”

The word sign is oht (אוֹת), and the word memorial is zikaron (זִכָּרוֹן). This is Strong’s Concordance OT:2142, referring to a mark, or a reminder.

OT:2142 zakar (zaw-kar’); a primitive root; properly, to mark (so as to be recognized), i.e. to remember; by implication, to mention; also (as denominative from OT:2145) to be male:

The second quotation is Exodus 13:16. The word sign is still oht (אוֹת), but the word frontlets is totafot (טוֹטָפֹת).

Shemote (Exodus) 13:16
16 “It shall be as a sign on your hand and as frontlets between your eyes, for by strength of hand Yahweh brought us out of Egypt.”

The meaning of the word totafot is disputed. Strong’s Concordance tells us that it means to go around or to bind. However, we should point out that while Strong’s is a good concordance, it is not a good dictionary, since many of its definitions are taken from rabbinic Judaism (which has an agenda).

OT:2903 towphaphah (to-faw-faw’); from an unused root meaning to go around or bind; a fillet for the forehead:

In contrast, in his short commentary on Exodus, Ibn Ezra tells us that the word totafot may stem from the word preach or prophesy, as used in Ezekiel 21:2.

Yehezqel (Ezekiel) 21:2
2 “Son of man, set your face toward Jerusalem, preach against the set-apart places, and prophesy against the land of Israel….”

This word preach or prophesy is hatef (הַטֵּף). It is related to Strong’s Concordance OT:5197, meaning to preach or prophesy by distilling or instilling gradually (like oozing).

OT:5197 nataph (naw-taf’); a primitive root; to ooze, i.e. distil gradually; by implication, to fall in drops; figuratively, to speak by inspiration.
KJV – drop (-ping), prophesy (-et).

If true, then the commandment is to have something in front of our eyes that preaches or prophesies to us, that slowly instills or infuses Yahweh’s words into our lives.

The third verse is Deuteronomy 6:8. The word sign is oht (אוֹת), and the word frontlets is also totafot (טוֹטָפֹת).

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 6:8
8 “You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.”

The final verse is Deuteronomy 11:18. The word sign is oht (אוֹת), and the word frontlets is still totafot (טוֹטָפֹת).

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 11:18
18 “Therefore you shall lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.”

Each of these four verses speak of binding or placing Yahweh’s words. However, the question is if Yahweh means this literally, or if He is using a metaphor (a figure of speech).

Literal or Metaphorical?

Christians historically interpret these commands as figures of speech, but Christians are infamous for “spiritualizing away” the commandments. At the same time, our Orthodox brethren feel these words should be fulfilled literally. However, while Orthodox Judah fulfills the physical side of the commandments, he often leaves the spiritual side undone.

Mattityahu (Matthew) 23:23
23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.”

So, what we need to know is, did Yeshua understand these commandments literally? Or as metaphor?

It seems these commands were taken as metaphor until sometime around the 1st or 2nd century BCE (100 or 200 years before Yeshua), because there is no evidence of physical tefillin before then.

While tefillin were known in Yeshua’s day, they were not yet compulsory, so we still need to know what Yeshua thought of them.

While some commandments must be fulfilled literally, others can only be understood in a figurative sense. For example, Deuteronomy 10:16 tells us to circumcise the foreskin of our hearts.

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 10:16
16 “Therefore circumcise the foreskin of your heart, and be stiff-necked no longer.”

This cannot mean to have open heart surgery. Even if there had hypothetically been an operating room in the wilderness of Sinai, the human heart has no foreskin. Therefore, this verse can only be taken metaphorically.

It also seems hard to take Song of Songs 8:6 literally, when the bride asks to be set as a seal upon the heart, and as a seal upon the arm.

Song of Solomon 8:6a
6a Set me as a seal upon your heart,
As a seal upon your arm….

King Solomon’s Proverbial Bindings

In Proverbs 3, King Solomon suggests that we bind mercy and truth around our necks, and write them on the tablets of our hearts. These seem to be metaphorical.

Mishle (Proverbs) 3:3
3 Let not mercy and truth forsake you;
Bind them around your neck,
Write them on the tablet of your heart…

Proverbs 6 tells us to bind our father’s commands and our mother’s instruction continually upon our hearts, and to tie them around our necks. This is surely metaphor.

Mishle (Proverbs) 6:20-22
20 My son, keep your father’s command,
And do not forsake the torah of your mother.
21 Bind them continually upon your heart;
Tie them around your neck.
22 When you roam, they will lead you;
When you sleep, they will keep you;
And when you awake, they will speak with you.

Now let us compare King Solomon’s Proverbs with the Shema (specifically Deuteronomy 6:6-8), and also with Deuteronomy 11:18-19.

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 6:6-8
6 “And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart.
7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.
8 You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.”

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 11:18-19
18 “Therefore you shall lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.
19 You shall teach them to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.”

There are so many parallels here that it seems like King Solomon must have used the Shema (and perhaps also Deuteronomy 11:18-19) as his inspiration for Proverbs 3 and 6. This seems reasonable since not only were there no copyright laws in ancient times, but plagiarism was considered a compliment. (As it is said, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”) In ancient times it was thought to be wise to mimic or imitate existing great works (so as to make their wisdom one’s own). In that light, what could be wiser than to mimic or imitate Yahweh’s words?

If we can accept that King Solomon used the Shema and perhaps also Deuteronomy 11:18-19 as his inspiration for Proverbs 3 and 6, let us notice that while King Solomon says to tie and bind our parent’s words on our hearts and on our necks, he means it as a figure of speech. There is no mention of physical binding (as with tefillin). The point was not to make literal boxes filled with transcripts of our parents’ words. Rather, the point was to cherish their instructions, and hold them dear.

Totafot in the Septuagint

The Greek Septuagint was an official translation of the Tanach (Older Covenant) into Greek. It was translated approximately 200-300 BCE. In the Septuagint, the word totafot is the word asaleutos (ἀσάλευτος), meaning immovable. Therefore, “totafot between your eyes” is understood as meaning, “immovable before your eyes.” This also seems to be a metaphor, as if Yahweh expects us to place His words before us in an immovable way. It does not seem to refer to small black leather boxes (or other amulets) which can be taken on and off.

Amulets in Ancient Greece and Israel

In the ancient Middle East, the universe was thought to be filled with many (false) gods, and the people often sought to win favor from their false gods by the use of statues, figurines, idols, and amulets. For one example, Rachel’s father Laban had household idols.

B’reisheet (Genesis) 31:19
19 Now Laban had gone to shear his sheep, and Rachel had stolen the household idols that were her father’s.

However, Yahweh says we are not to turn to idols, or to make molded gods for ourselves.

Vayiqra (Leviticus) 19:4
4 “Do not turn to idols, nor make for yourselves molded gods: I am Yahweh your Elohim.”

In Hebrew, the word for a god is elohim, and this word refers to a mighty one, or a spiritual power that can give favors, strength, long life, or other blessings. This is effectively what amulets are: man-made objects which are designed to give the wearer supernatural favor with unseen elohim (gods).

There were many gods in the Greek pantheon, and it was common to wear amulets to gain their favor. This is important for us, because the Macedonians (Greeks) invaded the land of Israel under Alexander the Great, and Israel was under Macedonian (Greek) rule when the first tefillin were thought to have been created (circa 100-200 BCE).

In Greek, from the fourth century BCE and onward, such amulets were known as periapta or periammata, which means “things tied around.” This sounds a lot like Strong’s (probably incorrect) definition for totafot.

OT:2903 towphaphah (to-faw-faw’); from an unused root meaning to go around or bind; a fillet for the forehead:

Amulets could include such things as cords, wristbands, sashes, pendants, rings, or necklaces. They were usually tied around a part of the body (such as an arm, a leg, the neck, or the head), or they were attached to clothing. Importantly, they also often contained text.

Rabbinic Amulets and Tefillin

Amulets are common in rabbinic Judaism. We should study the rabbi’s love of amulets closely because amulets appear frequently in the early rabbinic writings, usually alongside tefillin. Amulets are also depicted in a positive light. For example, in the Mishna, in Tractate Kelim, Chapter 23:1, we are told that if an amulet or tefillin become torn, whoever touches (or uses) the torn amulet becomes unclean, but whoever touches their contents remains clean.

[Mishna, Tractate Kelim, Chapter 23:1]

The implication is that the contents of amulets are good. However, this is the opposite of what Yahweh says.

Tefillin, Phylacteries, and Amulets

As we saw earlier, Yeshua mentions tefillin in the Renewed Covenant (New Testament) at Matthew 23:5, where He appears to criticize the Pharisees for wearing their phylacteries so as to impress men.

Mattityahu (Matthew) 23:5
5 “But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments.”

The word for phylacteries is phulakterion, which is Strong’s Concordance NT:5440.

NT:5440 phulakterion (foo-lak-tay’-ree-on); neuter of a derivative of NT:5442; a guard-case, i.e. “phylactery” for wearing slips of Scripture texts:

However, while Strong’s is a decent concordance, it is not always a good dictionary. In reality, this is the Greek word for a protective amulet.

History of Written Amulets

The first known amulets were found in Egypt. They have been dated no later than the eighth century BCE. Punic-Phoenician amulets with inscriptions in capsules were found in tombs and other places in Carthage (North Africa), and in Sardinia, and these date from the seventh to the fifth centuries BCE. There were also two silver Hebrew amulets found in a Jerusalem burial site, which archaeologists date to around the seventh or sixth century BCE. Archaeologists have also found some slip of metal foil with inscriptions placed on corpses, which date to around 400–330 BCE. It is thought that these may have been placed on the corpses to protect the dead from the underworld.

While amulets may have first been placed on the dead, over time they came to be widely used by the living. The Romans loved Greek culture, and amulets were widely worn by the Romans in Yeshua’s time. While some were intended to treat specific medical conditions, others were written for general protection, or for long life. These kinds of amulets were surely worn by Roman soldiers and officials occupying the land of Israel.

Tefillin as a Length-of-Days Amulet

As we noted before, the earliest known tefillin were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran. They were dated by archaeologists perhaps as far back as the 1st or 2nd centuries BCE. However, they were not the same as the now-standard rabbinic tefillin. For example, some contained the Ten Commandments. However, the Qumran tefillin were clearly designed to be worn as amulets, seeking either long life or heavenly favor.

One special tefillin parchment known as 4QPhylN has a text from Parashat Ha’azinu, also called the Song of Moshe. But why would an ancient Jew wear a tefillin parchment containing part of the Song of Moshe?

While Christians tend to think in terms of “proof texts”, Jews tend to think in terms of stories. For example, when one refers to the two Exodus quotations regarding tefillin (Exodus 13:9 and Exodus 13:16), the Jewish mind thinks about the Passover story, the first exodus, and the promises that pertain to those who guard the Passover. Similarly, Deuteronomy 11:18 calls to mind the blessings over long life contained three verses later, in verse 21.

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 11:18-21
18 “Therefore you shall lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.
19 You shall teach them to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.
20 And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates,
21 that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land of which Yahweh swore to your fathers to give them, like the days of the heavens above the earth.”

Now let us compare this to the text from the Song of Moshe.

Devarim (Deuteronomy) 32:45-47
45 Moshe finished speaking all these words to all Israel,
46 and he said to them: “Set your hearts on all the words which I testify among you today, which you shall command your children to be careful to observe — all the words of this Torah.
47 For it is not a futile thing for you, because it is your life, and by this word you shall prolong your days in the land which you cross over the Jordan to possess.”

What this suggests is that at least in the early days of tefillin, some of the verses were selected based on the hope that wearing such an amulet would bring Elohim’s favor, and that He would then grant long life. However, since Elohim does not command this, it appears to be an adopted pagan practice that was brought into the rabbinic form of worship after the Macedonian (Greek) occupation of the land.

Mezuzot as Amulets

We will talk about mezuzot (plural of mezuzah) in more detail in the next chapter, but we should mention that Deuteronomy 11:18-21 also includes verse 20, which brother Judah interprets as the commandment to place mezuzot on the doorposts of their houses and their gates. We plan to give this its own chapter, but amulets for houses were previously practiced in Mesopotamian culture (and elsewhere).

The mezuzah might serve as an amulet to protect the house, as well as those who dwell in it and around it (namely, the women and children). In this light, tefillin could be seen as mezuzah for the body, i.e., as an amulet designed to protect the wearer while he was away from the alleged protection of the house amulet. This also helps to explain why ancient tefillin were so much smaller than the tefillin of today, so that they could be worn for protection all day.

Although ancient tefillin may have been worn during the day, they were not worn at night, perhaps because the wearer was again under the alleged protection of the house amulet (mezuzah).

Why Tefillin Are Not Worn on Shabbat

Judaism says the reason why tefillin are not worn on the Shabbat is that they serve as a witness, and Shabbat is in itself a witness, and so they are not needed. However, this does not make a lot of sense if one interprets the commandment to bind a sign on one’s hand literally.

The real reason tefillin are only worn during the week may have to do with the rabbinic prohibition against carrying anything on Shabbat (e.g., Mishnah Shabbat 6:2). Even though ancient tefillin were small, there would have been a prohibition against wearing or “carrying” them on the Shabbat, so it makes sense that they would not be worn on Shabbat.

What Did Yeshua Really Say?

Now let us consider again what Yeshua really said in Matthew 23:5.

Mattityahu (Matthew) 23:5 NKJV
5 “But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments.”

There are a few ways we can read this. One way is to think that Yeshua approved of small phylacteries, and only criticized the Pharisees for making theirs big (and in comparison to ancient tefillin, today’s tefillin are comparatively very large).

Another way is to think that Yeshua was mocking them for wearing phylacteries at all. That is, He may have been mocking them for “making great big tefillin” so that men could see them, and gain their attention, which Yeshua said is the kind of thing hypocrites do to gain attention.

Consider how Yeshua said that the hypocrites sound the shofar before they do a charitable deed, so that they may have glory from men. (Compare this also to people who give money so that their names may appear on a list of donors, or so that they might receive praise from others.)

Mattityahu (Matthew) 6:1-4
1 “Take heed that you do not do your charitable deeds before men, to be seen by them. Otherwise you have no reward from your Father in heaven.
2 Therefore, when you do a charitable deed, do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may have glory from men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.
3 But when you do a charitable deed, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,
4 that your charitable deed may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will Himself reward you openly.”

Since the original Hebrew manuscripts of the Renewed Covenant are no longer extant, we do not know exactly what Yeshua said. However, it seems highly unlikely that Yeshua would have worn tefillin or other amulets, since they appear to be a rabbinic adaptation of pagan Greco-Roman amulets.

Further, Yeshua told us not to worry about our clothing. If tefillin were important, wouldn’t He have told us to wear them?

Luqa (Luke) 12:22-28
22 Then He said to His disciples, “Therefore I say to you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; nor about the body, what you will put on.
23 Life is more than food, and the body is more than clothing.
24 Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap, which have neither storehouse nor barn; and Elohim feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds?
25 And which of you by worrying can add one cubit to his stature?
26 If you then are not able to do the least, why are you anxious for the rest?
27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin; and yet I say to you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.
28 If then Elohim so clothes the grass, which today is in the field and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will He clothe you, O you of little faith?”

For all of these reasons, we do not believe Yeshua would have worn tefillin, and we do not believe He would want us to wear them today.

In the next chapter we will talk about the house version of the amulet, which is the mezuzah.

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