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What are phylacteries?

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Phylacteries, sometimes called tefillin, are small, square leather boxes containing portions of Scripture worn by Conservative and Orthodox Jews during prayer services. Phylacteries are worn in pairs—one phylactery is strapped on the left arm, and one is strapped to the forehead of Jewish men during weekday morning prayers. The word phylactery comes from a Greek word meaning “safeguard, protection, or amulet.”

The phylactery strapped to the arm is called the shel yad and has only one compartment; the one on the forehead, containing four compartments, is called the shel rosh. The letter shin (ש) is printed on either side of the head phylactery. Various rules govern the length and width of the connecting straps, the tying of the knots to secure the phylacteries, and the color of the boxes (black). Inside each phylactery are four passages from the Old Testament: Exodus 13:1–10, 11–16; Deuteronomy 6:4–9; 11:13–21. The verses must be written in black ink on parchment specially prepared for this purpose, using the skin of a clean animal. Other rules specify the type of writing instrument to be used, the number of printed lines devoted to each verse, the arrangement of the pieces of parchment within each compartment, etc.

The wearing of phylacteries is based on some commands in Deuteronomy. Israel was told to love God and keep His commandments. In fact, they were to “tie [the commandments] as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads” (Deuteronomy 6:8). Later, God tells them, “Fix these words of mine in your hearts and minds; tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads” (Deuteronomy 11:18). We take the wording of these commands to be figurative: whatever we do (with the hand) and whatever we think (with the head) is to be guided by the authority of God’s Word. But, at some point—possibly as early as the fourth century BC—the Jewish rabbis began applying this verse literally, and the practice of tying phylacteries onto their arms and heads commenced.

Phylacteries are mentioned in the New Testament. Jesus, warning His disciples about the hypocrisy of the teachers and Pharisees, said, “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long” (Matthew 23:5). The religious leaders of Jesus’ day had strayed from God’s intention in the Law. Phylacteries were being made larger for the sole purpose of drawing attention to the wearer—the larger the phylactery, the more piety it supposedly showed. Ironically, the very command to honor the Word of God was being used to dishonor the Word.

Jesus taught that God is not as concerned with the external trappings of religion as He is with the true nature of the heart. He pointed out that it was possible to wear large phylacteries containing God’s Word yet disobey God’s Word at the same time. Likewise, in the church today, it’s possible to wear a cross, pay a tithe, raise a hand, and quote a creed—all without truly acknowledging the Lord in our hearts. God knows the truth of our spiritual condition. “LORD Almighty, you . . . examine the righteous and probe the heart and mind” (Jeremiah 20:12). May we be able to say with the psalmist, “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Psalm 119:11).

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This page last updated: January 4, 2022