I’ve been thinking a lot lately about tefillin and my thoughts finally crystallized this morning. For those of you wondering what tefillin are, you may more readily recognize them by their New Testament name—phylacteries. They are the black boxes (and straps) containing Scripture (Exodus 13:1-10; 11-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21), which are tied on by Jewish men during morning prayers. Many Messianic believers (of Jewish and Gentile descent) have also adopted this practice.

Let me preface my further remarks by making it clear that I have nothing against the practice of laying tefillin. In fact, I consider it a great idea. However, I would like to point out a concern that I have, and in so doing I recognize that I will be at least potentially taking issue with the traditional Jewish position. I am not motivated by a desire to take issue with Maimonides or any of the other highly respected Sages, rather these thoughts are simply part of living a life of examination.

So what am I talking about? In Deuteronomy 6:5-8 it says:

“You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes.” (ESV)

Perhaps earlier, but certainly sometime after the return from Babylonian exile, it became customary among many Jews to literally bind tefillin to their hands and forehead. At some point, it was common, particularly among the Pharisees, to wear these all day long. The discovery of tefillin in the caves at Qumran indicates that the practice had spread to more than just the pharisaic sect. Jesus once chastised some Pharisees for wearing their tefillin “broad”, or in an ostentatious fashion. Rashi and his grandson (Rabbenu Tam or Rabbi Jacob ben Meir Tam) had differences of opinion in regard to tefillin, indicating that in the late 10th century there was still not a codified standard for their use (Rabbenu Tam died in 1171 C.E.).

It has become common to consider the laying of tefillin as the manner in which the commands in Deuteronomy 6:5-8 are to be kept. This line of thinking is certainly understandable. After all Rambam said in Mishneh Torah: “…every man ought to try to have the tefillin upon him the whole day; for only in this way can he fulfill the commandment.” However, I would like to propose a different perspective on this, as I suspect God had something slightly different in mind.

The Hebrew language is a very concrete, action-oriented one. Examples of this abound: “to know” one’s wife is to have marital relations with her, to think benevolently about someone is “to make his face to shine on you.” One thinks of Psalm 119:11, “I have hidden Your Word in my heart, that I might not sin against You.” (LITV) Can you literally hide God’s words in your heart? Of course not; yet we all recognize what this means. I believe the language of Deuteronomy 6:5-8 is similar. God’s very Words cannot physically be symbols between or before our eyes, neither can we literally tie God’s Words to our hands. If I were to paraphrase these verses in a modern manner it might say, “Let the Scriptures be your guiding light” or “don’t lift a finger without doing one of God’s commandments.”

You might think, “how could such a thing be possible?” I think Paul is referring to just that idea when he wrote,

“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” 1 Corinthians 10:31 (ESV)

So what is my point? I believe the laying of tefillin is a great practice which aids in the recognition that the commands of God are for doing. However, the use of tefillin is a symbolic act intended to engender the doing of the actual commandments found in Deut 6. The laying of tefillin is not itself the fulfilling of the command to keep God’s words on our heart, to bind them as signs on our hands and to consider them as symbols or frontlets between or before our eyes; rather, the laying of tefillin is a tangible aid in our lifelong efforts to “keep” Deueteronomy 6:5-8. As long as we maintain this perspective, I think tefillin have a legitimate place in the practice of our lives.

7 thoughts on “Tefillin

  1. Nate,
    Good blog, makes more practical sense to me to think of it that way. Honestly, it was one of those, “I thought so…but just didn’t want to voice my opinion.” Looking forward to your next installment. JG

  2. I agree on this one too. Nice post. First time I visited your site. So far so good on viewing my first page.

    The Samaritan tradition does not include Tefillin. The reasoning on Exodus 13:9 is as follows:

    9 “And it shall serve as a sign to you on your HANDS, and as a reminder between your eyes, that the law of Shehma may be in your mouth; for with Strong Hand Shehma brought you out of Misrem. (SET translation)

    {Samaritan Elder/Translator’s Note: We are totally different in this regard from the Jews. All the signs are spiritual, nothing physical. The brain is between the eyes keeping the memory. The Torah of Shehma is in the mouth and in the heart and the symbolic sign on the hand reminding of the Strong Hand.}


  3. I agree with you on this too Nate. Good thoughts. I own a set of tefillin and sometimes don them when I pray, but not often. Sometimes I feel like I want to touch something tangible when thinking of the mitswoth and praying to YHWH. As far as the commandment goes though, I agree with the Karaim and the Samaritans on this.


  4. That reminds me of Exodus 13:5-10, which strikes me as just more evidence that this is a figure of speech rather than intended to be taken as a literal commandment.

  5. In my mind, Exodus 13:5-10 ends the argument. Clearly Passover/Unleavened Bread is not something that can be bound to our hands or forehead, yet the eating of unleavened bread is to be, “a sign for you on your hand and a memorial on your forehead” (v9)

    It is metaphorical language: we are to lift the bread to our mouths with our hands, and remember to keep this practice with our minds/wills.

  6. Hello,
    I think it’s a reasonable thought, but I do think that tefillin were commanded as a physical reality (for Jewish people, since it is Israel’s law.)
    If one looks closely at Deuteronomy 6, they will find that God says first that his words are to be “in their heart,” and then that they be taught to the Israelites children, and then as a -sign- upon the hand. That it was a sign indicates to me a contrast between the substance of the heart and the symbol of physical, religious ordinance.
    You are right: God is stressing (by putting first) that his words be in the hearts and daily lives of his people, but he is also giving them a physical symbol as a reminder of the importance of his Word. The physical presence of tefillin is that symbol of the presence of the Word of God in the hearts of his people.
    I think the Jewish method of exegesis is meaningful here: there are several layers of meaning to every passage. (Four in the traditional Jewish method, I believe, but I only care for two, for doctrinal reasons:)
    One, the obvious, physical manifestation or the literal reading. That would be the commandment to wear symbols of the Word of God (compare also to Numbers 15, the fringes of their garments (tzitzit.) That is certainly a real and physical symbol. )
    Then, there is a typological reading, where we have the meaning of the hand: keep the Word of God on your power (second meaning of yad, hand in Hebrew), that is, keep it as the instrument wherewith you are able to do everything in your life, and then keep it on your head: the place where thinking occurs, the symbol of authority and direction.
    I think it is good to think today (“In this dispensation,” as some would put it) in terms of types, because the law was given as a shadow of things to come (a concept found somewhere in Hebrews, I think.) We’re free from the law, and so the most important thing for us is the substance it points to, mainly Christ and the relationship between Him and us. However, I think God is, at least on a surface level, very literal and plain with us when He speaks, although He has deeper meaning than we sometimes understand (how else could we both trust Him and need Him?)

    As for Exodus 13:9, I believe that it is referring to the phylacteries, and not the bread, although it is in the context of the passover meal discussion. (Jamieson Fausset and Brown seem to believe that it was merely symbolic, however, so I may very well be mistaken.)
    In verse 8, he says to “teach your sons,” a direct parallel with the Deuteronomy 6 passage (so in drawing a parallel I believe you are very justified.) That same phrase, though, seems to be a shift in focus from the actual action of eating bread, to the ordinance of remembering the significance of eating bread, and of the actions of God towards the Israelites. What followed, then, wouldn’t mean to bind a matzoh wafer on their forehead if interpreted literally.
    In verse 9, the sign between the eyes and on the hand is for the purpose “that the Lord’s law may be in thy mouth,” so the sign is a celebration of God’s word. It seems to me to point to tefillin as a literal symbol (just as the letter “a” is a physically represented symbol of the sound it produces, so a physical phylactery can be a symbol of the memory of God’s Word and deed.)
    One other thing: the verse in Deuteronomy didn’t explicitly specify how often one was to don tefillin (if that is how you interpret the passage. Unfortunately we don’t have punctuated aorists in Hebrew 🙂 .) If you are talking about an every day, every hour manner of dealing with this commandment, I think you probably are right, for practical reasons, and certainly the heart of the symbol is the most vital thing about it. I just think there is a literal reading that is correct, but perhaps not to be observed 24/7 (comparing the Exodus passage, it says every year for the whole ordinance.)

    I apologize if I contend with Job and his friends in length of response. I love musing on the Word of God (especially the Hebrew portions.) Thank you for putting up a site like this, it’s great to see others’ thoughts.

    God bless you,

  7. Very interesting thoughts, Andrew. I would take issue with a few of the interpretive presuppositions you reveal, and that probably accounts for the minor differences in our thoughts on the topic. It is good to see someone contemplating these things.

    From where do you hail, my friend?

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