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.