Tefillin (phylacteries)

Popular legend has it that the Karaites, and the Sadducees before them, interpreted the words "and they shall be for Totafot between your eyes" literally, and as a result wore Tefillin (Phylacteries) right above their noses.  One version of the story claims that the Sadducees were wiped out because of this practice.  The legend goes that they kept bumping into walls and since their Tefillin were between their eyes (instead of on their foreheads), their noses were sent shattering into their brains, killing them instantly.  The Karaites and other deniers of the "Oral Law" are portrayed as bumbling idiots who through their foolish practices wiped themselves out.  The message of this story is that it is impossible to live (literally) as a Karaite, and therefore we need the "Oral Law" to save us from this savage extinction.

The problem with this myth is that it is simply untrue.  It assumes that the Karaites and Sadducees interpret the verse "and they shall be for Totafot between your eyes" as referring to Rabbinic Phylacteries.  However, in reality the Karaites and Sadducees never wore Tefillin at all, let alone between their eyes because this is simply not what the verse is talking about.  One Rabbinite polemicist asked, 'How can you Karaites know how to make Tefillin without all the specifications laid down in the "Oral Law"?'.  The answer is we can not because the "Oral Torah" made the whole thing up.

The phrase which allegedly commands the donning of Tefillin appears four times in the Torah (Ex 13,9; Ex 13,16; Dt 6,8-9; Dt 11,18).  It should be noted that the difficult word "Totafot" which the Rabbis arbitrarily interpret to mean "Tefillin", actually means "Remembrance".  This is clear from Ex 13,9 (one of the four "Tefillin" passages) which substitutes the word "Totafot" with the equivalent but more familiar "Zicharon" (Remembrance).

Upon closer examination it becomes clear that this phrase is a figure of speech and not a command at all.  The brilliant Rabbanite commentator Rashbam (Rashi's grandson) was wise enough to realize the true meaning of this expression.  Commenting on the verse "And it shall be for a sign upon your hand and a remembrance (Zicharon) between your eyes" he writes:

"'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 not 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 (Deuteronomy 6:8-9; 11:18) while the other two are commanding us to remember the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 13:9, 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" (Deuteronomy 5:9; 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.

The Four "Tefillin" Passages
Ex 13:9 Ex 13:16 Dt 6:8 Dt 11:18
"And it shall be for you for a sign upon your hand "And it shall be for a sign upon your hand "And you shall tie them for a sign upon your hand "And you shall tie them for a sign upon your hand
and a remembrance (Zicharon) between your eyes" and a remembrance (Totafot) between your eyes" and they will be for a remembrance (Totafot) between your eyes" and they will be for a remembrance (Totafot) between your eyes"
Comparison of "Tefillin" Passages and Similar Metaphors
And let these things which I command you today be upon your heart
(Dt 6:6)
And you will put these things which I command you on your heart and on your soul
(Dt 11:18)
Tie them upon you heart always
(Prov 6:21)
write them upon the tablet of your heart
(Prv 3:3)
and you shall tie them for a sign upon your hand
(Dt 6:8)
tie them upon your throat
(Prov 3:3)
Tie them upon your heart always, don them upon your throat
(Prov 6:21)
and a necklace upon your throat
(Prov 1:9)
and for a remembrance (Totafot) between your eyes
(Dt 6:8)
because it is a beautiful wreath for your head
(Prov 1:9)
and write them upon the doorposts of your houses and your gates
(Dt 6:9)
write them upon the tablet of your heart
(Prov 3:3)
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  • John Gore says:

    D-Wave Systems – The Quantum Computing Company
    The modern day ‘black box’ of divination. Q-bits are both 1(true) and 0 (false) at the same time. Hmm.. bolean logic says 1 and 0 is 0. Conclusion: There is no truth in them.

  • Kelil says:

    Well whether you interpret it literally or metaphorically the practice of Tefillin come the closest to doing all these things Literally, as they are tied to you hand (yad, which can also be arm and it does both). It is between the eyes on the head and the straps go down around the neck. The only one is on the tablet of your heart and the yad tefillin point right at your heart. It’s an amazing practice that incorporates an internalization and another level of all those “metaphorical” commands to a literal action level.

    Another aspect is it is the beautification of the commandment. You can go the “minimal” mile and do a mitzvah “in your heart”, or k]just write on your doorpost with a marker or you can beautify and go above and love G-d with all your strength (meodekha, meaning literally “muchness”).

    Whether you are “Jewish” or “Israelite” we need to seek the unity G-d wants in the fulfillment of the 2 sticks in Ezekiel 37:15. He wants to join both Houses which are a House in their own right now. It’s gonna take endeavoring to understand each other and not bashing or separating like this ministry loves to do.

  • Moses says:

    Tefilin, were shown to Moshe Rabeinu – Moses and he showed them to the nation children of Israel. They have both practical part , we are to physically lay the Tefilin, and the spiritual action. Remeber WE are commanded to keep this Mitsva in the Torah by HaShem.

  • Russell Budlong says:

    thank you nehemia. i still need daily reminders of my position before YHVH

  • Gnarlodious says:

    Nobody knows what the Tefillin means, so I will tell you more right here. It was originally part of the way to identify the Moshiach, but eventually became a nonsensical ritual. The wrapped leather straps are for the mystical energy that emanates from the hand of the Moshiach. The totaf on the arm is for a mark on the arm of the Moshiach. The totaf between the eyes is an organ of divine knowing that grows on the Moshiach. In Egyptian it was symbolized by a snake (uraeus) growing from the forehead of the Pharaoh. There is a third mark that was lost to legend, but remains in a secret place. To Christians these were interpreted to be the “marks of the beast”. Find the person with all three marks and you will have identified the Moshiach.

  • Bob says:

    What about Matt 23::2-3? “The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. 3So practice and observe everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.” This principle was accepted by the Messianic community led by Ya-aqov ha-tzaddik [James the Just] and utilized at Acts 15:19-20. Let’s face it, Nehemiah’s ruling that there shall be NO buying selling on Shabbat is basically a “rabbinical-type” extra-Torah ruling as are the fasts in the fasts of the 17th of Tammuz and the 5th of Av, yet they are recognized as “legit” by the Tanakh. While I agree with Nehemiah that the Jewish leadership “created” the tradition of the T’fillin, they clearly had the “authority of Moses” to do so. Even Yeshua did not condemn the practice; only the exaggeration of it to make one look more “pious”. This is an interesting subject but both sides have a legit point. It’s certainly not a black and white issue.

  • Jeffrey Ellis says:

    Since my family did not grow up with these traditions (mezuzot, Tefillin, or Tzitziot), we appreciate that they are physical reminders to keep His Word active in our lives. I don’t wear a kippah or Tefillin, because I agree that the are not required in His Torah. However, we do have Mezzuzot on our doorposts and gates and I do wear tzitzit and a wristband with a partial Shema everyday. I also inscribed the Hebrew letter ‘Shin’ on the inside of the nose bridge of my glasses (nerd-alert, right!?!?), firstly as a reminder to myself and secondly as a means to initiate conversation with others about our God and His Word.
    I realize that there are Pardes/levels of understanding; however, I feel it is important to incorporate them all into my life as I am lead by His Ruach to do.
    Shalom and Shema…

  • Lynette Barton says:

    Well I simply write YHWH in Hebrew letters on my door posts and gates. I believe this is a form of remembering/mentioning his NAME: Exodus 20:241

    24. . . in “ALL” places, where I shall put the remembrance of my Name, I will come unto thee, and bless thee.

    Thank you Nehemyah! For all you do and share with us!

  • Erika says:

    Nehemiah (or anyone else who could answer), I would like to know about the custom of women’s headcoverings. Is this a command for women or custom? The only reference in Torah I find is when a woman is suspected of a adulterous relationship and her hair is uncovered and she takes the bitter waters. How does Karaite Judaism view this? Thanks you!

  • David Sabatene says:

    One must also ask about mezuzot, How could this be metaphorical like writing upon the heart when it is of course possible to “write” something easily on a doorpost? I thought the Karaites would observe that Rabbanites don’t write anything onto the doorpost or gate, but onto parchment that are attached onto the doorpost and gate. Note that the verse uses “al” with reference to doorposts (“on top of”) but “be” for gates (“into” or “inside”).

    • How do you write the entire Torah on your doorpost? How do you put the Exodus from Egypt on you hand? Let’s be honest. The Tefillin and Mezuzah both started out as amulets to keep away demons and later clever rabbis found justification for them in the Torah by literalizing a metaphor.

      • Jacob Rigal says:

        There are some pictures online I’ve seen of the abbreviated Ten Commandments in Hebrew which you can screw into your door frame which are dubbed as ‘Karaite Mezuzah”. Have you seen this?

      • Gevara says:

        I believe that perhaps H’shm meant by saying to keep the Torah as remembrance on the gates and doorposts of your homes, that this meant that whatever and whoever ENTERS one’s home (symbolically the gates or doorway) must pass through the scrutiny of the Torah Laws lifestyle and commands…i.e. that not idols, impure possessions, unholy thoughts and books or any vile object be subjugated to entry of the holy home. Only those items and people could be allowed in the home as passed by and through and under the protection of Hshm and the Torah Laws. If this were practiced in totality today within Jewish homes, there would be much more holiness as a whole in Judaism, I believe.

      • E. A. Hernandez says:

        The Shma goes there, Brother. Anyone can write the six Hebrew words, almost anywhere! The text doesn’t say write the Torah!

  • David Sabatene says:

    The reference to Rashbam’s literal translation in Exodus 13:9 is extremely interesting. It shows that connecting the terms ot and totafot are only “asmachtas” to the law given orally to Moshe (Torah LeMoshe Misinai). An asmachta serves as an association or hint for the importance of tefillin in addition to the straightfoward pshat description as found in Rashbam. This is important because the Karaite scholars would have to acknowledge that not a single rabbinic source anywhere has ever questioned the significance of tefillin – as we find in so many other halachic debates.

    One could also ask HOW the tefillin could be described in a Torah verse to be implemented? Should the Torah say: You shall place a square black box with four parshiyot and straps on your head right in the middle of the distance of your two eyes, and another black box on your arm with straps wrapped around your hand”. Does the Torah go into such detail about any mitzvot?
    And again, tefillin have never been a subject of debate among any rabbinical sources from Morocco to Iraq, from Lithuania to Turkey, or from France to Egypt. How have Karaite scholars address these points?!

    • If God wants us to follow this much detail, then He gives us that much detail in the Torah. A clear example of this is the sacrifices in Leviticus chapters 1 through 7. Another example is the Viduy in Deuteronomy 26:1-10 when bringing the firstfruits to the Temple, which includes a specific formula of what to say. Some details are vague, such as the color of the basket, so that is flexible.

    • Paul Case says:

      Why not rectangle? red? leather? three straps? plus an inscribed watermelon strapped to leg with feet bound tightly in linen swaddling? etc, etc, etc….

  • Santos rubio salguero says:

    Muy bueno de alguna u otra forma igual yo creía q era un lenguaje de sentido figurado el hecho de atarlo n tu mano y en la frente.solia decirles ami hijo pequeño a lo q la escritura trataba de decir es tenerlo siempre presente en tu mente y hacerlo .pero muy bueno ,soy uncristiano q busca la verdad y sinceramente creo q usted es uno D LOS pocos q he encontrado q me han convencido por su forma de interpretar Torá, BENDICIONES..

  • Mary says:

    Thanks again for the well researched information.

  • Gabriel Shaltiel says:

    I dawn Tefillin, and keep remembrance alway before Hashem. there are ancent Tefillin found in Israel in caves near there. I will do as my fore Fathers did. Also the wearing of ZitZit. I do also. I only wish to obey Hashem. The Halakot I wish to do in Hashem. We can banter wither to or NOT. I wish to do. But to lead many Jews estray from keeping Halakot is not a good mitvot.

  • Chana (Anita) says:

    Well done, Nehemia. Thank you so much. For those who said they post the 10 Words on their doors where they can see them and be reminded when leaving the house— in my family (extended) we always did this, either the Commandments or the words of Yahoshua (“As for me and my house, we will serve The Lord” ) We were United Brethren and Baptists and were taught even back then, 40’s and 50’s that we are brothers to the Jews and must be kind to them always and help whenever we possibly can; so some things were known and still kept even though we wrote The Lord rather than His Name, and we pronounced with J not Y. I suspect that in many families there are still some remains like this, and all is being restored. Praise to YHVH! Some of the paganish celebrations (trees, hearts, pumpkin days, etc- I will not glorify them by identifying further) did not come into those congregations until the early 1960’s. Not all was perfect of course- still was pork eating and among the farmers it was the main meat it seemed to me, and gatherings were on day 1 and 4, not on Shabbat. But emphasis given to the *entire* Word. I was shocked when I was old enough to visit other places (friends’ sunday school classes and services)and found things so, uh, different….. absolutely shocked. Still am shocked to hear the things many say and write about the churches because so little of what they say/write is true of the congregations I grew up in. Oh, and no steeples. Sorry this is long, but thankful for what you wrote Nehemia, and thought some might find these comments relevant and perhaps thought-provoking. YAH be praised!

  • Gnarlodious says:

    You don’t know what it means, and so I will tell you. But first, they got the number wrong, there are really three Totafot, and the reason one went missing is a story lost to time. A story that can only be remembered by the Totaf.

    Because, you see, all the history of God’s creation is stored in the Totaf. It, or rather they, are the organ(s) of remembrance, and the mark of the chosen one, the Moshiach, who remembers all things divine. When you find the person that has all three birthmarks, that person will be the Moshiach.

  • There is something else troubling me: the Chabad Lubavitcher movement happening now, where they con people by offering a free mezuzah and mezuzah check-ups. Since these particular rabbinic deceivers blame everything that is bad on “nonkosher” mezuzot, they’re making a killing with this. Even Messianic Christians who hang a mezuzah are falling for it!

    A kosher claft parchment, under their law, goes for close to $100. It’s big business for the scribes. This seems not a question of traditions, but of luring Jews into the Hasidic way. What troubles me the most is that I can’t see what’s kosher about their concept of a mezuzah–or how anything different is nonkosher. I claim they’re doing it for money as well as proselytizing.

    • David says:

      Respectfully, it’s not only Lubavitch Hassidim. All religions milk their constituents for money in the name of religion. Decorators and card makers make a killing of Christmas and Easter as one example.

    • Tom Wise says:

      If people want to fall for it, that’s their problem. On the other hand, there’s nothing anti-Torah about having higher standards. It does not however negate the minimum standard.

      • David M Johnson says:

        So you claim it is a higher standard if a rabbi or some official in Judaism does it?
        I’m wondering why there was no instruction in scripture to get a priest or at the very least a Levite to do it, thus making your mezuzah of a higher standard!

  • Great article. I am deeply moved, and am appreciative, of the interpretation of the doorposts mitzvah. However, I’ve always disagreed with the idea of simply doing nothing physical. I place beautiful, empty mezuzah cases on my doorposts, with very large ones on the outside. I believe that commandment to be a statement that suggests placing “writing” of some description where all can see it, on the doorposts. The Karaite way of placing tablets with writing on the front doorpost, in order to quiet the rabbinics living around them, is beautiful and unique. I have one of those plates, and I’d have them all over, if I could! One of them is situated above my front door inside the house. Any thoughts?

  • Paulo says:

    I’ve always found it strange to use tefilim. Now it really cleared me.

  • David says:

    The point is well made about wearing Tefilin literally between the eyes. It is one of many propaganda falsities that the Pharisses spread to combat the viewpoint of the Seducees (later Karaites) after the Temple period. Others include that the Seducees do not leave their home on the Sabbath, cannot eat hot food on the Sabbath, and literally take an eye for an eye in civil law. These are simply very likely untrue propaganda spread so the masses would not follow the Seducee Aristocracy.

    Later in the Talmud they refer to Seducees as heretics and use purim as a mass acceptance holiday of the Oral Torah–in the Esther 9:27: ” The Jews ordained and took upon themselves and upon their seed and upon all those who join them, that it is not to be revoked to make these two days according to their script and according to their appointed time, every year.” The Talmud uses this verse to say the Jews also accepted upon themselves the Oral Torah.

    I do not blame the Rabbanites as if you wanted the population to keep your laws then such self-fulfilling ideas are necessary and because they were (and still are) the mass majority of religious Jews history is written by the victors. I am pleased the truth is coming out now, in the age of information. Both sides and ways of thought are important to know and consider.

  • Brian V says:

    I agree keeping Passover is as being a remembrance between the eyes and on the right hand.

    Hearing and doing. Head and hand.

    But the same time instead of prayerbelts/ tefillin, i take the writing on the doorpost literal, in the way I wrote the 10 words on paper and attached them on the inside of the door so every time I leave my room I see/ read His words. And other commandments.

    Maybe i make a difference between them because i dont have tefillin, dont know where to buy, but also it doesnt seem practicle having a tight belt around my arm all day.

    But it seems from my source farisees had them on about 2000 years ago.

    • David says:

      Pharisees did have them 2,000 years ago as they were found on Mossadah. The order of the verses followed the Rabbainu Tam (of France) while most Rabbanite followers (orthodox jews) wear the “Rashi” (Rabbi Yitzchak Itzaki of Worms, Rabbainu Tam’s grandfather, and famous commentator on the Tanakh) version.

      However, parchment seemed to be invented 300 BCE so it is difficult to think Tefillin were made before that time (as it involves using parchment). it is possible that the practice was started by the Pharisee Rabbis around the end of the Temple period to involve the masses in practice. Ironically, in this instance, the Rabbanites or Pharisees were literal in their interpretation of the Torah.

      As far as wearing them all day, that custom ended centuries ago and Orthodox Jews only wear them for morning prayers now.

  • Nice Toast says:

    Another argument in your favor is that it’s anatomically impossible for “shattered nose bones” to penetrate either your skull or your brain, and such a thing has never occurred in history. What a twerpy, juvenile tale that is.

  • Jarvin says:

    Great, I really appreciate it, that’s what I thought , thanks again.

  • Ania McElroy says:

    Thank you ,Dear Yahweh ,for this knowledge . Finally someone got it right .I think the “branch from David “is going to come from Karaite Jews .

  • Dawn says:

    This year going through the Torah cycle I was struck by Exo 13:16 “and it hath been for a token on thy hand, and for frontlets between thine eyes, for by strength of hand hath Yehovah brought us out of Egypt.’ which refers to keeping Passover. Certainly we can’t put the entire action of keeping Passover on our foreheads or on our hand so obviously this phrase had to be metaphoric. By keeping Passover every year we are keeping this “between our eyes” by remembering His deliverance.
    Thank you Nehemia for bringing this out.

  • Joseph Rangel says:

    Somehow I knew this, but thank you for reaffirming it!

  • Kirk says:

    I am reminded about an old wise tale: tie a string around your finger and you will not forget.

  • You are so appreciated Nehemiah! You are wonderful at shedding light where shadows exist … I am blessed by my Heavenly Father to have teachers along my path that are simply after the Truth and to live by it. I thank Yehovah, for you, and also lift my prayers up over you and the path He has layed out for you as well.
    As you encourage, exhort, and reveal, may you be encouraged, exhorted and given understanding and insight to continually proclaim and magnify the Most High, Yehovah .. Our Creator, God, and Heavenly Father.

  • kris says:

    A bit of a different question …but could someone please tell me what Greek word/words is/are used in the Septuagint where the Hebrew word pronounced “totafot” appears in the Torah in Ex 13:16, Dt 6:8, Dt 11:18 – and also what Greek word is used in the Septuagint where the Hebrew word pronounced “zicharon” appears in the Torah in Ex 13:9?

    • Mi kha EL says:

      I hope you found your answer already. Others who might want to know, here is what I found in the Septuagint:
      Exo_13:16, semeion, sign or miracle G4592
      Deu_6:8, asaleuton, an adverb, meaning immovable, G761
      Deu_11:18 semeion, and asaleuton both recur.
      – and also what Greek word is used in the Septuagint where the Hebrew word pronounced “zicharon” appears in the Torah in
      Exo_13:9 mnemosunon G4592, reminder or memorial

      [Courtesy Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint (LXX), edited by Alfred Rahlfs, with Strong’s numbers, accessed via E-Sword Bible Software]

  • Dianne Augustine says:

    Sven, I appreciated your unique sense of humor. It made me laugh. Nehemia how do you interpret the Torah regarding women wearing tzitzyot?

  • Mary says:

    Thank you! So looking forward to more!

  • Sven Brown says:

    You missed your chance to coin a new phrase – “phylactricide” – (n.) accidental death caused by improperly wearing phylacteries. Perhaps a Warning Label is appropriate with each new purchase: “Careful attention to the Oral Law required when davening close to the Kotel Wall to avoid phylactricide.” Sorry, couldn’t resist….

  • Ian Anthony Jones says:

    Blessed once again. Thank you!