Tefillin – Phylacteries

Tefillin, Phylacteries, karaites, sadducees, totafot, oral law, torah, zicharon, command, rashbam, sign, hand, heart, tablet, write, tie, doorposts, gates, housesPopular 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 net 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)

26 thoughts on “Tefillin – Phylacteries

  1. 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.

    • 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.

    • 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.

  2. 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 footprints, 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?

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

    • 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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 .

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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?

    • 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]

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

  11. 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….

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