Should we wear phylacteries today?


Some orthodox Jews wear leather boxes (“phylacteries”) which contain portions of Old Testament passages. They base this custom on Scriptures in Deuteronomy and Exodus.

One of those passages is Deuteronomy 6:6-8, which states, in connection with the pronouncement of the Ten Commandments:

“And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house,  when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall BIND them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as FRONTLETS between your eyes.”

In addition, another passage used for the custom of wearing phylacteries, is Deuteronomy 11:18, which states, in connection with the second giving of the Ten Commandments:

“Therefore you shall lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and BIND them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as FRONTLETS between your eyes.”

How are we to follow today these commandments in Deuteronomy?  Are we to follow the example of the Jews at the time of Christ, or the example of some Jews today, in wearing phylacteries?

Friedman, Commentary of the Torah, explains, that the command to bind the law on one’s hand and to bind it between the eyes “came to be taken literally, requiring one to wear BOXES [in Hebrew tephillin; in Greek phylacteries] on one’s ARM and HEAD containing passages from the Torah [the five books of Moses]. In the Tanak [the entire Old Testament], however, this expression is meant figuratively, meaning to keep these teachings at hand… and right before one’s eyes.”

Let us note Matthew 23:5, where Jesus makes a reference to “phylacteries”:

“But all their works they do to be seen by men. They make their phylacteries broad and enlarge the borders of their garments.”

Christ did not approve of the custom, but He used it as an example to point out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the scribes.

The Ryrie Study Bible says:

“… some Jews still wear phylacteries… BOUND on the forehead and on the left ARM above the elbow… A phylactery was a square leather box which contained four strips of parchment on which were written (portions from Exodus and Deuteronomy). During prayer one was worn on the forehead between the eyebrows and another on the left arm close to the elbow. They were held in place by leather bands, which the Pharisees made broad to attract more attention to themselves… phylacteries had only begun to be used by the ultra-pious in Christ’s day…”

According to some commentaries, the custom of wearing phylacteries began sometime after the Jews had returned from the Babylonian captivity. As an aside, IF the passages in Deuteronomy were to be understood literally as commanding the phylacteries to be worn “on your hand, and… as frontlets between your eyes,” the Jews would not have kept this command anyhow, as they were not wearing them on their HAND, but they did so on their left ARM.

In fact, these phylacteries had been given a superstitious application. Dummelow writes in his “Commentary on the Holy Bible”:

“The rabbis held these phylacteries… in the highest veneration. They were to be kissed when put on or off… they were a preservative against demons, whence their name phylacteries, i.e. amulets (from a Greek word meaning ‘to guard.’). They were sworn by, by touching them.”

Young,  Analytical Concordance of the Holy Bible, defines the word “phylactery” as “a guard, a charm,” and Vine, “Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words,” writes:

“any kind of safeguard… especially to denote an amulet… it was supposed to have potency as a charm against evils and demons.”

Apart from this very dangerous and ungodly development, the passages in Deuteronomy 6 and 11 were meant to be applied figuratively, not literally, and most certainly not in connection with phylacteries, as can be seen from the following passages:

We read in Exodus 13:7-10, 15-16:

“Unleavened bread shall be eaten seven days. And no leavened bread shall be seen among you, nor shall leaven be seen among you in all your quarters. And you shall tell your son in that day,  saying, ‘This is done because of what the LORD did for me when I came up from Egypt.’ It shall be as a sign to you on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, the LORD’S law may be in your mouth; for with a strong hand the LORD has brought you out of Egypt. You shall therefore keep this ordinance in its season from year to year…

“‘And it came to pass, when Pharaoh was stubborn about letting us go, that the LORD killed all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of beast. Therefore I sacrifice to the LORD all males that open the womb, but all the firstborn of my sons I redeem.’ It shall be as a sign on your HAND and as FRONTLETS between your eyes, for by strength of hand the LORD brought us out of Egypt.”

Here the reference of “binding” certain passages on the forehead and on the hand applied to the historical situation pertaining to the death of the firstborn, the exodus from Egypt and the Days of Unleavened Bread. Jews claim that these passages are also to be contained in the phylactery boxes. But they do not include passages from the following sections:

Proverbs 3:3 says: “Let not mercy and truth forsake you; BIND them around your neck, WRITE them on the tablet of your heart.”

Here mercy and truth are to be bound around one’s neck and to be written on the tablets of our heart—but Jews do not include this passage in their leather boxes.

Proverbs 6:21 states: “BIND them continually upon your heart; TIE them around your neck.” A particular law is to be bound upon one’s heart and to be tied around the neck. The context is the command and admonition against adultery, compare verses 20, 22-24, 27-29.

Proverbs 7:3 adds: “Bind them on the fingers; Write them on the tablet of your heart.”

A particular provision is to be bound on one’s fingers and the tablet of the heart, and the context is again the prohibition of adultery, compare verse 5.

Let us notice again that Deuteronomy 6:6,8; 11:18 and Exodus 13:16 say that God’s law is to be “IN your heart” and that it is to be “AS a sign on your hand,” and “AS frontlets between your eyes.” This is clearly figurative language, which is not to be understood literally. This includes what we do with our hand and what and how we think.

The Sabbath is a good example. On it, we refrain from work with our hands, and we worship God with our mind. But we are warned that people will follow the false prophet (a religious leader) to receive the mark of the beast (a political leader) on their right hand or on their forehead (see Revelation 13:16-17), showing that they will work with their hands on the Sabbath and refuse to worship God on this day, while setting aside Sunday as a day of rest.

If we are true Christians, we do not need physical reminders such as phylacteries to remind us of God’s law. Today, God’s Holy Spirit in us reminds us of God’s law, and the law of God is being written on our hearts and minds (Romans 5:5 says that the love of God, which is defined as keeping the commandments (1 John 5:3), is poured out IN our hearts by the Holy Spirit).

Hebrews 8:10 describes the New Covenant, and true Christians—spiritual Israelites—are living already today under the conditions of the New Covenant:

“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put My laws in their mind and WRITE them on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.”

God’s law must be written in our hearts—to wear physical boxes such as phylacteries in superstitious ways to “remind” us of the law is not what God intends us to do.

Lead Writer: Norbert Link

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