The meaning of Phylactery in the Bible
(From International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)
fi-lak'-ter-i (phulakterion, "guard"):
1. Bible References:
This word is found only in Matthew 23:5 in our Lord's denunciation of the Pharisees, who, in order that their works might "be seen of men," and in their zeal for the forms of religion, "make broad their phylacteries and enlarge the borders of their garments." The corresponding word in the Old Testament, ToTaphoth (Kennedy in HDB suggests pointing as the segholate feminine singular, ToTepheth), is fonnd in three passages (Exodus 13:16; Deuteronomy 6:8; Deuteronomy 11:18), where it is translated "frontlets." This rendering, however, is not at all certain, and may have been read into the text from its later interpretation. In Exodus 13:9 the corresponding word to the Totaphoth of Exodus 13:16 is zikkaron, "memorial" or "reminder"; and in the parallel clauses of both verses the corresponding word is 'oth, "a sign" upon the hand, also used for the "sign" which Yahweh appointed for Cain (Genesis 4:15). It may be rendered then as a mark or ornament or jewel, and used figuratively of Yahweh's Law as an ornament or jewel to the forehead of the Israelite, a reference to the charm or amulet worn by the pagan. The word used in the Talmud for the phylactery is tephillah, "prayer," or "prayer-band" (plural tephillin), indicating its use theoretically as a reminder of the Law, although practically it might be esteemed as an automatic and ever-present charm against evil: an aid within toward the keeping of the Law, a guard without against the approach of evil; a degradation of an Old Testament figurative and idealistic phrase to the materialistic and superstitious practices of the pagans.
The phylactery was a leather box, cube-shaped, closed with an attached flap and bound to the person by a leather band. There were two kinds: (1) one to be bound to the inner side of the left arm, and near the elbow, so that with the bending of the arm it would rest over the heart, the knot fastening it to the arm being in the form of the Hebrew letter yodh (y), and the end of the string, or band, finally wound around the middle finger of the hand, "a sign upon thy hand" (Deuteronomy 6:8). This box had one compartment containing one or all of the four passages given above. The writer in his youth found one of these in a comparatively remote locality, evidently lost by a Jewish peddler, which contained only the 2nd text (Exodus 13:11-16) in unpointed Hebrew. (2) Another was to be bound in the center of the forehead, "between thine eyes" (Deuteronomy 6:8), the knot of the band being in the form of the Hebrew letter daleth (d), with the Hebrew letter shin (sh) upon each end of the box, which was divided into four compartments with one of the four passages in each. These two Hebrew letters, with the yodh (y) of the arm-phylactery (see (1) above), formed the divine name shadday, "Almighty." Quite elaborate ceremonial accompanied the "laying" on of the phylacteries, that of the arm being bound on first, and that of the head next, quotations from Scripture or Talmud being repeated at each stage of the binding. They were to be worn by every male over 13 years old at the time of morning prayer, except on Sabbaths and festal days, such days being in themselves sufficient reminders of "the commandment, the statutes, and the ordinances" of Yahweh (Deuteronomy 6:1).
3. Interpretation of Old Testament Passages:
The passages on which the wearing of the phylacteries is based are as follows: "It (i.e. the feast of unleavened bread) shall be for a sign unto thee upon thy hand, and for a memorial between thine eyes, that the law of Yahweh may be in thy mouth" (Exodus 13:9); "And it (i.e. sacrifice of the firstborn) shall be for a sign upon thy hand, and for frontlets between thine eyes" (Exodus 13:16); "thou shalt bind them (i.e. the words of Yahweh) for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes" (Deuteronomy 6:8); "therefore shall ye lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul; and ye shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes" (Deuteronomy 11:18). It is evident that the words in Exodus are beyond all question used figuratively; a careful reading of the verses in Deuteronomy in close relation to their contexts, in which are other figures of speech not to be taken literally, is sufficient proof of their purely figurative intention also. Only the formalism of later ages could distort these figures into the gross and materialistic practice of the phylactery. Just when this practice began cannot accurately be determined. While the Talmud attempts to trace it back to the primitive, even Mosaic, times, it probably did not long antedate the birth of Christ. In conservative Jewish circles it has been maintained through the centuries, and at present is faithfully followed by orthodox Judaism. Every male, who at the age of 13 becomes a "son of the Law" (bar mitswah), must wear the phylactery and perform the accompanying ceremonial.
In the New Testament passage (Matthew 23:5) our Lord rebukes the Pharisees, who make more pronounced the un-Scriptural formalism and the crude literalism of the phylacteries by making them obtrusively large, as they also seek notoriety for their religiosity by the enlarged fringes, or "borders."
See FRINGES; FRONTLETS; PHARISEES.
The various commentaries. on Exo. and Dt: tractate Tephillin; the comprehensive article by A. R. S. Kennedy in HDB; articles in Encyclopedia Biblica and Jewish Encyclopedia.
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