You shal bind
them as a sign on your hand,
& they shall
be as frontlets between your eyes.
THE MYSTERY OF TEFILLIN
M. M. NINAN
II THE STRUCTURE OF TEFILLIN
III CONTENTS OF THE BOXES
IV THE PRODUCTION OF THE BATIM OF THE TEFILLIN
V TEFILLIN ACCESSORIES
VI HOW TO PUT ON AND TAKE OFF THE TEFILLIN
VII THE MYSTERY OF TEFILLIN
THE MYSTERY OF TEFILLIN
M. M. NINAN
Tefillin (called phylacteries in English) are small leather boxes
with straps that can be tied on the arm and around the head. They
contain verses on kosher parchments from the Torah, including the
first two paragraphs of the Shema, the primary declaration of YHVH
faith and are used by male adults in the Hebrew traditions.. Today,
Tefillin are worn during morning prayers, except on Shabbat and
Like all other religious rituals in the world, the use of the
Tefillin is semiotic in nature. All religions in the world use
sacred objects as symbols of declaration of their faith and used as
intensification and transition rites. Wearing Tefillin is a constant
reminder of God's commandments and acts as an ongoing Rite of
Intensification which makes the faith rooted and grounded for
generations. It also acts as a means of transference of faith. It
is usually used in the rite of transition into maturity at the time
of Bar Mitzah. The word literally means “Son Commandment” following
the Shema as given to Israel.
The first paragraph of the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9) is as follows:
“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love
the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with
all your might. These words which I command you this day shall be in
your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children. You
shall recite them at home and away, morning and night. You shall
bind them as a sign upon your hand. They shall be a reminder above
your eyes, and you shall inscribe them upon the doorposts of your
home and upon your gates.” (The last part refers to Mezuzah which is
fixed on the door of every Jewish home. I have dealt with Mezuzah in
a different booklet)
Menahem ben Jacob ibn Saruq ( 920- 970 AD. whose work “Mahberet” was
the first complete lexical treatment of the Biblical vocabulary
composed in Hebrew ) explains that the word is derived from the
Hebrew Ve'hateif and Tatifoo, both expressions meaning "speech",
"for when one sees the Tefillin it causes him to remember and speak
about The Exodus from Egypt.’. In that sense it is something meant
to start a conversation - a conversation piece - and help in the
The first texts to use "Tefillin" are the Targumim and Peshitta and
it is also used in subsequent Talmudic literature. The word "Tefillin"
may have derived from the Aramaic palal, "to plead, pray," a word
closely related to the Hebrew tefillah, "prayer." Jacob ben
Asher(14th century) suggests that "Tefillin" is derived from the
Hebrew pelilah, "evidence," for Tefillin act as a sign and proof of
God's presence among the Jewish people.
The word ‘Phylacteries' comes from an ancient Greek term
phylacterion, of phylássein, φυλάσσειν meaning "to guard, protect"
meaning ‘amulet’. The only instance of the name "phylacteries" in
ancient times occurs once in the Greek New Testament (Matthew 23:5).
"Phylacteries" comes from the Greek phulaktērion φυλακτήριον, "defences,"
and in late Greek, "amulets" or "charms." The word phylakterion,
literally means, "means of protection." It refers to magical charm
and amulet. The Peshitta New Testament of c 450 AD definitely
translates of Mat 23:5 as tephlaihon.
Amulets were part of the Jewish tradition as in all cultural and
religious traditions. Due to proscription of idols, Jewish amulets
emphasize text and names Examples of textual amulets include the
Silver Scroll (as found in Kettef Hinnon dated c. 630 BC) and the
still contemporary mezuzah and Tefillin. There was also visual
symbolism as in the Hand of Miriam, an outline of a human hand.
Another non-textual amulet is the Seal of Solomon, also known as the
hexagram or Star of David
A around the neck. Other similar amulets still in use consist of one
of the names of God, such as ה(He),יה (yah)or שדי ( (Shaddai)
During the Middle Ages, Maimonides and Sherira Gaon (and his son Hai
Gaon) opposed the use of amulets and derided the "folly of amulet
writers." Other rabbis, however, approved the use of amulets since
both the powers of God and the power of darkness (because of the
freedom granted by God) exist in human realm. Though amulet
themselves are mere symbols and worthless they remain as potent
reminders in common lives and to provides impetus to conform to our
declared faith and empower our person the power of choice. Magic and
alchemy had been the basis of development of science.
Rabbi and famous Kabbalist Naphtali ben Isaac Katz ("Ha-Kohen,"
1645–1719) was said to be an expert in the magical use of amulets.
He was accused of causing a fire that broke out in his house and
then destroyed the whole Jewish quarter of Frankfurt, and of
preventing the extinguishing of the fire by conventional means
because he wanted to test the power of his amulets; he was
imprisoned and forced to resign his post and leave the city.
The only instance of the name "phylacteries" in Biblical times
occurs is in the New Testament (Matt. 23. 5), where it has passed
into the languages of Europe. In rabbinical literature it is not
found even as a foreign word. The Septuagint renders it as "ṭoṭafot"
(A. V. and R. V. "frontlets"; Ex. 13. 16 and Deut. 6. 8) by
ἀσαλευτόν meaning "something immovable"; nor do Aquila and Symmachus
(c. AD 150) use the word "phylacteries." Thus opinion differs as to
the function of Tefillin as magical amulet.
The Targumim (Jonathan, Onḳelos) and the Peshiṭta use the term
"Tefillin" (Ex. 13: 9, 16; 28: 37; Deut. 6:. 8, 28: 10; Ezek. 24.
23; Cant. 8. 1) or "ṭoṭafot" (II Sam. i. 10; Ezek. 24. 17 et seq.).
The terms "tefillah," "Tefillin" only are found in Talmudic
literature, although the word "ṭoṭafah" was still current, being
used with the meaning of "frontlet" (Shab. 6. 1). Thus the use of
Tefillin as magical "phylacteries," lack historical basis, since
this name was not used in truly Jewish circles in early days.
Prov. 1: 9, 3:3, 6: 21, and 7:3 (comp. Jer. 17: 1, 31. 32-33)
clearly indicate the custom of wearing some object, with or without
inscription, around the neck or near the heart. In view of these
facts it may be assumed that Ex. 13. 9, 16, and Deut. 6: 8, 11: 18
must be interpreted not figuratively but literally; therefore it
must be assumed that the custom of wearing strips inscribed with
Biblical passages is commanded in the Torah. "Bind them as signs on
thy hand, and they shall be as ṭoṭafot between thy eyes" assumes
that ṭoṭafot were at the time known and in use, but that thenceforth
the words of the Torah were to serve as ṭoṭafot (on signs see also I
Kings 20. 41; Ezek. 9. 4, 6; Psalms of Solomon, 15. 9; )
The laws governing the wearing of phylacteries were derived by the
Rabbis from four Biblical passages (Deut. 6:6-8, 11:18; Ex. 13:9,
אוֹת Ot Sign
There are certain rituals in Judaism which are referred to in the
Torah as an תוֹא ‘Ot’ – a sign of the binding relationship between
the Jew and God. The Shabbat is called an ‘Ot’; circumcision is
described as an ‘Ot’; the Mitzvah of Tefillin joins the group of ‘Otot’.
The Tefillin are to serve as a reminder of God's intervention at the
time of the Exodus from Egypt, as is clear from the above verses.
The obligation of Tefillin, as expounded by the Oral Law, is
mentioned four times in the Torah and twice when recalling the The
Exodus from Egypt:
Maimonides details of the sanctity of Tefillin and writes that "as
long as the Tefillin are on the head and on the arm of a man, he is
modest and God-fearing and will not be attracted by hilarity or idle
talk; he will have no evil thoughts, but will devote all his
thoughts to truth and righteousness.’ The Sefer ha-Chinuch (14th
century) adds that the purpose of Tefillin is to help subjugate a
person's worldly desires and encourage spiritual development. Joseph
Caro (16th century) explains that Tefillin are placed on the arm
adjacent to the heart and on the head above the brain to demonstrate
that these two major organs are willing to perform the service of
God. Thus the very awareness of the presence of the Tefillin forces
the atmosphere and attitude of the person.
Taken literally the word of the Lord is to be a sign on the hand and
frontlets or sign between the eyes.
How to interpret these words into reality is not really specified by
the scriptures. This was left to the Rabbis to interpret. Does this
mean that it is to be written on the hands and forehead or is it
symbolic. Should we use tattoos or tie the scrolls down?
The donning of Tefillin is an essential observance for Jewish males
above the age of bar-mitzvah. According to the prophet Isaiah
(38:16), All who don Tefillin are granted a longer life, as is
written, ‘O Lord, with these things men live’.
There are two groups of opinions: One group holds that this
statement is not to be taken literally but in the spirit. Our
actions and thought and behavior should reflect the words of God so
that others may see and glorify God. Reform Jews understand the
commandment figuratively–keep God in mind as if the mitzvot were
carried on your hand and forehead. This is the stand of the Karaites,
Samaritans and Falashas also. Over the ages, the Tefillin were given
various symbolic interpretations by the Reformed Jewish culture.
The second group consists of Rabbis who hold that the words of God
must be written down on some material and tied to the hand and to
the head as symbols of allegiance to the Word. Orthodox and
Conservative Jews take the commandment literally. While these
passages were interpreted literally by most commentators (comp.,
however, Ibn Ezra and RaShbaM on Ex. 13: 9), the Rabbis held that
the general law only was expressed in the Bible, the application and
elaboration of it being entirely matters of tradition and inference
(Sanh. 88b). Thus the practice of construction procedures, materials
used and the way it is tied developed through the history of
Earliest Jewish Sources
Rabbi Judah ben Bathyra claimed that he had Tefillin dating back to
the time of Ezekiel (c. 600BC). (San. 92b.) There are no record of
people wearing phylacteries in the Old Testament. That should tell
us something. As for historical records, the International Standard
Bible Encyclopedia states: “It is not known when the custom (of
phylacteries) began. It was unknown among the Samaritans, hence . .
. the custom must have developed after the Samaritan-Jewish schism
(3rd Century B.C.)” (1986 edition, vol. 3, p. 864, article
The oldest known fragments of phylacteries came from the excavations
at Qumran and Murabba’at, the Dead Sea Scrolls sites where
manuscripts dated from the early A.D. 100s were discovered. Dozens
of Tefillin scroll fragments containing excerpts from Exodus and
Deuteronomy have been uncovered at Qumran.
The historical record leads to the conclusion that the origin of
phylacteries had its birth in the Jewish exiles in Babylon when
Judah in dispersion was trying to find their identity in a foreign
land. Thus it probably was developed as a statement of identity of
Israel in dispersion.
Josephus living in the first century AD refers to them (Antiquities
4, 8, 13.) as does the New Testament. (Matthew 23: 5)
Tannaim and Mishna
Tannaim (Hebrew:תנאים [tana'im ], singularתנא [ta'na], Tanna
"repeaters", "teachers") were the Rabbinic sages whose views are
recorded in the Mishnah from approximately 10-20 AD, The period of
Tannaim also referred to as the Mishnaic Period lasted about (10-220
AD) 210 years. The root tanna (תנא) is the Talmudic Aramaic
equivalent for the Hebrew root shanah (שנה), which also is the
root-word of Mishnah. The verb shanah (שנה) literally means "to
repeat [what one was taught]" or "to study and review", and is used
to mean "to learn" also. It is the first major written redaction of
the Jewish oral traditions known as the "Oral Torah". These Oral Law
inclues all that Moses learned from God, which he did not write
down, but transmitted orally to his successors. 7
Thus in effect Torah has two parts: The "Torah Shebichtav" (Written
Law), which is composed of the twenty-four books of the Tanach, and
the "Torah Sheba'al Peh" ( )(Oral Law). God told Moses that he will
give him "the Torah and the commandments." Why did God add the word
"commandments?" This indicates that God gave additional
“commandments”, which are not included in the Torah? This verse
(amongst others) is a clear inference to the existence of the Oral
Torah. Remember Moses was with God for forty days and forty nights.
What else was he doing this period if he was not being instructed in
all the wisdom? Hence the tradition that God handed down to Moses
many other commandments besides those which he had written down.
These form the tradition of the Israel.
(http://www.hebrew4christians.com) This tradition was passed on from
generation to generation. However since it is orally transmitted
they include additions and edicts and ordinances enacted by the
sages themselves throughout the generations, and laws and teachings
extrapolated from the Torah's verses along with the commentaries and
explanations- employing methodology prescribed by Moses (as he was
instructed by God).These form the traditions. It is the Talmud, the
authoritative oral tradition for Rabbinic Judaism, which laid down
rules and regulation regarding what are to be bound to the body and
the form of Tefillin.
“Tefillin are the post biblical Hebrew term for two small boxes
containing Torah passages written on pieces of parchment, with
leather bands attached to the boxes in such a way that one may be
worn on the forehead, between the eyes, and the other tied to the
arm. Tefillin (from tefillah, prayer) are the name of a small
tractate The Oral Law consists of three components: 1. Laws Given to
Moses at Sinai (Halachah L'Moshe M'Sinai): Some examples of Halachah
L'Moshe M'Sinai are: Tefillin straps must be black; a sukkah must
have at least two and a half walls, and all the different Halachic
measurements and sizes. 2. The Thirteen Principles of Torah Exegesis
(Shlosh Esreh Middot ShehaTorah Nidreshet Bahem): A full list of the
thirteen principles can be found in the prayer-book.2 3. Edicts (Gezayrot):
The rabbis constantly added gezayrot according to the needs of their
times. The Torah authorizes the rabbis to protect the word of the
Torah through making "Gezayrot" (edicts). Until the end of the
Talmudic Era there was a central rabbinic authority which issued
gezayrot which were accepted by all the Jews.
In the Talmud that assembles the relevant prescriptions of
tradition.”(W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, page
"Mishnah" is frequently used, therefore, to designate the law which
was transmitted orally, in contrast to "Miḳra," the law which is
written and read; and the term includes also the halakic midrashim,
as well as the Tosefta or explanatory additions to the Mishnah.
There are ten basic laws regarding Tefillin contained in the Oral
Torah, supposed to have been given to Moses at Sinai. These are:
1. The parchments must be made of the outermost hide (Klaf) of a
2. They must be written with a permanent black ink.
3. The parchments must be tied shut with the hair of a kosher
animal. 4. They must be placed in a perfectly square leather box.
5. The box of the head Tefillin must be inscribed with the Hebrew
letter Shin. On the right side of the box, this is the usual
three-headed Shin, while on the left side, it must have four heads.
6. The boxes must have a somewhat wide base. This is called the
7. This base must contain an opening through which the straps are
passed. This is called the Ma’abarta.
8. The boxes must be sewn closed with thread made from the veins or
sinews of a kosher animal.
9. The Tefillin must be bound with leather straps, dyed black on the
10. The strap of the head Tefillin must be tied with a knot in the
shape of the Hebrew letter Dalet. The hand Tefillin must be tied
with a knot shaped like a Yud.
It is not known whether this command was carried out in the earliest
time, and if so, in what manner. But from the relatively large
number of regulations referring to the phylacteries—some of them
connected with the names of the first tannaim—and also from the fact
that among the fifty-five "Sinaitic commands" ("halakah leMosheh
mi-Sinai") eight refer to the Tefillin alone and seven to the
Tefillin and the Torah together, it follows that they were used as
early as the time of the Soferim—the fourth, or at least the third,
The Sanhedrin was the supreme council, or court, in ancient Israel.
The Sanhedrin was comprised of 70 men, plus the high priest, who
served as its president. The members came from the chief priests,
scribes and elders, but there is no record on how they were chosen.
After the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD,
without the Sanhedrin and Priests the emphasis changed to teaching
of tradition and faith by the teachers. This period became known as
the Tannaim —“teachers”. It was these teachers who finally collected
the fragmentary Oral Laws passed down from generation to generation
and assembled them and is known as the Mishna. The codification was
given final form early in the 3rd century AD by Judah ha-Nasi
(135-220 A.D). He assembled the Mishna into six major sections, or
orders (sedarim), that contain 63 tractates (massekhtaot). These
provide the accepted legal traditions since the time of Ezra (450
BC). (Men. 35a; Yer. Meg. 1:9; Maimonides, in "Yad," Tefillin, 1: 3,
mentions ten; Rodkinssohn, in "Tefillah leMosheh," p. 20, ed.
Presburg, 1883, mentions eighteen).
The earliest explicit reference to them that has been
preserved—namely, in the Letter of Aristeas (verse 159; see Kautzsch,
"Apokryphen," ii. 18)—speaks of them as an old institution.
In the sudy “From Totafot to Teﬁllin:A Short History of Meaning”
Arnold Mold of the University of Leiden formulates a time line in
how different meanings of the verses developed over the centuries:
1. Pre-second temple period: Formation of scripture, whereby terms
as totqfot were understood in their Egyptian-Assyrian religious
2. 2. Early second temple period: Part of scripture and probably
3. Late second temple period: Beginning of literal reading and
formation of ritual as a protective amulet and symbol of Jewishness,
which explains the Septuagint translation of phylacteries (amulets).
4. Post-second temple period: Common acceptance of ritual wherein
the centre place of the Torah is emphasized. Only groups as the
Karaites and modem reformist Jews uphold a metaphorical reading and
reject it as a ritual.