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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament

Phylacteries

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PHYLACTERIES (OT ‘frontlets’).—The observance of phylacteries is based on Exodus 13:9-10 and Deuteronomy 6:8; Deuteronomy 11:18. For the Heb. and Greek terms see Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible , s.v. It is disputed whether the passages in the Pentateuch are to be understood literally (so most of the Rabbinic writers, and Ginsburg in Kitto’s Cyclop.) or metaphorically (so Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, the Karaites, Jerome, Lyra, Calvin, Hengstenberg, Knobel, Keil, and Kennedy in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible ); some assign a metaphorical meaning to the passages in Ex. and a literal to those in Deuteronomy. Under the more legal and formal interpretation and observance of the OT which flourished after the Return, the literal interpretation became dominant. The exact date of the introduction of the literal observance of the precept cannot be given. No indisputable reference is found in the OT; passages like Proverbs 1:9 being indecisive. From the relatively large number of regulations referring to phylacteries—some of them connected with the Tannaim—it follows that they were used as early as the time of the Sopherim, the 4th or at least the 3rd cent. b.c. (see JE [Note: E Jewish Encyclopedia.] x. 26). The first explicit reference, and that to the hand phylactery, is in the letter of the pseudo-Aristeas, the date of which is variously assigned between 200 and 100 b.c., where they are regarded as an established custom. They are also mentioned in connexion with Simeon ben Shetach, brother-in-law of Alexander Jannaeus (b.c. 105–78). Josephus (Ant. iv. viii. 13) speaks of them as an established and recognized custom. We may, therefore, regard them as having preceded by about two centuries the birth of Jesus Christ. For our knowledge of the customs associated with them we are indebted chiefly to the references in the Mishna (for which see Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ii. ii. 113). Though the collection of these traditions took place in the 2nd Christian cent., they may be regarded, for the most part, as representing an earlier state of things.

In the later Jewish writers, phylacteries play a great part; their manufacture and use are elaborately described, and their significance and importance dwelt upon at length. ‘There are more laws—ascribed to delivery by God to Moses—clustering about phylacteries than about any other institution of Judaism. Maimonides (Yad Tef.) mentions 10; Rodkinssohn (Tef. le Mosheh) mentions 18’ (J [Note: Jahwist.] E [Note: Elohist.] ). According to the Kabbala, they were significant of the wisdom, reason, and greatness of God. Phylacteries were more holy than the gold plate worn by the high priest, since that contained the Divine Name once, the phylacteries twenty-three times. The Mishna taught that’ be who has Tephillin on his head and his arm, Tsitsith on his garment, and Mezuzah on his door, has every possible guarantee that he will not sin.’ The wearing of them distinguished the cultured and pious from the common mass, the am-hâ’âreẓ, the ‘people who knew not the law’ (John 7:49). Though worn probably at first all day, they became limited to the time of morning prayer. Careful directions are given as to the person (women, the unclean), the times (Sabbaths and festivals), and the places (cemeteries, etc.) where their use was prohibited.

Phylacteries are of two kinds, those for the hand and those for the head. In the case of the former, a box or house (כּיִת) was made of the skin of a clean animal, which had been softened in water and shaped and stiffened on a mould. In this was inserted a parchment on which the Scripture passages, Exodus 13:1-16, Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Deuteronomy 6:13-21, had been written in four columns; the parchment was rolled and tied with white, washed hairs from a cow or calf, usually from the tail. This box was then sewn on to a leather base, furnished with a loop through which a leather strap passed. In the case of the head phylactery a similar box was prepared, but with four divisions, in which were placed in order, beginning from the left side, the four above named passages of the Pentateuch. On the right hand side of the box of this phylactery was impressed a three-pronged Shîn (ש), and on the left hand one with four prongs (ש). This, too, was sewn on a base and provided with a leather strap (see Illustration in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible iii. 870).

In ‘laying’—to use the technical term—the phylacteries, that for the hand was adjusted first. The box part was placed above the elbow on the inside of the left arm where it would press against the heart, a fact to which significance was given (Deuteronomy 6:6). A knot in the shape of the letter Yôdh (י) was made, the strap was wound about the arm four times and three times, and three times round the middle finger of the hand. The box of the other was placed on the forehead, where the hair ceases to grow, the band taken round the head and fastened with a knot like the letter Dâleth (ר), while the two ends were made to hang down in front over the shoulders. The Shîn on the box, the Dâleth knot on the head phylactery, and the Yôdh knot on the hand phylactery, made the letters of one of the Divine Names—שׁדַּי Shadddâi, ‘Almighty.’

The following benedictions are said. At the laying of the hand phylactery—‘Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, who hast sanctified us by Thy commandments, and has commanded us to lay the Tephillin.’ An almost identical one is uttered during the placing of that for the head, and when it is finished—‘Blessed be His name, whose glorious kingdom is for ever and ever.’ At the adjusting of the strap round the middle finger, which is left till the last, ‘And I will betroth thee unto me for ever; yea, I will betroth thee unto me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in loving-kindness, and in mercy. I will even betroth thee unto me in faithfulness: and thou shalt know the Lord’ (Hosea 2:19). In removing, the fastening of the hand is first undone, the head phylactery removed, then that on the arm; they are kissed and placed in a bag, as. to the place and use of which careful directions are given.

It cannot be doubted that the Pharisees and scribes in the time of our Lord used phylacteries; but how far the custom was followed by the people generally is uncertain. In order to emphasize their profession of religion, these people ‘made broad’ (πλατύνουσι, Matthew 23:5) these mementoes of their Judaism, whether by enlarging the whole, the boxes and the straps, or, as the Sinaitic and Curetonian Syriac suggest, the straps only. It was the vain extension of the outward sign of an unreal religion that our Lord rebuked; it marked the externality and hollowness of contemporary Pharisaism. While this is the only NT reference to phylacteries, their use by a certain class should continually be borne in mind by the reader, as it may add to the vividness of the picture suggested by many incidents. Thus in Matthew 22:34 || it may be considered as certain that the group of Pharisees with whom our Lord held His controversy wore their broadened phylacteries, and that the passage He quoted, the Shema’, the foundation of Hebrew religion, would be found in the phylacteries they carried on their heads and arms.

Literature.—Comm. on Ex. and Deut., including long note in Kalisch’s Exodus; Maimonides, Yad Hachazakah, Hilcoth Tephillin; Wagenseil, Sota; artt. in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible , the EBi [Note: Bi Encyclopaedia Biblica.] (‘Frontlets’), Smith’s DB [Note: Dictionary of the Bible.] (‘Frontlets’), Kitto’s Cyclop., the JE [Note: E Jewish Encyclopedia.] , Hamburger’s RE [Note: E Realencyklopädie.] , Riehm’s HWB [Note: WB Handwörterbunch.] ; Schürer, HJP [Note: JP History of the Jewish People.] ii. ii. 113; Buxtorf, Lex. Chald. and Syn. Jud. (which contains much curious information); Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life; Margoliouth, Fundamental Principles of Judaism (much information as to modern use).

J. T. L. Maggs.


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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Phylacteries'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/hdn/p/phylacteries.html. 1906-1918.

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