You Say ‘Phylacteries,’ I Say ‘Tefillin’


By Philologos

Published February 17, 2006, issue of February 17, 2006.
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Fred Lerner of White River Junction, Vt., a little town that has now accounted for two straight columns (see last week’s “Now Shmear This”), has a complaint. He writes:

“In the January 20 issue of the Forward, Raphael Mostel, in an article about the composer Osvaldo Golijov, wrote that, ‘One memory he has of his grandfather, with whom the 7-year-old Golijov shared a room, was waking up and seeing him praying, wearing phylacteries.’

“‘Phylacteries’ I take to be a word of Greek origin. Whatever meaning it may have had to the Greeks, I have never seen it used to mean anything other than tefillin. So what is the point of using the Greek word in preference to the Hebrew? And even if there is some reason to do so in gentile discourse, why not use the Hebrew word in the Forward?”

Although I don’t propose to deal here with the Greek derivation of “phylacteries,” a subject to which I devoted a column last September 2, Mr. Lerner raises an interesting question. And it is not limited to “tefillin” vs. “phylacteries.” In speaking and writing about Jewish objects and practices, English-speaking Jews often have a choice between two words: a Hebrew (or, more rarely, a Yiddish) one traditionally used by the religiously observant or knowledgeable, and an English one that may or may not be more understandable to a wider audience. It’s not that easy to formulate the rules, whether descriptive or prescriptive, for which is preferred.

True, when two observant Jews are conversing, they almost always will use the traditional term: Not only will they say “tefillin” and not “phylacteries,” but they also will say “siddur” and not “prayer book,” “tallis” (or “tallit,” if they prefer the Israeli pronunciation) and not “prayer shawl,” “Yom Kippur” and not the “Day of Atonement,” and so on. And yet, this is not an inviolable law. Take the Jewish calendar, for example. Although no observant American Jew, in speaking to someone like himself, would refer to the “Feast of Tabernacles” instead of to “Sukkes” (or “Sukkot”) or to the “Ninth of Av” instead of “Tisha B’Av,” he might, if he were not too Orthodox, speak of “Passover” instead of “Pesach” and of “Friday night” instead of “erev Shabbes” (or “erev Shabbat”). These are not uncommon American Jewish usages.

Or, take ritual objects. Never have I heard two Jews versed in Judaism call a lulav a “palm shoot,” a Kiddush cup a “blessing-over-the-wine cup” or a Havdalah candle an “ending-of-the-Sabbath candle.” However, I have heard the “b’samim box,” used in the Havdalah ceremony, referred to as a “spice box.” Where’s the logic in this? I’m not sure there is any, just as I’m not sure why many Jews who never would refer to the “chazan” of their synagogue as its “cantor” routinely call its director the “president” rather than the “gabbai.”

And when it comes to discourse between Jews and non-Jews, the situation becomes even more complex. Here, a lot has to do with how well Jews think that a word will be understood by their non-Jewish audience. Jews do not hesitate to speak of “Hanukkah” or “Yom Kippur,” for example, because they know that these are words familiar to most Americans. Conversely, no Jew would say, in a conversation with a gentile, “I always carry my tallis and siddur with me to shul” rather than “I always carry my prayer shawl and prayer book with me to synagogue.”

It gets more problematic when a Jewish speaker is either unsure of how much he can assume (Will he be understood if he says “Kaddish,” or is it better to say “mourner’s prayer”?), or else, when both terms are equally likely to be incomprehensible. The latter is true of “tefillin” and “phylacteries,” neither of which is familiar to the ordinary American. What does one do then?

What one often does is resort to circumlocution, whether in speech (“I was putting on my tefillin [or phylacteries] this morning — that’s these leather straps that a Jew wears when praying”) or in writing. And in writing there’s also the alternative of leaving it to the reader to consult the dictionary — provided, that is, that the word in question appears there. In this case of “phylacteries” and “tefillin,” older dictionaries have an entry only for the former. Most recent dictionaries list “tefillin,” as well, but this may get you no more than a cross-reference to “phylacteries” (under which a more complete definition will be found).

Was Raphael Mostel, then, justified in writing about Osvaldo Golijov’s grandfather’s “phylacteries” rather than “tefillin”? Perhaps — except that Fred Lerner still could argue (as he indeed does) that, since Mr. Mostel’s article was addressed not to the ordinary American but to readers of a Jewish newspaper, “tefillin” still should have been given preference. This makes sense also, even if in saying so I sound like the rabbi in a joke: Criticized by an onlooker for telling two parties to a dispute that both are right, he answers his critic, “You’re right, too.” Sometimes, everybody just is.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to

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