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Moments of Revision

Judith Gold Stitzel of Morgantown, W.Va., has an inquiry about the word “phylacteries,” the English term for what Jews call “tefillin” (pronounced “Tfee-LEEN” in Hebrew and “TFI-lin” in Yiddish and English). She writes:

“Out of curiosity, I decided to learn more about the word. The Columbia Encyclopedia tells me that it is from a Greek word meaning ‘safeguard,’ and that the boxes of the tefillin, which contain parchment inscribed with biblical verses, are ‘intended to serve as a reminder of the constant presence of God… thereby safeguarding the wearer against committing a sin.’ I was comforted by this interpretation of safeguarding, since a dictionary I consulted also included a definition of phylactery as ‘amulet,’ which suggests a magical use I had never associated with Jewish observance.

“In addition, in the expectedly partisan Catholic Encyclopedia I read that no word translated as ‘phylacteries’ occurs in the Hebrew Bible, and that the word’s only scriptural occurrence is in the New Testament’s Gospel of Matthew, who attacks the Pharisees because ‘they make their phylacteries broad and enlarge their fringes.’

“I’m confused. If tefillin doesn’t occur in the Hebrew Bible, what are ‘phylacteries’ called there? When and by whom was tefillin first used? And of most concern to me is why we Jews seem to have been so ready to accept a word like ‘phylacteries’ that appears only in the New Testament and in a disparaging context.”

Let’s start with “tefillin.” Indeed the word does not occur in the Jewish Bible. The custom of binding leather thongs on one’s head and arms, to which are attached small leather boxes with biblical verses written on parchment, is referred to there in two places. In one of them, the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy, in a passage known to every observant Jew from the Shema, recited twice daily in the synagogue, we read:

“Now these are the commandments, the statutes, and the judgments which the Lord your God commanded to teach you…. And thou shalt bind them for a sign [ot] upon thine arm and they shall be as frontlets [totafot] between thine eyes, and thou shalt write them upon the posts [mezuzot] of thy house and on thy gates.”

A mezuzah, too, of course, contains biblical verses written on parchment, some identical to the verses in tefillin boxes. The word tefillin itself is early rabbinic, and is formed from the Hebrew tefillah, “prayer,” with an Aramaic plural ending. Originally it may have referred only to the totafot or “frontlets,” because this is how it appears in Onkelos’s rabbinically approved second-century C.E. Aramaic translation of the Bible, with ot rendered by its Aramaic cognate, at. Yet in the Mishnah and the Talmud, both the ot and the totafot are called tefillin, the former tefillah shel yad (“the arm tefillah”) and the latter tefillah shel rosh (“the head tefillah”).

The word phylakteria in the New Testament, therefore, is simply the Greek translation of tefillin. It’s the plural of phylakterion, which indeed means a safeguard or amulet. (An amulet, after all, is an object meant to guard its wearer against evil spirits.) In the ancient Mediterranean world, a phylakterion was commonly an inscription, written on parchment, tin, gold or silver, that invoked protective supernatural powers. Quite apart from their tefillin, Jews often wore various phylakteria, as did gentiles.

Is Ms. Stitzel therefore justified in objecting to tefillin being referred to as phylacteries? Before we hasten to say yes in defense of the purity of Judaism, let us keep in mind that the ancient rabbis themselves, who believed in the objective existence of magic even if they did not favor practicing it, ascribed to tefillin a magical function. Here, for example, is Onkelos’s paraphrastic rendering (it is so free because it was important to the rabbis to emphasize that this erotic love poem was to be interpreted allegorically) of The Song of Songs 8:3, “His left hand is under my head, and his right hand embraces me”:

“Thus says the house of Israel: I have been chosen from all peoples, because I wear tefillin on my left hand and on my head, and I affix a mezuza to the right side [of the door]… so that evil spirits may not be allowed to harm me.”

Furthermore, although there is no evidence that Jews themselves used the word phylakteria for tefillin, they certainly did use it in other Jewish contexts. For instance, in the apocryphal Testament of Job, a Jewish work written in Greek in first-century BCE or C.E., there is a description of how Job, before his death, bequeaths to his three daughters magical lengths of rope that originally were given to him as a phylakterion by God, to cure the skin diseases with which Satan afflicted him.

Therefore, this is what I would say in answer to Ms. Stitzel: By all means, let Jews use the word “tefillin” rather than “phylacteries,” and let them encourage non-Jews to do so, too — but let them not take offense when “phylacteries” is encountered. It is not in itself a disparaging word. Matthew, after all, was not attacking the wearing of tefillin per se (how could he when he knew Jesus wore them?), but rather what he took to be the wearing of ostentatiously large ones for the purpose of making an impression. We needn’t be scared off by him.

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