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And they do all their works in order to be seen by people, for they widen their phylacteries, and lengthen the tassels of their garments, Bible

“phylacteries.” A phylactery is a little leather box that contains scripture. The very religious male Jews (today, the ultra-orthodox Jews) tie one on their arm and another on their forehead, especially when they are praying or in the morning service, although in ancient times some very religious men apparently wore them all day. The Pharisees and experts in the Law at the time of Christ loved to be recognized by the people, called “Rabbi,” and thought of as being very godly, so they did things that caught people’s attention, such as make their phylacteries large so they were especially noticeable.

The origin of phylacteries is debated, and just when people started wearing them is unknown, but apparently it predates the time of Christ. Justification for wearing the phylacteries came from verses such as Deuteronomy 6:8, which says to tie the commandments to your hand (or arm) and put them on your forehead (Exod. 13:9, 16; Deut. 6:8; 11:18 are the verses generally used to support the wearing of phylacteries). However, God never meant for people to literally tie Scripture to themselves. For one thing, the nature of daily life in ancient Israel would not accommodate it, and also, God’s command was for every Israelite, men and women, but in ancient times, and still today, only the men wear phylacteries.

When God said to bind the commandments to the head and hand, He was emphasizing that the Word of God should be near our thoughts (head) and in what we do (hands). The pure nature of God’s command to keep His Word as the center or our thoughts and actions was perverted by religious superstition, as we can see by the very word “phylactery,” which comes from the Greek word phulassō (#5442 φυλάσσω) which means to guard, to keep watch, to protect you from a person or thing, to keep safe. “The only instance of the name ‘phylacteries’ in ancient times occurs once in the Greek New Testament (Matthew 23:5) whence it has passed into the languages of Europe. ‘Phylacteries’ derives from the Greek phulaktērion - φυλακτήριον, ‘defences,’ and in late Greek, ‘amulets’ or ‘charms.’ …The choice of this particular Greek equivalent to render the Heb. Tefillin bears witness to the ancient functional interpretation of the said device as a kind of an amulet” (Wikipedia; “Tefillin,” accessed Aug. 1, 2016).

So the very thing that God said to assure that people would keep His Word occasionally became an object of superstition, complete with all the rules and regulations about exactly how to tie it on, when and where to wear it, etc. Many Jews would insist the phylactery was only worn in obedience to God and so people would keep God’s commands in mind, but there is evidence that the Jews did indeed consider the phylacteries to be protective in nature, if only to secure God’s blessings. “…the early Rabbinic sources furnish more or less explicit examples of the apotropaic qualities of tefillin [“apotropaic” means having the power to ward off evil]. For instance, Bamidbar R. 12:3 presents tefillin as capable of defeating “a thousand demons” emerging on “the left side,” rabbis Yohanan and Nahman used their sets [of phylacteries] to repel the fiends inhabiting privies in BT Berakhot 23a-b, whereas Elisha the Winged, who was scrupulous in performing this mitzvah, was miraculously saved from the Roman persecution in BT Shabbat 49a. Also, tefillin are believed to possess life-lengthening qualities, as suggested in BT Menahot 36b, 44a-b and in BT Shabbat 13a-b and they are often listed in one breath among various items which are considered amuletic in nature, as is the case in M Kelim 23:1, M Eruvin 10:1 or BT Eruvin 96b-97a (Wikipedia; “Tefillin,” accessed Aug. 1, 2016).


Commentary for: Matthew 23:5