Home page Jews and the Mosaic Law Jews in the Civil War Jews in the Wild West History of Palestine The Occident Virtual Library Shopping Mall of Zion AHAVA Hero Products 250x250


The Jews and the Mosaic Law

By Isaac Leeser (1843).

Chapter 16

The Phylacteries. תפילין

If by superstition is understood a belief or confidence in things, having no existence in reality, or existing only through fraud or ignorance: then it can be boldly asserted, that we Jews are not superstitious; but that, on the contrary, we abhor superstition as being contrary, and in opposition, to our religion. — If by bigotry is meant an inveterate adherence to error, and a persecution or a tendency to persecution of others who have firmness enough to resist such errors, or to oppose the enforcing of it, when presented to them for acceptance: then can we again assert, that we are no bigots; for our religion is not founded on error, as has been proved, and besides this we wish to burden no one with our opinions, who admits them not of his own accord. — But if by superstition are understood, a veneration of God, belief in revelation and hope of future reward for virtue — and by bigotry, an adherence to opinions so well founded, and a determination to resist all innovation, no matter by whom recommended: then hail, superstition! Welcome, bigotry! If philosophers have determined to stamp such virtuous resolutions with the odious names of bigotry and superstition, we must needs be prepared to bear these opprobrious titles with content and resignation; and I venture to assert in the name of our whole nation, that not twenty good Jews could be induced to relinquish their opinions, merely because these opinions have received harsh names from unbelievers. And if I could be convinced, that Jews could be base and cowardly enough, to be swayed by mere abuse without argument, I should be sorry to be considered a member of their community. But, thank Heaven, I know my brethren better; and though they may deviate, though they may live for a time forgetful of their duty; yet will they always cherish with fondness the idea of their having been born members of the nation despised and trodden under foot; and examples are not rare, where even apostates called in the brethren to their dying bed, after refusing the attendance of any other!

But some one may ask, "have not the Jews superstitious customs, for example, the cloak they wear during prayers, the phylacteries, holy days, the blowing of the cornet, and the palm branch?" This question may at first sight appear to throw very great difficulties in the way of a defense of our religion; but a candid enquiry must soon convince us, that the above ceremonies are by no means superstitious, although their true intent may not be altogether obvious to a prejudiced and superficial enquirer.

Let us commence with the Tallith, or cloak, used during prayers. We find in Numb. chap. xv. v.37, the following commandment: "And the Lord spoke unto Moses as follows: speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them to make themselves fringes (ציצית) at the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the corners, (borders Eng. vers.) a string of blue, תכלת." — In Deut. chap. xxii. v.12: "Thou shalt make thee fringes upon the four corners of thy vesture, wherewith thou coverest thyself." The reason for this commandment is given in Numb. chap. xv: "That by seeing these fringes, we might remember all the commandments of the Eternal and observe them, and not follow blindly the evil desires engendered within us, by the beholding of the eyes and the desiring of the heart." Our Rabbins give the following explanation: ת is 400, צ is 90, and י is 10, and in consequence the numerical value of the word ציצית, is 600; there are also on each of these fringes eight strings and five double knots, thus the number of the word itself; together with that of the strings and knots, amounts to six hundred and thirteen, this being the whole number of the commandments in the Mosaic Law. If even we reject this explanation as too fanciful, there is yet no reason to laugh at the fringes, since, as we are always covered with clothes, they seem to be well adapted (it being once so understood) to act as monitors to us, when we are going to do any thing unlawful; and it is the object of the precept, that the sight of the ציצית shall rebuke us, by addressing our senses, from offending against our religion, and they are to tell us, when every other voice is silent: "Beware! Remember the commandments of thy God!" And is this symbol, though simple, not far superior to and much more rational than the idols, statues, and marks of other nations?

In former times the Israelites wore the fringes upon the corners of their cloaks; but since our dispersion, and because it has become dangerous for us in many places to be known as Jews, we wear under our clothes a four cornered garment, to which the fringes are attached; and in the synagogues or other places of worship we make use of a square, or rather, oblong cloak, to which they are fixed, and this garment or טלית (Tallith) is worn during public worship by day, but not at night, except at certain occasions, which it would be needless to detail here. — When the purple color (תכלת) was yet known, we were obliged (see above) to have one of the strings of each fringe of this color, but since this color is no more known, we are unable to comply with this provision of the law to its full extent; and the fringes we make use of are, therefore, composed of eight white strings only.

The phylacteries תפלין (Tefillin) are improperly supposed to be considered by us in the light of amulets, as has been lately asserted by an English writer, who also quite liberally (as liberally as most writers concerning us, who are either deists or Christians) supposes, that they were for a similar purpose as the Greek, Roman, or Arab amulets. The learned writer was, no doubt, misled by the term phylacteries, derived from the Greek verb phylasso, I watch or guard; but the תפלין are not phylacteries, a name that properly belongs to the קמעה, a cabalistical instrument. But since there is no word in the English, Latin, or Greek, synonymous with the Hebrew word Tefillin, I shall drop the term phylacteries altogether, and in the sequel make use only of the proper word. — There are two kinds of Tefillin, and both consist of extracts from the Law, written upon parchment. They are commanded to be made in Exodus xiii. and Deuteronomy vi. and xi. (which see). The two kinds of Tefillin are: the Tefillin shel Rosh and Tefillin shel Yad, or in English, Tefillin for the head, and Tefillin for the hand; they (as well as the Tallith) are used during the morning prayers, but not on the Sabbaths and festivals, though the Tallith is worn on these days also. — The Tefillin themselves are four paragraphs from the Pentateuch, namely, Exod. xiii. v.1-10; 2nd, Ibid. 11-16; 3rd, Deut. vi. v.4-9; 4th, Ibid. xi. 13-21. In the Tefillin shel Yad these paragraphs are written upon one piece of parchment, and fixed in a small case made of the same material; on one side of which is an opening, through which a leathern thong of about two yards long is passed; on one end of which are a knot and loop of a peculiar form, through which loop the other end of the thong is drawn, and the whole Tefillin can thus be fixed upon the arm.

The Tefillin shel Rosh have the same paragraphs, but written upon four different pieces of parchment, and are fixed in the order above mentioned, in a parchment case with four divisions. A thong is fixed to the Tefillin shel Rosh in the like manner as to those shel Yad; yet so that they may be worn round the head. On one side of the case is stamped a Shin with three heads: on the other a Shin with four heads. — The knot on the shel Yad forms a י (Yod) the one of the shel Rosh a ד (Daled) and, as said, the case of the latter is stamped with a ש (Shin), these three letters combined read שדי, an attribute of God synonymous with the English Almighty.

The last kind of the commonly so called phylacteries is the מזוזה (Mezuzah) and consists of the two paragraphs from the sixth and eleventh chapters of Deuteronomy mentioned above, written upon one piece of parchment, which is rolled up from the right to the left. The word שדי together with three other words, (which, however, stand higher up, by themselves,) is written upon the outside; it is then put in a reed, a tin, or other case, and fixed upon the door post in every proper room, so that the name שדי (being visible through an aperture left in the case) may be seen by every one entering the apartment, and be thus ever reminded of the greatness and power of the Almighty.

"But what can be the meaning of all this?" This will easily be plain to us if we but read the passages cited above; we will there see that the Tefillin were ordered for a twofold reason: first, as a monument of our redemption from Egypt; and next, that the laws of our God may be continually before us. For we read in Exod. chap. xiii. v.16: "And it shall be for a token upon thy hand, and a mark of remembrance (frontlets, Eng. vers.) between thine eyes, for by the strength of (His) hand has the Lord brought us out of Egypt." — And in Deut. chap. vi. v.8, after having said, in the preceding verses, that the law of God should be always in our mouth, that we should converse about it in whatever place or situation we might be, Moses continues: "And thou shalt bind them as a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes." The Mezuzah, also, is very plainly commanded in the ninth verse of the sixth chapter of Deuteronomy. The object of God in giving these ordinances was probably this: "I have forbidden you to raise yourselves monuments of sculptured stone or molten metal; but I will give you a nobler monument — my law shall be this monument; passages commemorative of your redemption shall be your daily garment; so that the recollection of the events connected with this redemption and the promulgation of the law shall never cease; they shall also be a sign of my perpetual power, of my constant providence, and of my unceasing watchfulness over you; fix, therefore, these chapters upon your doors and gates, that you may be always mindful, whenever you lay Tefillin and see the Mezuzah, that I, the all-powerful, who formerly released you from slavery, am yet able and willing to watch over you, protect you, and again redeem you — by whatever trouble you may be afflicted — when the time shall have arrived which I have appointed as the termination of the punishment you may have to endure for your transgressions against my will — and that I may again show you wonders, as I did in those days when you went out of Egypt."

Previous Chapter Next Chapter