PHYLACTERY fĭ lăk’ tə rĭ (see also Dress). The name is a transliteration of φυλακτήριον, G5873, “safeguard,” “means of protection,” “amulet.” The Vul. took over the Gr. term and it was accepted by Eng. trs. through the Geneva Bible of 1557. The term occurs only once in the NT (Matt 23:5), which records Jesus’ accusation against the scribes and Pharisees, “They do all their deeds to be seen by men; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long.” This was not necessarily a condemnation of the custom of wearing phylacteries, but only of ostentation that prostituted an ancient custom full of symbolism in the interests of outward display.

It commonly has been held that the phylacteries were the small receptacles containing verses of Scripture bound to the forehead and left arm of the Jewish man during prayer. (Syr./Aram. תְּפִילִּין.) This view is disputed by some Jewish writers on the grounds that (a) too little is known of the tephillin in Jesus’ day, and (b) that since the sentence in Matthew 23:5 is derogatory, it must have applied to some object other than the time-honored and revered tephillin. It should be said, however, that Jesus, like the prophets before Him, often rebuked men for purely formal practices (cf. Isa 1:11-15); also is it unlikely that the Jews in general attached magical significance to the use of the tephillin, implied by the Gr. term “phylactery.” This may have arisen through secular interpretation of the practice, and at least one modern tr. (Goodspeed) renders Matthew 23:5, “They wear wide Scripture texts as charms.”

The head strap was tied at the back of the head in a knot shaped like the Heb. letter daleth ד, while the arm phylactery was supposed to form the letter yodh י. These three letters, the shin (שׁ) on the head phylactery, the daleth (ד), and the yodh (י) together formed the word שַׁדַּי, H8724, “Shaddai—Almighty,” one of the names for God in the OT.

The phylacteries (or tephillin) were placed on the body in a definite order. The hand is “laid” first to the accompaniment of a special prayer. It lies on the inside of the bared left arm, just above the elbow, so that the case may rest upon the heart (cf. Deut 11:18). The strap is then tightened and wound first around the left arm, and then around the middle finger of the left hand (HDB, iii, 870). The head tephillah is next “laid” in the middle of the forehead “between the eyes” (Exod 13:9; etc.) with the knot at the back of the head, and the two free ends of the stray falling over the breast in front. Various prayers, benedictions, and Hosea 2:19 were recited as the phylacteries were fixed in position. After the prayers, the tephillin are removed in the reverse order and placed in a bag, which is often beautifully ornamented. The praying shawl, tallit, that is always associated with the tephillin is put on first.

Were the Scripture passages intended to be taken literally or fig.? Christian exegesis has taken them fig., but whatever the original intention, the custom developed of wearing these texts literally in the manner described. When the practice began is not clear. It is not practiced among the Samaritans; thus it may have arisen after the Samaritan-Jewish schism. This schism, however, cannot be dated accurately. The Letter of Aristeas (end of 1st cent. b.c. v. 159) refers to the practice as an old one.

Fragments of phylacteries have been found in the Qumran (q.v.) caves, but here the Ten Commandments were included among the texts, which shows that the form was not absolutely standard before the fall of Jerusalem in a.d. 70. The exclusion of the Ten Commandments from the phylacteries and from the Jewish daily services may have been a reaction against Jewish Christianity.

In the Middle Ages there was no uniformity, but in modern times orthodox Jews observe the practice, but reformed Judaism has abandoned it.


J. H. Greenstone, L. Blau, and E. G. Hirsch, “Phylacteries,” Jewish Encyclopedia, X (1905), 21-28; H. L. Strack and P. Billerbeck, SBK, IV (1928), 250-276; H. Danby, The Mishnah (1933), see Index under “Phylacteries,” 834; D. Barthelemy and J. T. Milik, Qumran Cave I (1953), 72-76; G. Henton Davies, “Phylacteries,” IDB, III (1962), 808, 809.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(phulakterion, "guard"):

1. Bible References:

This word is found only in Mt 23:5 in our Lord’s denunciation of the Pharisees, who, in order that their works might "be seen of men," and in their zeal for the forms of religion, "make broad their phylacteries and enlarge the borders of their garments." The corresponding word in the Old Testament, ToTaphoth (Kennedy in HDB suggests pointing as the segholate feminine singular, ToTepheth), is fonnd in three passages (Ex 13:16; De 6:8; 11:18), where it is translated "frontlets." This rendering, however, is not at all certain, and may have been read into the text from its later interpretation. In Ex 13:9 the corresponding word to the Totaphoth of 13:16 is zikkaron, "memorial" or "reminder"; and in the parallel clauses of both verses the corresponding word is ’oth, "a sign" upon the hand, also used for the "sign" which Yahweh appointed for Cain (Ge 4:15). It may be rendered then as a mark or ornament or jewel, and used figuratively of Yahweh’s Law as an ornament or jewel to the forehead of the Israelite, a reference to the charm or amulet worn by the pagan. The word used in the Talmud for the phylactery is tephillah, "prayer," or "prayer-band" (plural tephillin), indicating its use theoretically as a reminder of the Law, although practically it might be esteemed as an automatic and ever-present charm against evil: an aid within toward the keeping of the Law, a guard without against the approach of evil; a degradation of an Old Testament figurative and idealistic phrase to the materialistic and superstitious practices of the pagans.

2. Description:

The phylactery was a leather box, cube-shaped, closed with an attached flap and bound to the person by a leather band. There were two kinds:

(1) one to be bound to the inner side of the left arm, and near the elbow, so that with the bending of the arm it would rest over the heart, the knot fastening it to the arm being in the form of the Hebrew letter yodh (y), and the end of the string, or band, finally wound around the middle finger of the hand, "a sign upon thy hand" (De 6:8). This box had one compartment containing one or all of the four passages given above. The writer in his youth found one of these in a comparatively remote locality, evidently lost by a Jewish peddler, which contained only the 2nd text (Ex 13:11-16) in unpointed Hebrew.

(2) Another was to be bound in the center of the forehead, "between thine eyes" (De 6:8), the knot of the band being in the form of the Hebrew letter daleth (d), with the Hebrew letter shin (sh) upon each end of the box, which was divided into four compartments with one of the four passages in each.

These two Hebrew letters, with the yodh (y) of the arm-phylactery (see (1) above), formed the divine name shadday, "Almighty." Quite elaborate ceremonial accompanied the "laying" on of the phylacteries, that of the arm being bound on first, and that of the head next, quotations from Scripture or Talmud being repeated at each stage of the binding. They were to be worn by every male over 13 years old at the time of morning prayer, except on Sabbaths and festal days, such days being in themselves sufficient reminders of "the commandment, the statutes, and the ordinances" of Yahweh (De 6:1).

3. Interpretation of Old Testament Passages:

The passages on which the wearing of the phylacteries is based are as follows: "It (i.e. the feast of unleavened bread) shall be for a sign unto thee upon thy hand, and for a memorial between thine eyes, that the law of Yahweh may be in thy mouth" (Ex 13:9); "And it (i.e. sacrifice of the firstborn) shall be for a sign upon thy hand, and for frontlets between thine eyes" (Ex 13:16); "thou shalt bind them (i.e. the words of Yahweh) for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be for frontlets between thine eyes" (De 6:8); "therefore shall ye lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul; and ye shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes" (De 11:18). It is evident that the words in Exodus are beyond all question used figuratively; a careful reading of the verses in Deuteronomy in close relation to their contexts, in which are other figures of speech not to be taken literally, is sufficient proof of their purely figurative intention also. Only the formalism of later ages could distort these figures into the gross and materialistic practice of the phylactery. Just when this practice began cannot accurately be determined. While the Talmud attempts to trace it back to the primitive, even Mosaic, times, it probably did not long antedate the birth of Christ. In conservative Jewish circles it has been maintained through the centuries, and at present is faithfully followed by orthodox Judaism. Every male, who at the age of 13 becomes a "son of the Law" (bar mitswah), must wear the phylactery and perform the accompanying ceremonial.

In the New Testament passage (Mt 23:5) our Lord rebukes the Pharisees, who make more pronounced the un-Scriptural formalism and the crude literalism of the phylacteries by making them obtrusively large, as they also seek notoriety for their religiosity by the enlarged fringes, or "borders."

See Fringes; Frontlets; PHARISEES.


The various commentaries. on Ex and Dt: tractate Tephillin; the comprehensive article by A. R. S. Kennedy in HDB; articles in Encyclopedia Biblica and Jewish Encyclopedia.

See also

  • Dress