Q. What are the origins of tefillin?
A. The name is probably from t’fillah, prayer, and denotes prayer-accompaniments. Others link it with tafel, dependent, suggesting prayer-hangings. The English term “phylacteries” is from a Greek word which means a guard or protection.
Some historians thought that tefillin were an answer to the problem that ancient clothing had no pockets; people carried their treasures in little bags or boxes fastened to the arm or suspended from the neck or head. Since religious believers took scriptural verses seriously, these pockets containing Biblical passages, according to this view, accompanied a person wherever he went.
By contrast, there was also an ancient idea that the law of tefillin was not meant to be taken literally but was a poetic way of emphasising that a person had to be constantly aware of God’s will.
The allegorical theory was repudiated by Ibn Ezra and others, who insisted that the four references to tefillin in the Torah (Ex. 13:1-10 and 11-16; Deut. 6:4-9 and 11:13-21) meant what they said and tefillin were not a mere symbol.
By the time of the Mishnah, tefillin were well established. Shammai treasured his grandfather’s tefillin; the sages debated whether tefillin should have four or five passages (the fifth was the Ten Commandments); in the 2nd or 3rd century BCE the Letter of Aristeas spoke of tefillin as an established practice; Josephus describes it; and in the New Testament Matthew attacks the Pharisees for allegedly showing off their “broad phylacteries and deep fringes” (Matt. 23:5).
Some Jews wore tefillin all day, though in the Diaspora the practice was usually limited to the time of the morning prayers.
There are people who claim that tefillin are mere “ritual” and therefore dispensable; many such allegoricists, however, have no problem with masonic, sporting, commercial or social rituals. One of the best analogies I have heard is that of military service, in which putting on a uniform when on duty is a mark of identity, loyalty and commitment.
At a Jewish school with which I was associated the boys over Bar-Mitzvah were told that they had to put on tefillin in the morning. Some would arrive late, duly put on tefillin and then immediately take them off.
I was tempted to come down hard on these boys for not davening a word whilst the tefillin were on, but I decided that for all the spiritually they lost by not praying, they had at least, to borrow Rabbi Riskin’s words, “bound skin and flesh to holy Torah parchments”.
The story has an aftermath. Years later many of these erstwhile pupils are fully observant Jewish men who wear tefillin and say their prayers. Some have studied in y’shivot and one or two are even rabbis.