Q. Why are tefillin (or tefillin ) called “phylacteries” in English?
The word is from the Greek “phylacterion”, which means a fort. Whoever decided this described tefillin misinterpreted the mitzvah and thought it was a sort of lucky charm or talisman that brought protection.
A different mistake was made by a daily newspaper in Sydney during the Second World War when the “Dunera” which brought a largely Jewish group of Central European Jews to internment in Australia docked on Saturday. The passengers had been given a very hard time on board and many of their possessions had been stolen, vandalised, destroyed or simply lost.
A handful of rabbis and other orthodox Jews had been able to hold on to their tefillin but the “Dunera” arrived on Shabbat when they could not carry anything ashore. Given the difficulty of the situation, they decided it was permissible to wear their tefillin and left the ship that way.
A newspaper photographer took a picture of them which was published with a caption describing them as Germans who had landed with their radar equipment…
The fact actually is that in a spiritual sense tefillin are something like radar in that they pinpoint the wearer as a member of a God-fearing “army” whose members dedicate their day, by means of the Biblical verses in their hand and head tefillin, to serving the Almighty with their minds, hearts and hands.