Q: #457. What are phylacteries (Mt 23:5)?
A: “But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments,” (Mt 23:5)
The word “phylacteries” is used only in this verse in the Bible. “Phylactery” comes from the Greek word “phulakterion.” Strong’s defines this word as, “an outpost or fortification; then, any kind of safeguard and became used especially to denote an amulet. It was supposed to have potency as a charm against evils and demons.” In other words, a phylactery became something that God actually condemned (Ezek 13:18,20)(Isa 3:18-20)(Ps 31:6).
“Phylacteries” were simply small leather boxes or cases which were attached to a man’s forehead and left arm (same side as the heart) with a leather strap. Inside these boxes was a piece of parchment, upon which was written 4 verses of Scripture from the Torah. This parchment was rolled up, placed in a small metal cylinder, and then placed in each box.
This custom can be traced back to these verses in the Old Testament (Ex 13:1-10, 11-16)(Deut 6:4-9)(Deut 11:13-21). More specifically, we see God telling the Israelites in (Deut 6:8)(Deut 11:18)(Ex 13:9,16) to “bind” His commandments “as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead.” Clearly, God meant for this commandment to be taken figuratively (i.e. see: Prov 3:1-3, Prov 6:20-21, Prov 7:1-3), but they took it literally, hence the phylacteries.
While not all Israelite men wore phylacteries, those that did generally wore them during times of prayer. However, as we see in (Mt 23:1-12), it appears that the scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ time made the decision to wear them all the time, and even make the boxes bigger, so they would appear to be “super-spiritual.” Jesus condemned them for this, and some other things.
While I am not sure where they got this information, and I cannot verify it, the New Unger’s Bible Dictionary adds these two interesting things that I could not find elsewhere.
First, “The boxes for the head phylactery and for the arm were ordinarily 1 1/2 inches square; the former having on the outside to the right the three-pronged letter shin, which is designed as an abbreviation of the divine name, Shaddai, “the Almighty,” whereas on the left side it had a four-pronged shin, the two constituting the sacred number seven.
Second, “He next puts on the head phylactery, placing it exactly in the center between the eyes so as to touch the spot where the hair begins to grow (Deut 11:18) and pronounces the following benediction before he secures it: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who hast sanctified us with thy commandments, and enjoined upon us the command about phylacteries.”
While a few Jews still use phylacteries today, this practice has mostly ceased.