February 14, 2015

Phylacteries and Tassels



In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus condemns the Pharisees for their desire to obey the law only to be seen of men, rather than truly obeying God’s law for the purpose of serving others and becoming better people. Jesus says, “They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long” (Matthew 23:5 ESV).

The phylacteries refer to the command of the Lord given to Moses when he said, “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes” (Deuteronomy 11:18 ESV).

Modern-day tefillin (black) compared with ancient tefillin from Qumran
A phylactery, or tefillin in Hebrew, “is one of two leather boxes bound by a leather strap to the left hand and to the forehead during prayer and containing four scriptural passages (Exodus 13:1-10; 11-16; Deuteronomy 6:4-9; 11:13-21).” [1]  Each of these four passages commands Israel to bind the law to their heart and mind, symbolizing that the law should not just be route actions, but instead part of our very soul.

The head tefillin has four small compartments, each containing a scroll with one of the four passages of scripture mentioned, and is bound to the head to symbolize that the law of God is always on the forefront of our minds. “In the scriptures ... the forehead represents what a person’s thoughts dwell on and therefore what he loves or desires. ... For the same reason, the Mosaic high priest wore an engraved gold signet on his forehead that read ‘Holiness to the Lord’ (see Exodus 28:36-38). This was a reminder that his thoughts should always be holy, with the result that his actions would follow suit.” [2]

Modern-day tefillin showing the scroll compartments (head-left, arm-right)
The arm tefillin contains only one long scroll, with the four scriptural passages written one after another, and is bound so as to be near, or pointed towards, the heart, symbolizing that we do not just know the words of the law, but that the law has been revealed to our spirits through our heart. [3]   Modern arm tefillin are bound around the arm seven times, and also around the hand and middle finger, representing that the law is to proceed from our hearts, to our arms, down to our hands, becoming our actions in all that we do.

The fringes or ‘borders of their garments’ or tzitzit in Hebrew, refers to blue tassels tied to the four corners of their garments and were meant to be a constant reminder of God’s commandments. The Lord said unto Moses, “Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, ... that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord” (Numbers 15:38-39).

It is significant to note that in condemning the Pharisees for their tefillin and tzitzit, the Lord does NOT condemn them for wearing them, or for even having larger tefillin or longer tzitzit than others! The reason he condemns the Pharisees is because they wear these “to be seen of men” (see Matthew 23:5)

Replica of a Dead Sea Scrolls tefillin compared to an ancient coin
I think this teaches us several valuable lessons. First, be slow to judge on things of outward appearance. If someone seems to be a certain way because of their clothing, the circumstances of their birth, upbringing, size of home, status of life, or whatever it may be, remember that even Jesus only judged men for what was in their hearts, not for their outer appearances.

Second, on a more personal level, we must be careful about the reasons we obey the laws of God, especially the more outward and noticeable laws, such as church attendance, honoring the Sabbath, or dress and grooming standards. Do we obey the laws of the Lord only so that others can see how good we are, or do we obey them because we truly have God’s law bound to our heart and mind?

I can’t help but wonder if God specifically gave us some of these more “outward” laws so that we can prove to Him that the law is actually more inward. To prove that the law is deeply rooted into our souls, and that we show our religion not just by what we wear or by how we look, but by how we love, serve and care about others. For this is the true purpose behind the law.

[1] Jesus Christ and the World of the New Testament, page 48
[2] The Lost Language of Symbolism, page 39 (see Forehead)
[3] The Lost Language of Symbolism, page 45-47 (see Head and Heart)

2 comments:

  1. Hi Daniel. Even though I don't agree with the tenants of Mormonism, I liked this post. It was very interesting to see how the phylacteries and tassels were/are worn and used. I agree that we need to be careful that our worship is a reflection of a sincere and grateful heart to God for all he has done for us. I have included a link to this post in my blog post for today: http://dee-lightfullmoments.blogspot.com/2015/05/write-your-laws-in-my-heart.html. May the Lord bless you and may you worship him in spirit and in truth.

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    1. Dee, glad you enjoyed the post! I fully understand that not everyone will agree with all of my beliefs. That is not the purpose of this blog. My main hope is to bring people to Christ, and help them better understand the scriptures. Yes, I am a Mormon, but first and foremost, I consider myself a follower of Christ. I loved your post by the way, very beautiful prayer.

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