Jeffrey H. Tigay

[Jeffrey H. Tigay is professor of Oriental Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.]

Although it is widely agreed that the phylacteries mentioned in Matt 23:5 are tĕfîllîn,a this equation has not gone entirely unquestioned. L. Blau stated that only the words tĕfîllâ (singular) and tĕfîllîn (plural) are used in Talmudic literature, and that conclusions based on the word phylacteries are without foundation, “since this name was not used in truly Jewish circles.”1 G. G. Fox argued that since Greek phylaktēria refers to charms or amulets, and since for the Pharisee the tĕfîllîn were truly spiritual symbols rather than magical amulets, Matthew’s use of the term must be a misrepresentation, probably intentional, expressing his contempt for tĕfîllîn.2 J. Bowman summed up both arguments thus: “One is all the more amazed when one knows the difference between phylacteries and Tefillin, that any Jew could ever think of calling Tefillin phylacteries.”3 Bowman echoed an earlier objection voiced by I. Abrahams to the effect that Matthew’s phrase “making broad” (platynousin) is not intelligible if the reference is to the “boxes [of the tĕfîllîn], which were cubical. One hardly widens a cube.”4 However, Bowman considered implausible the view of Abrahams and others that the reference was to the straps5 rather than to the capsules. Bowman’s own view, following a suggestion by M. Gaster, was that Matthew was not referring to tĕfîllîn at all, but, indeed, to amulets, of a type known among the Samaritans, made of parchment and worn directly on the

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arm rather than held in a container. E. R. Goodenough even produced a fourth-century patristic writer, Epiphanius, who denied the usual interpretation and argued that the term in Matthew refers to “broad stripes of purple” on the scribes’ garments.6

These objections notwithstanding, the equation of phylacteries in Matthew with tĕfîllîn has much in its favor:

1) It has the support of patristic writers as early as the mid-second century, including some who were in contact with Jews and knew their practices. Justin Martyr (d. ca. 165) describes the phylaktērion which the Jews were commanded to wear as “made up of very thin pieces of parchment upon which were inscribed what we consider truly sacred letters” (Dialogue with Trypho 46.5). Jerome (ca. 347–420), in his homily on Matt 23:5–6 (PL 26. 168), describes the phylacteries of that passage as tĕfîllîn containing the Decalogue and says that “they called them phylacteries (phylacteria vocabant),” implying that this was really their name, not a misrepresentation.7

2) Furthermore, the interpretation of phylacteries as tĕfîllîn fits the context, for the ostentation of which the scribes and Pharisees are accused requires that they be charged with flaunting symbols of learning and piety rather than superstition. Indeed, Matthew was not alone in recognizing that tĕfîllîn (like any religious, national, or ideological symbol) could be worn in a false or arrogant show of piety and learning. Talmudic and Midrashic sources warn against such a danger and exemplify it with a case. In Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah, R. Benjamin interprets Eccl 4:1 as referring to

hypocrites in regard to the Torah. People suppose that they can read the Scriptures and the Mishnah, but they cannot; they wrap themselves in cloaks and put tĕfîllîn on their heads. Of them it is written: “Behold, the tears of the oppressed, with no comforter” (Eccl 4:1). “It is mine to punish,” says God, as it is said: “Cursed be they

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who do the work of the Lord deceitfully” (Jer 48:10). (Midr. Eccl. Rab. 4:1; Vilna-Romm edition, 12b)8

A similar theme is struck in Pesiq. R. 22:5, interpreting the commandment against taking the Lord’s name in vain to mean: “You are not to put on tĕfîllîn and wrap yourself in your ṭallît and then go forth and commit transgressions.”9 The Pesiqta and parallel sources mention the neglect of the practice of wearing tĕfîllîn.10 They blame this on deceivers (rammāʾîn),11 as illustrated by the case of a man who had money which he wished to entrust for safekeeping. He spotted a man wearing tĕfîllîn and, concluding that the latter was trustworthy, left the money with him. When he later came to collect his money, the trustee denied that the transaction had ever taken place, to which the first rejoined: “It wasn’t you that I trusted, but the holy name that was (variant: those [tĕfîllîn] that were) upon your head.”12

Legal sources of post-Talmudic times speak of two situations in which the wearing of tĕfîllîn could appear pretentious or haughty (yôhărâʾ). In the Geonic period (ca. seventh through eleventh centuries), when the practice was widely neglected, some feared that the very act of observing the precept in the face of widespread neglect would make the wearer

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appear holier-than-thou or as pretending to the prominence and scholarship of those who did wear them.13 Later, disagreement over the correct order in which the scriptural texts were to be arranged within the tĕfîllîn led some authorities to prescribe wearing two sets of tĕfîllîn, each arranged in accordance with one of the two main opinions, so that at least one set would be correct. Rabbinic authorities sought to restrict the public observance of this practice lest it be taken as a show of piety.14

In sum, tĕfîllîn are a type of religious symbol which could be exploited hypocritically, and which Matthew, like the Midrashic and Talmudic sources quoted, could mention in connection with such a charge.15 I doubt whether the same can be said about amulets. Nor would an intentional misrepresentation of tĕfîllîn as amulets fit the context. Phylacteries are but one of several practices criticized by Matthew, including long fringes, seeking the best, seats in synagogues, and being called rabbi; none of the other practices is misrepresented as superstitious.

3) The coupling of tĕfîllîn with fringes or fringed cloaks, as in Matthew, is standard in Jewish sources, which often list these two symbols side by side, as in the passages from Midrash Ecclesiastes Rabbah and Pesiqta Rabbati quoted above.16

Justin’s and Jerome’s descriptions of Matthew’s “phylacteries” as tĕfîllîn therefore deserve to be considered more seriously. Of the two objections mentioned at the outset, that based on the verb “making broad” may be eliminated first. The tĕfîllîn capsules discovered at Qumran and Murabbaat show that head tĕfîllîn around the turn of the era were not cubical but rectangular, with the breadth across the forehead varying much more than the length. The head capsule found at Murabbaat (DJD II, Pl. XIV, 4), the contents of which conform to rabbinic law, confirms that this shape was current in Pharisaic circles. In a group of head capsules from Qumran cave 4 now in the Rockefeller Museum (Box 1008; see photograph) the width varies from 1.65 cm. (not shown; see DJD VI, Pl. VI, 4) up to 2.8 cm.—one or two fingers— measured at the strap passage. One capsule, only three-quarters preserved, is 2.4 cm. wide; in its complete state it would have measured about 3.2 cm. wide and about half as long. Variations in length are in

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Tefillin receptacles from Qumran Cave 4.

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most cases less pronounced, and many capsules differ from others mainly in that they were made broader—in Matthew’s language, platynousin.17 Medieval Hebrew sources use just such a term in discussing the size of tĕfîllîn capsules. For example, R. Asher b. Yehiel discusses why “nowadays they do not make the capsules two fingers wide” (ʾên ʿôśîn habbātâîm rĕḥābâîm s̆tê ʾeṣbāʿotâ).18 As for the connotations of large tĕfîllîn, note the following in a responsum of R. Hai Gaon (appointed in 998):

It was the custom in the academy for the students to make their tĕfîllîn small, no higher than a finger, and place a turban over them, whereas the great rabbis would make theirs some three fingers high, so that the students would not be equal to them.19

This practice illustrates how, at least in later times, the size of tĕfîllîn might be an indication of status.

The second objection, that the term “phylacteries” does not represent Jewish usage, can also be disproved. In modern times, A. T. Olmstead20 maintained that Jesus himself must have used some term which was translatable by phylaktēria. The Semitic equivalent of the Greek term is qĕmîʿîn (singular qāmîaʿ).21 This equivalence is indirectly indicated in medieval sources in Ephrem Syrus’ rendering of kĕsātâôtâ in Ezek 13:18, 20 as qêmîʿê, while the hebraios of the Hexapla renders kĕsātâôtâ as phylaktēria.22 In rabbinic sources tĕfîllîn are often mentioned side by side with qĕmîʿîn23 because of their similar appearance and location on

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the body. But much more important is that, contrary to what has been said about Jewish usage, in one rabbinic text the word qāmîaʿ is used to refer to the tĕfîllâ (singular of tĕfîllîn). The “non-canonical” Massekâetâ Tĕfîllîn uses the word in this way twice:

If one has put on the phylactery upside down (hāpâakâ ʾetâ haqqāmîaʿ millĕmaʿlâ), he has not performed his duty (§12).

If one has written the four Biblical texts of the hand-tĕfîllâ on four separate pieces of parchment, it is fit. R. Judah says: One should have them sewed together and placed in the phylactery (qāmîaʿ) (§9).24

This appellation for the tĕfîllîn in a rabbinic source is obviously not intended as a misrepresentation. It undoubtedly reflects the physical similarity of qĕmîʿin and tĕfîllîn. Although Massekâetâ Tĕfîllîn disqualifies a tĕfîllâ made in the form of qāmîaʿ,25 the two objects were nonetheless similar enough in appearance to present the possibility of confusion. Talmudic discussion of m. ʿErub. 10:1 revolves around the possibility that what appear to be new tĕfîllîn may actually be qĕmîʿin (b. ʿErub. 96b–97a).26 Geonic responsa describe the tĕfîllîn as being manufactured “like a qāmîaʿ.”27 The etymology of qāmîaʿ also lent it to use as a term for tĕfîllîn, since the noun is in form a qātîl adjective (a form “used substantially with a passive meaning to denote duration in a state”)28 and means basically something “tied.” Indeed, the verb qmʿis used in a passage describing the preparation of tĕfîllîn: “A woman was married to a ḥābâēr and she used to fasten (qômaʿatâ) tĕfîllîn for him” (t. Dem. 2:17).29 Since the woman’s action was described in the active voice as qômaʿatâ, the tĕfîllîn themselves could have been described in the passive voice as qĕmîʿîn, “fastened things.”30

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It is not out of the question that superstitious veneration of tĕfîllîn facilitated their description as qĕmîʿîn in the sense of amulets. It is true that the official understanding of tĕfîllîn was as educational and spiritual symbols, as indicated in their biblical source texts (Exod 13:9, 16; Deut 6:8; 11:18) and in numerous Talmudic exhortations.31 But there is no lack of evidence that tĕfîllîn were ascribed apotropaic properties and used as such.32 Not even scholars were above such an understanding, as illustrated in the case of R. Yoḥanan who wore his tĕfîllîn in the privy because, “since the rabbis have permitted this, they (the tĕfîllîn) will protect me” (b. Ber. 23a-b). This attitude does not indicate that tĕfîllîn first entered Judaism as amulets any more than the similar use of the Torah, the Gospels, and the Qur’an reflect their original significance; it is but another case of the superstitious veneration which commonly adheres to sacred objects and practices.33 While rabbinic authorities sought to limit the amuletic use of tĕfîllîn (see

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y. S̆abb. and parallels cited in n. 31), they were presumably no more successful than religious authorities usually are in such attempts.34

Whether the use of the word qāmîaʿ for tĕfîllîn was due to the appearance of tĕfîllîn, to superstitious veneration of them, or to the etymology of qāmîaʿ, the fact is that a Hebrew text referred to tĕfîllîn with the word qâmîaʿ, the Hebrew equivalent of phylaktērion. What gives pause in explaining the Matthean use on the basis of Massekâetâ Tĕfîllîn is the relative dating of the two documents, since the compilation of the seven minor tractates, of which Massekâetâ Tĕfîllîn is one, is dated far later than any date proposed for Matthew. Proposed dates are: prior to the final redaction of the Palestinian Talmud (ca. 400), early post-Talmudic, and late Geonic.35 However, these tractates consist primarily of tannaitic sayings.36 The statement using qāmîaʿ for tĕfîllîn in Massekâetâ Tĕfîllîn § 9 is attributed to the mid-second century tannāʾ R. Judah (b. Ilai). The use of the verb qmʿ in connection with tĕfîllîn in a statement of R. Simeon b. Elazar (late second century) quoting R. Meir (mid-second century) (t. Dem. 2:17, quoted above) further enhances the likelihood that the noun, too, was used for tĕfîllîn as early as the second century. In view of the evidence reviewed here, it seems fair to conclude that the use of phylaktērion in Matt 23:5 also reflects the use of qāmîaʿ for tĕfîllîn.37

(Reprinted by permission from the Harvard Theological Review, Vol. 72, 1979.)