What are “phylacteries?”


by Shawn Brasseaux

“But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of the garments…” (Matthew 23:5). Just what are “phylacteries?” We will answer that question in this Bible study article.

This strange word “phylacteries” appears only once in our King James Bible (see above). A “phylactery” was a small, black, leather-bound box or case worn on their forehead or left arm by male Jews aged 13 and above. (Modern-day phylacteries are made of metal.) The forehead version was called the “frontlet.” The Hebrew letter shin (resembles our “W”) was inscribed on the phylactery’s top. Phylacteries supposedly warded off evil spirits.

Each phylactery had leather flaps through which a cord was passed. That strap, a piece of leather about the width of a human finger and about two feet (0.6 meters) long, was used to attach the phylactery to the wearer’s body. This strap was wound around the arm and ended at the top of the middle finger.

The phylactery was divided into four compartments. Each compartment held one of four slips of parchment (primitive paper). Each scrap had Scripture on it. The phylactery’s contents served as a reminder of the Mosaic Law covenant that JEHOVAH God had made with Israel. (By the way, “phylacteries” in Greek is “phulakteria,” related to the Greek word “phulasso,” meaning “to observe, obey, be on guard, beware.” The “phylactery” was viewed as a way to be aware of God’s laws.)

Four Scripture passages were stored in a phylactery. The first scrap had Exodus 13:2-10 (God delivering Israel from Egyptian bondage). The second slip had Exodus 13:11-16 (God slaying Egypt’s firstborn sons to force Pharaoh to free Israel His firstborn son). The third scrap had Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (JEHOVAH God’s command that Israel love and serve Him wholeheartedly). The last slip had Deuteronomy 11:13-21 (God’s blessings on Israel if she faithfully obeyed Him, and His curses if she disobeyed Him).

Exodus 13:8-10,13 says: “[8] And thou shalt shew thy son in that day, saying, This is done because of that which the LORD did unto me when I came forth out of Egypt. [9] And it shall be for a sign unto thee upon thine hand, and for a memorial between thine eyes, that the LORD’S law may be in thy mouth: for with a strong hand hath the LORD brought thee out of Egypt. [10] Thou shalt therefore keep this ordinance in his season from year to year…. [13] And it shall be for a token upon thine hand, and for frontlets between thine eyes: for by strength of hand the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt.”

Deuteronomy 6:6-12: “[6] And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: [7] And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. [8] And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. [9] And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates. [10] And it shall be, when the LORD thy God shall have brought thee into the land which he sware unto thy fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give thee great and goodly cities, which thou buildedst not, [11] And houses full of all good things, which thou filledst not, and wells digged, which thou diggedst not, vineyards and olive trees, which thou plantedst not; when thou shalt have eaten and be full; [12] Then beware lest thou forget the LORD, which brought thee forth out of the land of Egypt, from the house of bondage.”

Deuteronomy 11:18-21: “[18] Therefore shall ye lay up these my words in your heart and in your soul, and bind them for a sign upon your hand, that they may be as frontlets between your eyes. [19] And ye shall teach them your children, speaking of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. [20] And thou shalt write them upon the door posts of thine house, and upon thy gates: [21] That your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, in the land which the LORD sware unto your fathers to give them, as the days of heaven upon the earth.”

While we are at it, we will go ahead and explain Matthew 23:5: “But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of the garments….” This verse is excerpted from the Lord Jesus’ severe rebuke of Israel’s religious leaders. In your own time, read Matthew chapter 23 in its entirety. This chapter and John chapter 8 are the most scathing addresses in the entire Bible! These religious leaders—“scribes and Pharisees”—stressed outward form and ceremony. They loved to appear religious because they sought the praise of men. Inside, however, the Lord Jesus said they were dead in their trespasses and sins. (Friend, do you know anyone like that? Someone who looks like a Christian, and sounds like a Christian, but has never exercised personal faith in Jesus Christ’s shed blood as complete payment for his or her sins?)

Jesus accused these scribes and Pharisees of “making broad their phylacteries.” That it, they wore large phylacteries, objects that would draw more attention than regular-sized phylacteries, because they wanted to be “seen of men.” Huge phylacteries “advertised” they were “more pious,” or “more religious,” than others. It was a way of bragging, of flaunting self-righteousness. “As many as desire to make a fair shew [beautiful exhibition] in the flesh…” (Galatians 6:12, speaking of those who do religious works of any and every kind). “Look at my big box of Pentateuch writings! Unlike you, with your little box, I esteem the Law of Moses!” They claimed to love the Law of Moses, and yet there was no faith in the Law of Moses. In striking irony, that same so-called “Law-loving” crowd eventually killed Christ Jesus, the God-Man who was the Law of Moses personified! (Friend, do you know anyone who claims to “love” the Bible but who refuses to hear what it says about his or her evil religious works? They “love” Jesus but are so focused on what they are doing to make their church happy, that they have not a moment to think about Christ’s finished crosswork at Calvary?)

In closing, I thought it beneficial to quote what Smith’s Bible Dictionary says about “frontlets” (forehead phylacteries):

“The ribbon for tying them was colored purple by the Pharisees, and made showy and broad [Matt. xxiii. 3, 4], and were worn by all Jews except Karaites, women and slaves. The Rabbis made many rules about their uses. They were not to be worn on the Sabbath, because the Sabbath was itself a sign; the person reading them in the morning must stand; in the evening he may sit; the color of the thread might be changed to red in times of persecution; both hands must be used in writing them; the parchment must not have a hole in it; only one blot or error was permitted; a person wearing them must keep six feet off for a cemetery—and many others. They were a means of religious vanity, hypocrisy and display, and were so denounced by Jesus. The Rabbis said (by a kind of pious fraud) that God wore them, arguing from Is. xlix. 16; lxii. 8; Deut. xxxiii. 2. They were a kind of amulet, such as the modern Arabs use.”

Also see:
» Does God give us “points” for trying to be good?
» Can you explain Luke 18:13, “God be merciful to me a sinner?”
» What about the Jewish Roots Movement?