The Jewish custom of “laying tefillin” consists in binding small boxes to one’s head and arm. These special leather items contain written excerpts from the Hebrew Bible. Their name comes from the Hebrew word for “prayer,” תפילה (tefilah).

The practice is based on a literal reading of Deuteronomy 6:8 and 11:18, where Moses tells the people of Israel to “bind” his words “as a sign upon your hand” and to have them be “as frontlet-bands between your eyes.”

These passages are also interpreted metaphorically. The “hand” symbolizes action, while the “head” and “eyes” indicate sight, direction, and focus. So in a non-literal reading, Moses’ instruction means to always remember, focus on, and act according to his words. Other Biblical texts may support this kind of interpretation; e.g.: Exod. 13:5-16; Prov. 3:1-3, 6:20-21, 7:1-3.

Did Jews at the time of Yeshua/Jesus “lay tefillin”? Interestingly, some (perhaps many) did – the practice seems to go back more than 2,000 years! The Jewish-Greek “Letter of (Pseudo-) Aristeas” (ca. 2nd century BCE/BC) says, “And he distinctly directs, that the sign shall be fastened about our hands, clearly indicating that we ought to perform every activity in justice” (§159). Ancient tefillin have been found at Qumran (ca. 1st century BCE/BC; site of the Dead Sea Scrolls) and in caves used by the Bar Kokhba rebels in the 2nd century CE/AD.

Moreover, in Matthew 23:5 Yeshua/Jesus says about the Pharisaic school: “They broaden their φυλακτήρια (phylaktêria)” (Matt. 23:5). This word had several meanings in the Hellenistic world, including “castle, fortification, safeguard, security, preservative, amulet, insignia, chain,” etc. Here in a Jewish-Greek text it apparently indicates a form of tefillin.

It’s not certain how many of the different Jewish streams of the first century had this practice or how widespread it was. Some customs were practiced only by an elite, not the population as a whole. So did Jesus (Yeshua) wear tefillin as he prayed and walked about Israel?

We don’t know for a fact – but it’s definitely not impossible!

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53 COMMENTS

  1. Ibn Ezra provided two possible understandings. The second seems more authoritative? - והפירוש השני להיותו כמשמעו לעשות תפילין של יד ושל ראש, ובעבור שהעתיקו כן חז”ל, בטל הפירוש הראשון, כי אין עליו עדים נאמנים כמו שיש לפירוש השני: And the second explanation is according to its meaning to make tefillin of the arm and of the head. And because our sages of blessed memory shifted it in this way the first explanation is not valid. For it has no reliable witnesses as the second explanation does.
    • Thank you for the question, Mike! Here, I believe, you quote Yehudah Cohn, who has authored the most recent comprehensive study of the subject. As he points out, Ibn Ezra's reasoning is literally an "appeal to authority": "Ibn Ezra decides that the tefillin interpretation is correct because he is following the lead of the Sages, not because it is the better explanation in context; in fact, he brings textual evidence for the former [metaphorical interpretation] but not for the latter [physical]." So in that sense, yes, the literalistic interpretation is regarded as the more "authoritative" in the Rabbinic Jewish mainstream...
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    • ...On the other hand, if one does not accept that “appeal to authority” (generally regarded as a logical fallacy) or follows a different stream of thought, then the metaphorical interpretation emerges as a good possibility. Even within the rabbinic tradition, some follow this approach. Samuel ben Meir (12th century) was obsessed with the literal or direct meaning of the Torah (peshat); yet he concluded that the simple meaning of the language in this case should be understood as a metaphor!
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    • It would seem that as they addressed him as Rabbi many times, that he probably appeared the part of one, and spoke as one having knowledge.

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  2. The Archaeological Evidence for Tefillin The earliest known tefillin were found together with other Dead Sea Scrolls in the Judean desert, in the mid-twentieth century. They were dated by archaeologists as far back as the 1st or 2nd centuries BCE. Although their texts are more varied than rabbinic tefillin, it is clear that they are based on a specific understanding of the same four verses as associated by the rabbis with the tefillin ritual.
    • Thank you for adding this information, Mike. Yes, these are the ones I mentioned from Qumran (a site in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea).
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  3. I believe it is likely Jesus wore tefillin for He was a Torah observant Jew and the only to ever fulfilled the Torah perfectly.
    • Thank you for your input, Shira! I would certainly agree that Yeshua/Jesus was a Torah-observant Jew. I suppose the question is just whether he considered Torah observance to include physical tefillin or whether he understood those passages in the more metaphorical or symbolic sense. (I don't know the answer to that one.)

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    • Deuteronomy 6:8 "Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads"
      In light of other ways Jesus may have expounded scripture prescribing actions of worship or obedience to God, would Jesus have interpreted this verse in a more literal or less literal sense?
  4. If I understand dabar correctly, the things God SAID (love God with heart, soul, and might) were in their hearts (Deu 6:6). Therefore, prayer (tefillin) is connected to something God says and therefore guides the hand, the head, and the eyes? This is important because “we” (presumed to be unreached Christians) are told to pray what is in our hearts (sinner’s prayer). I accepted Christ about billion times trying to manufacture my doctrine in my heart. What Hashem said in my heart was already there and remained there in spite of my poor interpretations.
    • Thank you for this comment, Kat. Note that in the ancient world tefillin were apparently worn throughout the day, not just during prayer. However, they have become associated with prayer (tefilah), and the practice has changed over time. In terms of the 'heart', I think this is a good example of why we should try to think carefully about the meaning of expressions that use bodily terms: they often seem in some sense 'literal' and 'metaphorical' at the same time! What does it mean to have some words 'in the heart'?

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  5. Dear Dr Gruber, Good evening! May you help me answering 2 questions? What languages did Jesus speak? Was Jesus literate or not? Flavio Lopes, RJ - RJ - Brazil
    • Thank you for the questions, Flavio! Different scholars have different opinions about these things, and the answer often depends on how one reads the historical evidence and what one (subjectively) finds reasonable. If Luke 4:16-20 is reliable, then Yeshua/Jesus was literate at least in Hebrew. Most students of the period think that his conversational language was probably Jewish Aramaic. He may also have known and used Greek, which was a lingua franca in much of the Mediterranean world (as English is for us right now). But it is hard to answer such questions with certainty, so controversy persists.
    • Yeshua was no insignificant peasant. He was the heir to the throne of David, next in line to be king had Israel thrown out the Romans. In fact, in John 6:15 they tried to make Him king. And that sign above His head on the Cross was no fluke- He was King of the Jews! He was also schooled as a Rabbi, as His teachings were from the Oral Tradition and His techniques were typical rabbinical teaching methods. He knew scripture, as well as the traditions. I'd say He was extremely well educated; very literate!

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  6. Dr. Gruber, thanks for the reply. This may have major implications on the Rabbinical approach of practical or oral Torah, that Moshe / Moses demonstrated how to make the tefilin and that the dual meaning is that both are correct. One is practical following while the other is a deeper higher following. One for this world and the other for the heavens. AS all began with the letter Beith. And that both are equally binding. The physical and the spiritual soo to say. As such, they also follow Mezuza and Tsisit. That has physical, practical and metaphorical bind together. Thanks
  7. I once saw a presentation on the Shroud of Turin. Whether this is what they claim it is or not, I will not guess here. But it was noted that there is a torn phylactery or tefilin visible between the eyes of the image thereon.
  8. Dr. Gruber, what has happened to the BLOGS link up at the top of the Student Corner? It''s missing! I notice we have a Magazine tabs, but I cannot find the BLOGS tab. Can you help me please? Thank you. shalom!
  9. Dr. Gruber, as I read the text, 'bind his word...' stood out. To me, 'bind his word' would = 'HIS WORD'. JESUS was a 'walking Tefillin' in the flesh. John 1.1-4, 14- In the beginning was the WORD... vs14 and the WORD became flesh and dwelt among us. I'm not so sure he would have had to do Tefillin...HE 'was' Tefillin. HE 'is' HIS WORD! HE is bound to HIMSELF (the WORD). Could this be correct?
    • Thank you, Vida! I see two separate issues here. 1) The personification of 'the Word' (Jewish-Greek logos, Jewish-Aramaic memra), which we find also in many other early Jewish sources. Here your idea of a 'walking tefillin' is well expressed and probably corresponds to something like what John may have been thinking! 2) Whether Yeshua/Jesus would have worn tefillin. Acc. to Matthew's account, he presented himself as a teacher who advocated keeping every single commandment of the Torah (Matt. 5:17-19, 23:23). So the question is just whether he considered Torah observance to include physical tefillin or not (I don't know).

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  10. I don't know if we can prove or disprove Yeshua's use of teffillin. However, in the "God Knows Best" column, and for an interesting read: http://www.koshertorah.com/PDF/tefilin.pdf God apparently beat the Chinese to acupressure therapy; go figure ...
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