What is a Phylactery?

Written by Joel on October 30th, 2011

Brooklyn Museum

Oct 30, 2011
Proper 26
Matthew 23:1-12

External signs of faith are meant to glorify God, not ourselves.

I was at the Woodstock Wendy’s one day just at noon. I sat in a window seat and outside I saw a small group of young men, about my age, about 5 of them out in the grass. They had small rugs spread out on the ground and they were all facing the same direction and then they got down on their knees, and then brought their faces to the ground. They rose a few times, and knelt a few times, their lips moved, I could tell they were saying something. This went on for just under 10 minutes. They rolled up their rugs and then came in for lunch. I assumed they were Muslims, conducting noon time prayers, one of the 5 obligated times of prayer in a day. I thought to myself – I bet that takes quite a bit of courage to pray like that out in public; Seeing their external signs of faith did draw my mind to God and it called me to consider my own prayer life. What a humbling prayer form, bowed with their faces to the ground – how humbling!

But the Pharisees seemed not to realize that they were attempting to exalt themselves in their showy practice of religion. You know the saying “Do as I say, not as I do?” They seemed to be saying “Do as I say, and look how good I am at it!”

I want to spend some time exploring the middle section of today’s Gospel reading, verses 5 thru 7. “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogue; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplace and to have people call them ‘Rabbi.’” How do these externals of religious piety serve to exalt the pharisees? How would Jesus have us practice our religion?

What in the world is a phylactery? I’ve seen them once. There was a rabbi in my class at chaplain school. And he invited us to join him one day for morning prayer. Before he began with the words of prayer, he prepared himself for prayer. He ritually washed his hands, he put on a stole with tassels, and then he took out these square leather boxes with straps on them. He put one on his left hand and wrapped it up. The other he tied to his forehead, right between his eyes. Those two boxes are the phylacteries.

It is a Jewish practice that finds it’s roots in the law of Moses; in four scriptures to be exact. One of those scriptures is Deuteronomy chapter 6, verse 8; How interesting that this practice which Jesus questions the Pharisees on comes just after Jesus’ answer to the Greatest Commandment: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength” Deut 6:5, Now Deut 6:8 referring to God’s commands “Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.” They took this word of scripture literally. Literally putting bits of paper with scripture on it, in these boxes called phylacteries, and tying them to their hands and foreheads.

Phylacteries have deep meaning and symbolism attached to them. The head phylactery has four compartments which holds the four scriptures which speak to the practice, each box is attached to the straps by 12 stitches, representing the 12 tribes of Israel. The boxes have an Hebrew letter on the outside of them which represents the four scriptures. Archeologists have discovered that other peoples would tattoo the name of a deity on their arm and forehead. Perhaps this Jewish custom was in response to that, a way to mark themselves out as belonging to the one true God and not to the foreign gods. And the phylacteries were used to remind the wearer about the word of God, a reminder to pray, and to put the commands on their hearts.

All of that sounds pretty good to me. Sure, I would understand the Deuteronomy scripture to be figurative; tie the commands of God to your forehead – that means always think about it, always pray, always be aware of God, let it be part of your life. But at the same time, isn’t it interesting how the literal, how the tangible help us to put into practice the figurative Its the difference between just having loving feelings in your heart for someone, versus expressing that love in a tangible way – a hug, a kiss, flowers, a card.

Christianity has plenty of its own phylacteries, externals. Jesus fish bumper stickers, bible verse t-shirts, cross necklaces. I get all dressed up in a robe, stole, and collar. On Ash Wednesday we run around with dark splotches on our foreheads. All these are externals, and when used for the wrong reason may draw attention to ourselves, rather than drawing our attention to God. It can go both ways. And Jesus’ anger at the Pharisees here is because they had let the things that were meant to remind them of the holy, instead become fashion statements.

The Greek for “phylactery” sounds like a safeguard, a charm, or an amulet. What was once something that set God’s people apart and served as a reminder of him, became nothing more than an amulet. They made their phylacteries boxes more broad – but failed to become more aware of the Word of God they contained. That risk exists today. You can find rather impressive gold crosses to wear around your neck. But donning that symbol of Christ’s death, resurrection, and the world’s salvation; wearing it around your neck – symbolizing that you too have taken on the yoke, the burden of the mark of what it means to be a Christian – wow; that should be awfully humbling. Or is it just a fashion statement, an amulet? Did you find a really clever Christian t-shirt to show off how trendy and hip it is to be a Christian – or do you bear words from scripture across your chest as a reminder for you in this day that you too are marked by God’s word? Do you feel uncomfortable wearing ashes on your forehead out in public – You are probably on the right track.

I don’t think there is anything wrong with these kind of external signs of our faith. In fact, in many ways they can serve as reminders of God’s love for us. We are human beings existing in time and place and we do need the tangibles to remind us of the intangible. It is a wonderful and good thing that when someone sees you live the Christian faith in someway that they too glorify God. Like praying at a restaurant for your meal, doing so may cause others to give God thanks themselves; but bowing that head and making a big show of it to show how much better you are than those heathen non-restaurant pray-ers, well that’s how a Pharisee prays.

It comes down to who is exalted in the practice of our religion. We are not to be exalted, but in the way we live our faith we are to give God the glory.


1 Comments so far ↓

  1. Beverly Keister says:

    I am studying the Book of Genesis. While in chapter 13 and 14 I ran across the word Phylacteries. Never had really understood what it meant but now I do and it helps me in the Genesis study as I know later I will have more understanding of the ways of people of that day and time. Interesting!

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