The Making of Tefillin

December 3, 2006
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On the scribe’s desk were the tools of his trade. What caught my eye right away, though, were the tefillin. I’d seen them at the Western Wall, but these tefillin were demos used for teaching purposes. They were the “raw” boxes carved out of thick cowhide before the Scriptures were inserted and the boxes were painted black. I was intrigued, and the questions came flying out. Most of the following comes from an Orthodox viewpoint, but there are many variations of belief and practice.

Tefillin, Amulet, or Phylactery?
Deuteronomy 6:8 says, “You shall bind them [words of Torah] as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. ” The Hebrew word for “frontlets” is totefot, which is tefillin in Aramaic. Tefillin has the same root for prayer, tefillah. These Aramaic words have been adapted into today’s Hebrew. “Phylactery” comes from the Greek word for “amulet,” which is nothing more than a charm with magical powers to protect one from evil. That is not what tefillin are. They are a “sign of the covenant” between God and the Jewish people, as commanded in Torah.

They are usually worn only by men during weekday morning prayers at synagogue services but are also used at home. For the Orthodox, to engage in morning prayer without tefillin is considered a mark of disrespect. Just as a soldier would not appear before his commanding officer out of uniform, no subject should appear before the King of the Universe improperly attired. Thus, Orthodox men bathe and dress before donning tefillin, because one does not approach the Almighty in pajamas! Thirteen-year-old boys receive their first set of tefillin at their Bar-Mitzvah. They are not worn on Shabbat (Sabbath) or scriptural holy days, as these days are also “signs of the covenant,” and having two signs on the same day is superfluous.

The two black cubical boxes are attached to the body by long leather straps of cowhide, also painted black. The box for the hand and arm has one hole, while the box for the head is divided into four compartments. Both hold the four Scriptures that mention the commandment for tefillin (Exod. 13:1–10; 11–16; Deut. 6:4–9; 11:13–21), which are capsule-sized reminders of the entire Torah. It is believed by some that tefillin were worn all day long in Bible times. In a late-century composition, an Alexandrian Jew wrote about owning tefillin that were passed down to him from his grandfather from the time of Ezekiel. So, although the Torah does not give instruction as to “how” to bind tefillin on the body, it could very well be that what we see today is similar to what was worn in later Bible times.

The strap is wrapped around the arm (from elbow to wrist) seven times. As it is wrapped around the hand and fingers in the shape of the Hebrew letters for Shaddai (Almighty) they quote the beautiful words of Hosea 2:19–20: “I will betroth you to Me forever; yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and justice, in lovingkindness and mercy; I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness, and you shall know the LORD. ” What a beautiful way to start the day!

Tools of the Trade
Of course, there are numerous rules for making such a special “sign of the covenant.” Some scribes make their own parchment, usually from the skin of a calf or a lamb. It is first soaked in water for several hours and cleaned. Then it remains in a barrel of lime for one to three weeks to remove the hair. It’s scraped and stretched taut on a frame to dry and afterwards rubbed carefully with pumice stone and chalk. However, these days, scribes can buy parchment from kosher factories.

The durable black ink is made from gall nuts or gallic acid. The details of the process are a closely guarded secret, each scribe having his own formula. The pens are usually a quill from a kosher bird. The tip is cut especially for making square Hebrew letters. Bamboo can also be used, because it grows in the water, and water is a symbol of purity. Understanding the intricacies of the process explains why a set of tefillin can cost up to US $600.

Traditionally, Christians have not donned tefillin or put mezuzot on their doorposts, but we like to frame and hang Scripture on our walls or wear jewelry with Scripture on it. A popular item in Israel is a ring inscribed with the words from Song of Solomon in Hebrew letters: “I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine” (6:3a). For me, that’s probably as close to wearing tefillin as I’ll get. The idea is the same. As God knows, we need constant reminders of His Word before us all day long, everywhere we go.

For Jewish people, wearing the tefillin is another example of how much they revere the Word of God. I think we have a lot to learn from them––don’t you?

I will betroth you to Me forever; yes, I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and justice, in lovingkindness and mercy; I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness, and you shall know the LORD.” (Hosea 2:19–20)


By Charleeda Sprinkle

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