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Yehudah Cohn





The Origins of Tefillin





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Yehudah Cohn





The Origins of Tefillin








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The Origins of Tefillin

A biblical metaphor was reinterpreted in light of a practice of wearing amulets for bodily protection.


The Origins of Tefillin

© Natushm | Dreamstime– Tefillin Open Production Process

Why did the practice of tefillin come into being? The first and second paragraphs of the Shema prayer, found in the Torah readings of Va’ethanan and Eikev respectively, may appear to resolve the issue, ostensibly ordaining the practice of head and arm tefillin. I will try to show that the question of tefillin’s origin is far from trivial, and hope to provide a more complex answer below.[1]

Early rabbinic discussions focus on the four passages in Exodus and Deuteronomy that are reproduced inside tefillin. The clearest statement on the subject comes from the Tanna’itic work Mekhilta DeRabbi Yishma’el (Parashat Bo, Masekhta de-Pascha 18, Exod 13:16):

בארבעה מקומות מזכיר פרשת תפילין:
In four places there is a section mentioning tefillin:
א. קדש לי
ב. והיה כי יביאך
ג. שמע
ד. והיה אם שמוע
a. Kadesh Li (Exod 13:1-10),
b. Vehayah Ki Yevi’akha (Exod 13:11-16),
c. Shema (Deut 6:4-9),
d. Vehayah Im Shamo’a (Deut 11:13-21).

The four verses that the rabbis understood to be referring to tefillin, together with their apparent referents, are as follows:

Eating matzah / refraining from chametz, etc.

שמות יג:ט וְהָיָה֩ לְךָ֨ לְא֜וֹת עַל יָדְךָ֗ וּלְזִכָּרוֹן֙ בֵּ֣ין עֵינֶ֔יךָ… כִּ֚י בְּיָ֣ד חֲזָקָ֔ה הוֹצִֽאֲךָ֥ יְ-הֹוָ֖ה מִמִּצְרָֽיִם:
Exod 13:9 And it will be as a sign for you upon your hand and as a memorial (zikaron) between your eyes … that with a strong hand the Lord brought you out of Egypt.

Sanctity / redemption of the first-born

שמות יג:טז וְהָיָ֤ה לְאוֹת֙ עַל יָ֣דְכָ֔ה וּלְטוֹטָפֹ֖ת בֵּ֣ין עֵינֶ֑יךָ כִּ֚י בְּחֹ֣זֶק יָ֔ד הוֹצִיאָ֥נוּ יְ-הֹוָ֖ה מִמִּצְרָֽיִם:
Exod 13:16 And it will be as a sign upon your hand and as totafot between your eyes, that with strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt.

The first two verses of the Shema; alternatively the Ten Commandments in Deut 5, or Deuteronomy’s mitzvot more generally

דברים ו:ח וּקְשַׁרְתָּ֥ם לְא֖וֹת עַל יָדֶ֑ךָ וְהָי֥וּ לְטֹטָפֹ֖ת בֵּ֥ין עֵינֶֽיךָ:
Deut 6:8 And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as totafot between your eyes.

Deuteronomy’s mitzvot

דברים יא:יח וְשַׂמְתֶּם֙ אֶת דְּבָרַ֣י אֵ֔לֶּה עַל לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וְעַֽל נַפְשְׁכֶ֑ם וּקְשַׁרְתֶּ֨ם אֹתָ֤ם לְאוֹת֙ עַל יֶדְכֶ֔ם וְהָי֥וּ לְטוֹטָפֹ֖ת בֵּ֥ין עֵינֵיכֶֽם:
Deut 11:18 Therefore shall you place these my words in your heart and in your soul; and you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as totafot between your eyes.

The Meaning of Zikaron and Totafot

The Exodus passages which include the above-mentioned verses are discussing rituals meant to evoke the exodus from Egypt, including the eating of matzah / refraining from chametz (leavened bread, vv. 13:3-10) and the sanctity / redemption of the first-born of men and animals (verses 13:2 and 13:11-16).

What might this have meant to early interpreters of the text? With no apparent Hebrew cognates, and occurring as it does only three times in the Tanakh in verses that echo each other, the word totafot might have been obscure. Exodus 13:9, the only verse which mentions “a memorial (zikaron)” in place of the totafot, is likely to have been more readily comprehensible, and here the 12th century commentators Rashbam (a grandson of Rashi) and ibn Ezra provide valuable insight.

Rashbam (Exod 13:9)

Rashbam (R. Samuel ben Meir, 1085-1158), one of the greatest medieval expositors of the plain meaning of the Torah (peshat), understands Exodus 13:9 metaphorically. The intent of the verse is that the annual rituals in the passage, eating matzah and refraining from leavened bread etc., ought be a permanent reminder of the exodus from Egypt, as though written on one’s hand, or worn as a valuable band on the forehead.

לאות על ידך – לפי עומק פשוטו יהיה לך לזכרון תמיד כאילו כתוב על ידך. כעין שימני כחותם על לבך:
“As a sign upon your hand”: According to the fundamental meaning – it should be a permanent reminder for you, as though written on your hand. Similarly “place me like a seal on your heart” (Song of Songs 8:6).
בין עיניך – כעין תכשיט ורביד זהב שרגילין ליתן על המצח לנוי:
“Between your eyes”: Like a piece of jewelry or gold band that they usually place on the forehead as a decoration.

Avraham ibn Ezra (Exod 13:9)

Rashbam’s contemporary, R. Abraham ibn Ezra (1089-1167), another champion of plain meaning, discusses the options of reading the verse metaphorically as well as referring to tefillin:

והיה לך לאות על ידך ולזכרון בין עיניך – יתכן על ב’ פירושים.
“And it will be as a sign for you upon your hand and as a memorial between your eyes”: There are two possible explanations.
האחד על דרך קשרם על גרגרותיך כתבם על לוח לבך (משלי ג, ג), ויהי טעם לאות כמו סימן, ומהו שיהיה לאות ולזכרון, הוא כי ביד חזקה, שתשמור כן בלבך ולבנך. וכן הכתוב השני: והיה לך לאות על ידך ולטוטפת בין עיניך (טז), והוא כי בחוזק יד הוציאנו ה’ ממצרים (שם). ומלת טטפת (שם) זרה במקרא. ויש אומרים מטעם הטף אל דרום (יחזקאל כא, ב).
One is after the fashion of “bind them about your neck, write them upon the table of your heart” (Proverbs 3:3), in which case the meaning of “sign” is similar to a mnemonic device – and what will become “as a sign … and as a memorial”? Namely “that with a strong hand (the Lord brought you out of Egypt),” which you should thus preserve in your heart and for your child. And similarly the second verse (13:16) – and it will be for you “as a sign upon your hand and as totafot between your eyes,” namely “that with strength of hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt.” And the word totafot is a strange one in the Bible, and some say it is from the same meaning as hatef (i.e. preach) in Ezekiel 21:2.
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.

In other words, 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 but not for the latter.[2]

Taking into account the comments of ibn Ezra and Rashbam with respect to a metaphorical reading, we might wonder whether ancient readers would have interpreted the totafot in Exod 13:16, Deut 6:8 and 11:18 in similar fashion, whatever the precise meaning of the strange word.

The Understanding of the Shema in Proverbs

We have, in fact, some evidence that the earliest readers we know of did understand these texts metaphorically. The book of Proverbs, remarkably, shows how the Shema was understood by its readers as early as the biblical period.[3]

משלי ו:כ נְצֹ֣ר בְּ֭נִי מִצְוַ֣ת אָבִ֑יךָ וְאַל תִּ֝טֹּ֗שׁ תּוֹרַ֥ת אִמֶּֽךָ: ו:כא קָשְׁרֵ֣ם עַל לִבְּךָ֣ תָמִ֑יד עָ֝נְדֵ֗ם עַל גַּרְגְּרֹתֶֽךָ: ו:כב בְּהִתְהַלֶּכְךָ׀ תַּנְחֶ֬ה אֹתָ֗ךְ בְּ֭שָׁכְבְּךָ תִּשְׁמֹ֣ר עָלֶ֑יךָ וַ֝הֲקִיצ֗וֹתָ הִ֣יא תְשִׂיחֶֽךָ:
Prov 6:20 Keep, my son, your father’s precepts, forsake not your mother’s teaching. 6:21 Bind them always upon your heart, tie them about your throat. 6:22 When you walk about it will guide you, when you lie down it will watch over you, when you wake up it will converse with you.

Compare this with the Shema, and specifically Deuteronomy 6:6-8 and 11:18-19:

דברים ו:ו וְהָי֞וּ הַדְּבָרִ֣ים הָאֵ֗לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֨ר אָנֹכִ֧י מְצַוְּךָ֛ הַיּ֖וֹם עַל לְבָבֶֽךָ: ו:זוְשִׁנַּנְתָּ֣ם לְבָנֶ֔יךָ וְדִבַּרְתָּ֖ בָּ֑ם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ֤ בְּבֵיתֶ֙ךָ֙ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ֣ בַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וּֽבְשָׁכְבְּךָ֖ וּבְקוּמֶֽךָ: ו:חוּקְשַׁרְתָּ֥ם לְא֖וֹת עַל יָדֶ֑ךָ וְהָי֥וּ לְטֹטָפֹ֖ת בֵּ֥ין עֵינֶֽיךָ:
Deut 6:6 And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart; 6:7 and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up.6:8 And you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as totafot between your eyes.
דברים יא:יח וְשַׂמְתֶּם֙ אֶת דְּבָרַ֣י אֵ֔לֶּה עַל לְבַבְכֶ֖ם וְעַֽל נַפְשְׁכֶ֑ם וּקְשַׁרְתֶּ֨ם אֹתָ֤ם לְאוֹת֙ עַל יֶדְכֶ֔ם וְהָי֥וּ לְטוֹטָפֹ֖ת בֵּ֥ין עֵינֵיכֶֽם: יח:יט וְלִמַּדְתֶּ֥ם אֹתָ֛ם אֶת בְּנֵיכֶ֖ם לְדַבֵּ֣ר בָּ֑ם בְּשִׁבְתְּךָ֤ בְּבֵיתֶ֙ךָ֙ וּבְלֶכְתְּךָ֣ בַדֶּ֔רֶךְ וּֽבְשָׁכְבְּךָ֖ וּבְקוּמֶֽךָ:
Deut 11:18 Therefore shall you place these my words in your heart and in your soul; and you shall bind them as a sign upon your hand, and they shall be as totafot between your eyes. 11:19 And you shall teach them to your children, talking of them, when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up.

The juxtaposition in Proverbs of parental instruction with lying down/arising from sleep/walking around is surely a reference to the above verses from the Shema.[4] The “heart” and “throat” in Proverbs 6:21 are likely a further allusion to Deuteronomy 6:6 and 11:18, with nefesh taken by Proverbs to mean “neck” (as in Proverbs 3:22) rather than “soul.” It is also noteworthy that the locus of tying has been changed from the hand (and possibly the head[5]), in Deuteronomy, to the heart and throat in Proverbs.

What is striking about Proverbs is that it includes injunctions that precepts/teachings are to be tied – as does the Shema – but only in a metaphorical sense. Rather parental instruction, presumably oral in nature, is something to be cherished and held close, so as to guide and protect its adherents. In the idiom of Proverbs, tying as well as writing are commonly simple figures of speech for considering something of utmost importance.[6]

Missing in Proverbs is any suggestion of a practice resembling tefillin or any other ritual practice. Instead, the writer understands Deuteronomy 11:18 metaphorically, with the two halves of the verse paralleling each other – a common feature in the Hebrew Bible.

LXX Translation

The earliest translation of the Torah, the Greek Septuagint, understands the “totafot between your eyes” as meaning “immovable before your eyes” (in Greek asaleuton pro ophthalmon sou).[7] As was the case in Proverbs this likely refers to a metaphor – viewing the “words” mentioned in Deuteronomy as though tied to your hand will result in their being like an immovable object for you.[8]

If the Torah was understood in this way by its early readers, how and when did it come to be understood as referring to a physical practice?

The Role of Amulets in Ancient Mediterranean Cultures

To the inhabitants of the ancient Mediterranean, the cosmos teemed with supernatural forces, which they often sought to influence by the use of amulets—the most pervasive of magical tools in antiquity. From the fourth century BCE these objects are known in Greek as periapta or periammata, which means “things tied around.” Amulets included cords, bands, or sashes, as well as pendants, rings and other objects, which frequently contained text.[9] They were generally tied around a part of the body, such as the neck, head, arm or leg, or attached to clothing.

The connection between tefillin and amulets calls for investigation, not least because both objects were worn on the body, and are frequently juxtaposed in early rabbinic sources.[10] In the first known use of the Hebrew word tefillah (singular of tefillin) to refer to a physical object, it refers to (silver) amulets.[11] In addition, early Christian sources characterize tefillin as phylakteria, a Greek word for protective amulets. Some of these sources (the Gospel of Matthew 23:5 and Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho 46:5) predate the Mishnah, which contains the first mention of the word tefillin as referring to our ritual. There is also a well-established connection between recited verses and ancient amulets,[12] so that the presence in tefillin of verses recited by Jews as part of the Shema prayer is also suggestive.

The Historical Development of Written Amulets

The existence of written amulets has been traced back to Egypt, where the findings are dated no later than the eighth century BCE. Punic-Phoenician inscribed amulets in tubular capsules were found, primarily in tombs, in Carthage (North Africa) and Sardinia, and dated from the seventh to the fifth century BCE. Two silver Hebrew amulets from the seventh or sixth century BCE have also been found in a Jerusalem burial site.[13] For the late classical period (around 400–330 BCE) there have been findings of inscribed slips of metal foil placed unrolled on corpses to protect the dead from the dangers of the underworld.

It is quite possible that the dead were the initial wearers of inscribed text in many cultures, but over time, they became extremely popular for the living. By the height of the Roman Empire, the manufacture of inscribed amulets was flourishing, and they were widely worn. While many amulets list specific medical complaints, others were designed for general protection and this latter function is likely to have preceded their use to cover other needs. It is further noteworthy that Greek amulets in antiquity frequently included verses from Homer, the most central Greek text and in some ways the functional equivalent of the Torah in the Hellenistic world.[14]

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,[15] it is clear that they are based on a specific understanding of the same four verses noted above as associated by the rabbis with the tefillin ritual. A full analysis is beyond the scope of this article, but one particularly anomalous tefillin text from Qumran may provide an important clue as to the origins of the practice.[16]

4QPhyl N – Tefillin text from Ha’azinu

A remarkable tefillin parchment, known by archaeologists as 4QPhyl N, includes text from Parashat Ha’azinu (also called the Song of Moses), and was part of a set of such parchments that preserve otherwise unremarkable text from tefillin passages found elsewhere at Qumran. Uniquely though, its text seems to bear no direct connection to the four “tefillin verses” discussed above.

Why was the Song of Moses deemed suitable as a tefillin parchment?[17] In all likelihood because both the second paragraph of the Shema, as well as the verses immediately after the Song of Moses in Parashat Ha’azinu, contain references to length of days.


דברים יא:כא לְמַ֨עַן יִרְבּ֤וּ יְמֵיכֶם֙ וִימֵ֣י בְנֵיכֶ֔ם עַ֚ל הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר נִשְׁבַּ֧ע יְ-הֹוָ֛ה לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶ֖ם לָתֵ֣ת לָהֶ֑ם כִּימֵ֥י הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם עַל הָאָֽרֶץ:
Deut 11:21 So that your days may be multiplied, and the days of your children, upon the land which the LORD swore unto your fathers to give them, as the days of the heavens above the earth.


דברים לב:מה וַיְכַ֣ל מֹשֶׁ֗ה לְדַבֵּ֛ר אֶת כָּל הַדְּבָרִ֥ים הָאֵ֖לֶּה אֶל כָּל יִשְׂרָאֵֽל: לב:מווַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֲלֵהֶם֙ שִׂ֣ימוּ לְבַבְכֶ֔ם לְכָל הַדְּבָרִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֧ר אָנֹכִ֛י מֵעִ֥יד בָּכֶ֖ם הַיּ֑וֹם אֲשֶׁ֤ר תְּצַוֻּם֙ אֶת בְּנֵיכֶ֔ם לִשְׁמֹ֣ר לַעֲשׂ֔וֹת אֶת כָּל דִּבְרֵ֖י הַתּוֹרָ֥ה הַזֹּֽאת: לב:מזכִּ֠י לֹֽא דָבָ֨ר רֵ֥ק הוּא֙ מִכֶּ֔ם כִּי ה֖וּא חַיֵּיכֶ֑ם וּבַדָּבָ֣ר הַזֶּ֗ה תַּאֲרִ֤יכוּ יָמִים֙ עַל הָ֣אֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֨ר אַתֶּ֜ם עֹבְרִ֧ים אֶת הַיַּרְדֵּ֛ן שָׁ֖מָּה לְרִשְׁתָּֽהּ:
Deut 32:45 And when Moses made an end of speaking all these words to all Israel, 32:46 he said unto them: “Set your heart to all the words with which I testify to you this day; that you may charge your children with them to observe to do all the words of this law. 32:47 For it is no vain thing for you; because it is your life, and through this thing you shall prolong your days upon the land, where you are going over the Jordan to possess it.”

I am suggesting, in other words, that Deut 11:21 came to be seen as elaborating the anticipated outcome—length of days—that the inscribed amulet alluded to in 11:18 would bring about. Deuteronomy 32:47, in this view, was seen to elaborate a similar outcome for using the Song of Moses as a tefillin text, explaining the suitability for this use of the anomalous 4QPhyl N. So too for the Exodus passages – here the partial parallel to Deuteronomy 11:18 in Exodus 13:9, where the word memorialtakes the place of the word totafot, lends itself to the idea that an object described by this rare word might cause its wearer to be remembered by God, contributing to the wearer’s longevity.

The Protective Role of Mezuzot

My hypothesis for the development of tefillin practice, revolving as it does around the significance of Deut 11:21 and immediately prior verses, would apply just as readily to the significance of Deut 11:20 – “And you shall write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates.” Here the protective role of the mezuzah, within the narrative of the exodus from Egypt (in Exodus 12), could only have added to the idea that mezuzot might function as house amulets, also known from Mesopotamia and elsewhere.[18]

The Protective Function Embedded in the Halakhot of Tefillin

While the rabbis were generally reticent about any magical function for mitzvot, some halakhot can be explained as preserving traces of the protective function for tefillin and mezuzah. For this point to be clear, I need to first note that those who wore tefillin in the early rabbinic era apparently did so for the entire day, although not at night (all known ancient tefillin were tiny, which would have facilitated extended wear).

In the ancient world, women were associated with the home. One might surmise that women and infants, as well as males and older children (once night fell), would have been considered within the domain of the mezuzah more often than not, where there would have been no need for the protective function of tefillin. Perhaps for this reason, women and infants typically did not wear them – although in early rabbinic sources there seems nothing problematic about those women who did wear tefillin – nor did men typically wear them at night. These routines of practice were ultimately codified as halakhah.

The blanket exclusion of Shabbat tefillin practice can be explained in similar fashion. When at home, in the domain of the mezuzah, there would have been little reason for people to wear tefillin. Upon leaving the house, however, wearing them would have led to an immediate conflict with the Shabbat rules that prohibited “carrying” in public spaces – as clearly shown by Mishnah Shabbat 6:2. In a later stage of halakhic development the rabbis ultimately elected to ban tefillin wearing on Shabbat altogether.[19]


The archaeological evidence, together with consideration of various biblical passages and even of halakhah, suggests that tefillin were originally practiced as a length-of-days amulet. While we cannot be sure when this began, the ritual – in a form fairly similar to the one known today – already existed during the late Second Temple period, which witnessed the Jewish encounter with Hellenistic culture.[20] While the practice was uniquely Jewish, being grounded in interpretation of the Torah, it clearly parallels the practices of other cultures.


August 24, 2016


Last Updated

July 16, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Yehudah Cohn is a research associate at New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. He holds a D. Phil. in Oriental Studies from the University of Oxford and an M. A. from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Cohn is the author of Tangled Up in Text: Tefillin and the Ancient World and co-author (with Fergus Millar and Eyal Ben-Eliyahu) of a Handbook of Jewish Literature from Late Antiquity (135-700 CE).