Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Divine Embodiment and the Mysteries of Phylacteries, Fringes, and the Rosary

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Divine Embodiment and the Mysteries of Phylacteries, Fringes, and the Rosary

Article excerpt

The Gospel of Matthew (23:5) depicts Jesus as inveighing against "those who make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long." (1) Matthew's familiarity with the rabbinic injunction to don phylacteries and garments with fringes leads one to wonder whether he had worn them himself at one time as an observant Jew. Moreover, his mockery of those making their phylacteries broad and their fringes long echoes a similar caution in the Talmud against this show of arrogance and ostentation, thereby strengthening that assumption. (2) Matthew's reputation as the most Jewish of the Gospels remains a source of debate among scholars. Some are of the opinion that the pro-Jewish and anti-Jewish passages that are there reflect his personal struggle over his abandonment of rabbinic Judaism. Others assert that the pro-Jewish sentiments in the text are the work of one redactor and the hostile pronouncements that of another. (3)

The term "phylacteries" or tefillin (pl.), which are worn by traditional male Jews to this very day, is derived from the Hebrew tefillah (sing.), meaning prayer. They consist of two black boxes, one for the arm, usually the left, and one for the forehead. Both contain a series of biblical verses from Ex. 13:1-10 and from Dt. 6:4-9 and 1 1:13-21. Exodus 13:9 states: "And they shall serve you as sign on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead in order that the teaching of the Lord may be in your mouth that with a mighty hand the Lord freed you from Egypt." This injunction is repeated in the other citations as well. In Deuteronomy it is part of a selection in which the Shema, "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One" (Dt. 6:4), the central tenet of Judaism, appears for the first time in the Hebrew Bible. Subsequently, the Deuteronomic passages were incorporated into the liturgy of the daily worship service in the synagogue.

The placement of the phylacteries conveys their special purpose. That of the arm is a reminder that God delivered the Israelites from Egypt with an outstretched arm. It is also to be situated as close to the heart as possible, the repository of one's feelings, indicating love and devotion. Since the forehead is seen as the site of one's intellect and capacity for understanding, it is where the phylactery of the head is to be worn. Their location on one's body satisfies both the affective and cognitive components of human knowledge and comprehension. The Talmud (BT Menachot 35b) suggests that God also wears phylacteries and that the knot of the straps connected to the phylactery of the forehead refers to the back of the divine head as revealed to Moses in Ex. 33:23. "Then I will take my hand away and you will see My back; but My face must not be seen." Fulfilling these obligations leads to more than the literal adherence to the biblical commandment that they be a sign upon your hand and reminder on your forehead. They afford the wearer a direct physical identification with the divine Presence on a daily basis. (4)

This personal connection is then cemented by winding the straps attached to the phylactery of the arm around it seven times, corresponding to the seven blessings recited during a Jewish wedding ceremony, then three more times around one's middle finger, where the wedding ring is placed, forming the Hebrew letters, shin, daled, and yod, which comprise the Hebrew word "Shadday" or Almighty. As this is done, the verses from Hos. 2:19-20 are recited: "I will betroth you to myself forever, I will betroth you to myself in righteousness and in justice, in kindness and in mercy, I will betroth you to myself in faithfulness and you shall know the Lord." The ceremony affirms the eternality of the relationship between God and the Jewish people, whatever the latter's faults and transgressions. Not only is this union's irreversibility reiterated each day, but its consummation is experienced as well.

The special status of the phylacteries is further emphasized by their inclusion within the rabbinic category known as "Tashmishey Kedusha," that is, ritual objects that, along with their containers or receptacles, are of such sanctity that they must be treated with care and respect even when no longer usable due to age or deterioration. …

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