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They ware in their foreheads scrowles of parchment, wherein
were written the tenne commaundements given by God to Moses,
which they called philaterias.
JOHN MARBECK, Book of Notes and Common-Places: 1581.
There were Phylacteries for the head, reaching from one ear to
the other, and tied behind with a thong; and Phylacteries for
the hand, fastened upon the left arme, above the elbow, on the
inside, so that it might be near the heart.
THOMAS GODWIN, Moses and Aaron: 1616.
Among the Greeks of the first century A. D. the word phylacterion (from
+phylassein+, to guard, and equivalent to the Roman amuletum)
signified a portable charm, which was believed to afford protection
against disease and evil spirits. Such charms, in their simplest form,
consisted of rolls of parchment or ribbon, inscribed with magical
spells, and were hung around the wearer's neck, or attached to the hem
of his garment. Among the Hebrews and early Christians similar
protectives were used, although the latter substituted Gospel texts for
the magic formulas. Some authorities have maintained that phylacteries
were not strictly amulets, but it is certain that they were held in
superstitious regard. More elaborate phylacteries consisted of
tiny leathern boxes, cubical in form, and containing four sections of
the Mosaic Law, written on parchment and folded in the skin of a clean
beast. These were carried either upon the head or left arm.
The custom of wearing portions of the Gospels, suspended from the neck,
was common in the East. Pope Gregory the Great (540-604) sent to
Theodelinda, Queen of the Lombards, a box containing a copy of the
Gospels, as a charm against the evil spirits which beset children.
The origin of this practice is found in Deuteronomy VI, 6-9: "And these
words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou
shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them
when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and
when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them
for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine
eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy
In the rabbinical Targum, the Aramaic translation of the Bible, canto
VIII, written about A. D. 500, occurs this passage: "The congregation of
Israel hath said, I am chosen above all people, because I bind the
Phylacteries on my left hand and on my head, and the scroll is fixed on
the right side of my door, the third part of which is opposite my
bed-room, that the evil spirits may not have power to hurt me."
Thus it would appear that the saying quoted by Grimm, "Christians place
their faith in words, the Jews in precious stones, and the Pagans in
herbs," is not wholly correct, for the Jews added to a trust in stones,
a faith in the long, embroidered, text-inscribed phylactery.
At the beginning of the Christian era, the belief was general among the
Jews and pagans, that by means of magical formulas the evil influence of
the Devil and demons could be successfully resisted. Therefore the
Hebrew exorcists found easily a fertile soil for the cultivation of
their supernatural art. This, says a writer in the "Jewish
Encyclopaedia," was the atmosphere in which Christianity arose, with the
claim of healing all that were oppressed of the Devil. The name of Jesus
became the power by which the host of Satan was to be overcome. But
pharisaism diagnosed the disease of the age differently, and insisted
that the observance of the Law was the best prophylactic against
disease. The wearing of phylacteries indicates that they were regarded
by the Jews as amulets. Belief in the power of the Law became the
antidote against what may be termed "Satanophobia," a pessimistic and
habitual dread of devils and demons.
The wearing of phylacteries is a fundamental principle of the Jewish
religion. They are to be preserved with the greatest care. Indeed, the
Rabbis assert that the single precept of the phylacteries is equal in
value to all the commandments. The Talmud says: "Whoever has the
phylacteries bound to his head and arm, and the fringes thrown over his
garments, and the Mezuza fixed on his door-post, is safe from sin;
for these are excellent memorials, and the angels secure him from sin;
as it is written, 'The angel of the Lord encampeth round about them that
fear him, and delivereth them.'" Maimonides, the Jewish
philosopher of the twelfth century, extolled the sacred influence of the
phylacteries. For as long as one wears them on his head and arm, he is
obliged to be meek and God-fearing, and must not suffer himself to be
carried away by laughter or idle talk, nor indulge in evil thoughts, but
must turn his attention to the words of truth and uprightness.
In order to emphasize their religious zeal, the Pharisees and scribes,
in our Lord's time, were wont to "make broad their phylacteries."
Josephus, the historian of the first century, speaks of the wearing of
phylacteries, as an established and recognized custom. According to the
Cabala, they were significant of the wisdom and greatness of God, and
their use distinguished the cultured and pious from the common people,
who were ignorant of the Law.
Great care was taken in the preparation of phylacteries, and no
Christian, apostate, or woman was allowed to write the inscriptions upon
them. Even at the present time, there are Jews in Russia and Poland, who
wear them during the whole day.
It was customary to tie certain kinds of phylacteries into a knot.
Reference to this ancient practice is found in certain Assyrian
talismans, now in the British Museum. Following is a translation of one
of them: "Hea says: 'Go, my son! take a woman's kerchief, bind it round
thy right hand; loose it from the left hand. Knot it with seven knots;
do so twice. Sprinkle it with bright wine; bind it round the head of the
sick man. Bind it round his hands and feet, like manacles and fetters;
sit down on his bed; sprinkle water over him. He shall hear the voice of
Hea. Darkness shall protect him, and Marduk, eldest son of Heaven, shall
find him a happy habitation.'"
While the practice of wearing phylacteries may not have originated in a
superstitious belief in their virtues as "appurtenances to make prayers
more powerful," it would appear that they came to be regarded not only
as protective charms, which is indicated by their name, but also as
magical remedies, having occult healing properties. Their power
was supposed to inhere in the written words, enclosed in the small
At the present day, verses from the Scriptures, the Koran, and other
sacred writings are sometimes worn upon the person and are also placed
upon horses or camels, by Arabs, Turks, Grecians, and Italians, with the
avowed purpose of averting malignant glances.
Next: The Power Of Words