Phylacteries and

Borders of their Garments (Matt. 23)


In reprimanding the Pharisees, the Savior said:  "But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments" (Matthew 23:5).  What are phylacteries?  What are the borders of their garments? 



The Hebrew word for phylactery is tefillin.  In the following command, note that the Lord states that Israel is to keep the law before their eyes and heart.  As a sign they are to bind the law on their hand and between their eyes.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9; emphasis added.

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD:

And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.

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 gates.

Exodus 13:9, 16

9.  And it shall be for a sign unto thee upon thine hand, and for a memorial between thine eyes, that the LORD's law may be in thy mouth: for with a strong hand hath the LORD brought thee out of Egypt.

16. And it shall be for a token upon thine hand, and for frontlets between thine eyes: for by strength of hand the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt.

A tefllin is a literal representation of the Lord's command to bind the law on the hand and between the eyes.

In his excellent book, To Be a Jew, Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin describes what tefillin are:

The tefillin (translated phylacteries) consist of two small black boxes, containing small scrolls of parchment upon which are written four Biblical passages [Exodus 13:1-10; 13:11-16; Deut. 6:4-9; and 11:13-21].  These four passages from the Torah [five books of Moses] all include the commandment to don tefillin as a sign, as a symbol of Jewish faith and devotion.  Each of the black boxes comes with leather straps (Hebrew: retzuot) so designed as to enable one to be bound upon the hand and for the other to be worn above the forehead. (p. 145)

The following is a illustration from his book:


The following are pictures of a man donning on his tefillin before praying:


(Photo: Bruce Satterfield, Western Wall, Jerusalem)

Donning the hand tefillin.



(Photo: Bruce Satterfield, Western Wall, Jerusalem)

Donning the head tefillin.


Borders of the Garments

The phrase "borders of their garments" as reference to what is called in Hebrew the tallit or prayer shawls.  The Lord gave the following commandment to the children of Israel:


37 And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,

38 Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a ribband of blue:

39 And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the LORD, and do them; and that ye seek not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go a whoring:

40 That ye may remember, and do all my commandments, and be holy unto your God. (Numbers 15:37-40)


Rabbi Donnin says of this passage:

The commandment in [Numbers 15:37-40] calls for the attachment of fringes (tzitzit) to four-cornered garments as a reminder of all the commandments of the Lord ...

Garments not possessing four or more corners are not required to have the special fringes.   ....

Although in ancient times four-cornered garments or robes were common, the development of clothing not having four corners would have rendered this mitzvah [Heb. for commandment] totally obsolete, with the full sanction of the law.  To prevent the total disappearance of a mitzvah that possessed such great symbolic significance (since it serves as a reminder to observe all the commandments), the Sages encouraged the wearing of a specially-made four-cornered garments so as to provide the opportunity to observe and implement this commandment.

Says Maimonides: "Although one is not obligated to buy a garment and wrap himself in it just so as to provide it with fringes, it is not proper for a devout or pious person to exempt himself from observing this precept.  He should strive to wear a garment that requires fringes so as to perform this precept.  And during times of prayer, one should take special care to do so" (Hil. Tzitzit 3:11)

The tallit, a four-cornered robe with the required tzitzit, has thus become the garment traditionally worn by men during morning prayer services.  In English, it is commonly called a "prayer shawl."  (pp. 155-6)


The following is a diagram shows  two kinds of tallits.



Rabbi Donin says:

It is the fringes (tzitzit) on the four corners of the tallit that provide it with its religious significance.  The rest of its design, whether simple or elaborate, colorful or plain, rich in embroidered Jewish religious symbols or lacking them, is only incidental to its primary use for the observance of the mitzvah of "putting tzitzit on the borers of your garments so that you may look upon them and remember to do all the commandments of the Lord . . . ." (pp. 156-7)


The following picture is of religious Jews praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem having first donned both phylacteries and prayer shawls.


(Photo: Bruce Satterfield, Western Wall, Jerusalem)