Tefillin, or phylacteries as they are known to many Christian readers, are a vital part of Jewish devotion. The practice of tefillin comes from four scriptures in the Torah, which speak of “a sign for you on your hand and a memorial on your forehead”:
There are at least three ways of looking at these passages:
1. Perhaps they are figurative, rather than literal. They mean the Torah should be close to the heart (mind/soul) and hand (vehicle of our actions).
2. Perhaps they refer to an ancient custom of amulets or jewelry worn with sayings relating to the gods, but which the Torah takes over with a requirement to wear Torah words on amulets and jewelry.
3. Or perhaps the custom of placing God’s words on scrolls in a leather box is as close to literally fulfilling these commands as we can get. And since this is the accepted tradition, we in Messianic Judaism should pay attention and comply. I should point out that tefillin are considered to be a mitzvah not only in Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, but also in Reform (and I would imagine Reconstructionist).
The great news is that a new and very needed book is coming out on this topic for Messianic Jewish readers. The producers and publishers are none other than First Fruits of Zion (ffoz.org), a Torah-teaching organization that is in the midst of producing a small library of much-needed volumes for our movement.
FFOZ is going about this project in a commendable manner. They are obtaining feedback during the development of these resources from a broad spectrum of people involved in Messianic Judaism and philo-Semitic Christianity. I am a volunteer reviewer myself, trying to bring the perspective of my circles of Messianic Judaism to bear on my reviews and critiques.
I am in the circle of the UMJC (umjc.net) / Hashivenu (hashivenu.org) / MJRC (ourrabbis.org) / MJTI (mjti.com) branch of Messianic Judaism. And we do not agree completely with FFOZ about certain definitions and boundaries. Yet I, speaking only for myself, am greatly encouraged by the rapid maturing and excellent scholarship at FFOZ. Besides that, I have come to count FFOZ’s director, Boaz Michael, as a good friend.
I have a review copy and the final version, due out in a few months, will have many improvements, but here are some features that should interest you in this new work. I think these features may persuade you it is a worthy tool for personal and congregational development of the mitzvah of laying tefillin:
— There is a section on the devotional significance of laying tefillin and I found it very moving as it draws from many streams of rabbinic and even Hasidic tradition.
— There is a concise, clear, thoroughly documented section on the halakhah of laying tefillin.
— The final book will have diagrams and how-to’s to make it easy to understand and practice.
— There is a fascinating discussion of the history of tefillin, including an appendix on the tefillin found at Qumran from 2,000 years ago.
— The book is very short, but has a ton of footnotes. The review copy is only 40 pages and I’d imagine the final book will be similarly short. So this is not something people will find a chore to read.
— The book deals with what must be the two most important questions for our movement:
1. Did Yeshua lay tefillin?
2. Is it acceptable for non-Jews to lay tefillin?
The FFOZ staff, primarily author Toby Janicki have done an amazing job. It is my prayer that many Jews, returning to their Jewish identity after the confusion of Christian influences and so on, will return to the mitzvah of laying tefillin. It is my prayer that Messianic Jewish leaders will use this resource or some resource to restore to our synagogue members the tradition of Israel about how to have a sign and a memorial on the head and hand. I know many leaders who lay tefillin, but I wonder if we are teaching our people to do so.