A Study of “Frontlets” (Deuteronomy 6:8)

The following was a short exegetical essay for Dr. Richard E. Averbeck’s Pentateuch and Historical Books course at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

As the exegete enters the ancient Biblical world, background information of various sorts (e.g., cultural, social, political, religious, etc.) often plays a key role in understanding and interpreting the text properly. When confronted with foreign material in the Biblical text, the interpreter does well to investigate. One such example of foreign material occurs in Deuteronomy 6:8 and the mention of phylacteries.

CHALOT describes טוֹטָפֹת as a sign placed on one’s hands or arms (123). Here in Deuteronomy 6:8, its location is specified as בֵּ֥ין עֵינֶֽיךָ (“between your eyes”); however, Merrill clarifies that בֵּ֥ין עֵינֶֽיךָ is a way of referring to what one might call the forehead (168). These “phylacteries,” as they were eventually understood,[1] were small boxes containing portions of scripture (e.g., Exod. 13:9, 16; Deut. 6:8; and 11:18) written on small pieces of parchment. These black boxes were fastened to one’s upper left arm and/or forehead by black straps (Achtemeier, 795). Although Merrill understands the instructions of verse 8 as figurative, he describes its literal practice as follows:

“In postbiblical Judaism and to the present day a miniature box containing verses of the Torah (Exod 13:1-10; 13:11-16; Deut 6:4-9; and Deut 11:13-21) were placed inside the four chambers of the box, the whole being known as the tepillin (“prayers”) or phylactery (cf. Matt 23:5).” (168).

Concerning when began the practice of following Deuteronomy 6:8’s instruction literally in terms of these phylacteries, no definitive evidence exists. However, phylacteries found at Qumran, Jesus’ statement in Matthew 23:5, and mention of phylacteries in rabbinic literature (e.g., Megilla 4:8; Berakot 14b-15a), suggest their prevalence by the Second Temple period (Achtemeier, 795-796). Used only two other times in the Hebrew Old Testament (Ex 13:16; Deut 11:18), in each incident טוֹטָפֹתis used to connote a means of remembering God’s acts or words. On the other hand, Merrill believes that the purpose of binding these words to one’s forehead (not to be interpreted literally in his opinion, however) was to identify oneself with the covenant community (168). Achtmeier notes that, although originally intended for educational purposes, many came to believe that these phylacteries possessed spiritual protective powers (Achtemeier, 795-796).

Whether or not Deuteronomy 6:8’s instruction was intended to be taken literally or not is beyond the scope of this paper. However, many have done so and thus phylacteries have emerged. If nothing else, this practice provides a vivid illustration of the inward intention of this text—a constant awareness of God’s law.

[1] The word “phylactery” is derived from the Greek translation of the Hebrew word טוֹטָפֹת(Craigie, 171).