Have you ever noticed or been puzzled by the word “Phylacteries” in the New Testament? Ever wondered what Christ was talking about in Mat 23:5? His words were “But all their works they do to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments”.
I had paid little notice to this word before, picturing in my mind that it was some sort of clothing item that the Pharisees wore. Not paying full attention to details in the Bible can, and have, had a major impact on the beliefs that are prevalent in the Christian congregations.
The “Pharisees & Scribes” who were wearing phylacteries mentioned by Yeshua (Jesus’ true name) would have looked something like this. The “Phylacteries” or “Tefillin” as it is called in Hebrew, is a small box which contains Scripture with a strap, which can be bound on the Head or the Arms.
The importance of this verse is in the fact that it sheds light on a major misunderstanding in Christianity. Which one, you ask? “It’s the common belief among Christians that the Scribes and Pharisees Kept the Old Testament Law, and that this is why Yeshua called them Hypocrites and white washed tombs – because the Old Law was done away”.
The problem with this understanding is that both biblically and historically, we have evidence that the Pharisees did not keep God’s Law. In fact, wearing “Phylacteries” was not a Commandment given by God. Then why did the Pharisees wear these things? Because it was part of their “Oral Law”, known as the “Traditions of the Elders” throughout the New Testament (Mat 15:2,3,6, Mar 7:3,8,9,13, Gal 1:14). Wearing “Phylacteries” was how they had interpreted Exo 13:9,16 & Deut 6:8, 11:18 which says that “God’s Word should be a sign upon our hands and between our eyes”. Obviously, this was a figure of speech to say “that we should do or obey as well as remember God’s Word”.
The Pharisaic Sect of Yeshua’s day had taken a piece of Scripture out of context and made a separate Law out of it. The “Oral Law” which is still in use today, known as the “Talmud” is strictly adhered to by Orthodox Jews around the world. Not only do they wear it, the “Talmud” provides strict laws on how to even put it on. (If you want to learn more about the Pharisees and their traditions, I recommend that you watch this video, brought to you by former Orthodox Jew – Nehemiah Gordon)
What does this mean? Are all Jews like Pharisees? Are all Pharisees alike? The picture of “Pharisees” and some times, even “Jews“, in a Western Christian mind, is that they were wicked, legalistic and nonspiritual people. This is hardly the case. We know that there were quite a lot of Pharisees who respected Yeshua, as well as some who believed in Him (Luk 13:31, Joh 9:16, Act 15:5). We should by no means generalize people. Furthermore, it is important to remember that Yeshua, His Disciples, His followers and even Apostle Paul, were all Jews.
The Orthodox Jews of today, still adhere to a plethora of extra laws (from the Talmud), thinking that it is genuinely what God expects from them. They are misguided, as much as the Christians who think the Law is done away in Christ. We must understand that not all Jews are like the Pharisees of Christ’s age. Consider the Karaite Jews who reject the Talmud and anything other than the Old Testament, and the Messianic Jews who believe in Yeshua.
The many persecutions which have fallen on the Jews have always happened because of this huge misunderstanding. A lot of people have persecuted “Jews” standing under Christ’s banner, making it impossible for them to except Yeshua as the prophesied Messiah.
What was the main Commandment which the Pharisees broke through their traditions?
God’s Word specifically instructs that no one can add or remove anything from God’s Law/Commandments.
Deu 4:2 Ye shall not add unto the word which I command you, neither shall ye diminish ought from it, that ye may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you.
Deu 12:32 What thing soever I command you, observe to do it: thou shalt not add thereto, nor diminish from it.
The Scriptures call anyone who adds to God’s Law, a Liar (Pro 30:6). This was one of the main concerns Yeshua had regarding the Pharisees, when He said “For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men”(Mar 7:8) & “Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? (Mat 15:3).
Are all traditions bad? Are all traditions sin? definitely not. But the moment we put “Tradition” over “God’s Commandments”, or teach “man made Traditions” as “God’s Law”, we are breaking His Words. This is why Yeshua said (quoting Isaiah 29:13)”But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men“(Mat 15:9) regarding the Pharisees.
Adding and Diminishing & the 2 Houses of Israel
If you know about Biblical History, you would know that the people “Israel” divided into 2 Kingdoms after the death of King Solomon. These 2 Kingdoms were called “The House of Judah” & “The House of Israel/Ephraim”. “The House of Israel” was carried away by Assyria and scattered in the nations with a promise of being regathered, while “The House of Judah” was exiled for 70 years in “Babylon” being let back into the land. (Please go to this link for more info) It is interesting to see how “the Jews” (House of Judah) add to God’s Law, through their various traditions and man-made laws written in the Talmud, while “the gentiles” (House of Ephraim) diminishes from God’s Law, saying it is done away and that they are free from it.
“Phylacteries” are a good reminder of checking our lives, our doctrines and our thoughts for anything that we may be adding or diminishing from our Creator’s Words. It is a call to really put His Words in our hearts and souls, binding them on our hands by being obedient to Him, that His Words may be always foremost in our minds (Deut 11:18), so that we do not turn to the left or to the right from them (Jos 23:6) choosing God and His Word alone in the midst of man-made commandments & traditions.