When I was nine or ten, the rabbi at the conservative synagogue where I received my Jewish education asked me a simple question: “Shawn, do Karaites wear tefillin?”
I knew that I had never seen a set of tefillin anywhere near my Karaite community. But instead of saying “no,” I lied and told him that Karaites did wear tefillin. (Sorry, Rabbi!)
Looking back on that exchange – as I often do – I think I was just insecure that the Karaite interpretive tradition is different from the Rabbanite tradition.
Karaites are often accused of interpreting the Bible literally. But this isn’t correct. Karaites seek the peshat (or “plain meaning”) of any given verse. Sometimes the plain meaning is literal and sometimes it is figurative. But in all instances Karaites ask themselves a simple question: “How would the average Israelite have understood this commandment 3500 years ago?”
The issue of tefillin is a perfect example where Karaites understand passages metaphorically and Rabbanites understand them (rather) literally.
There are four “tefillin passages” in the Torah. (Ex. 13:9; Ex. 13:16; Deut. 6:8; Deut 11:18.) The four “tefillin passages” generally state that God’s commandments shall be upon our hands and between our eyes. [1.] In the Karaite tradition, we understand these verses to command us to keep the Torah near to us and to speak about it so that it steers our actions at all times. The Torah is our ornament, our crown jewel and our guidepost.
This is an amazing concept – so amazing that similar metaphors are enshrined in the Tanakh itself: “Listen, my son, to the teaching of your father and do not abandon the instruction [literally: Torah] of your mother; because it is a beautiful wreath for your head and a necklace upon your throat.” (Prv 1:8-9.)
In the Rabbinic tradition, wearing tefillin is a holy and important act. I remember the shock on the face of a Chabad rabbi (someone whom I’m actually quite fond of) when I recently expressed that I was of the opinion that Moses never wore tefillin.
I wasn’t actually trying to shock him or say anything offensive. I was just trying to answer his question honestly – more honestly than when I was first asked about Karaites and tefillin some 20+ years ago.
Today, I recognize that Karaites and Rabbanites (and other Jewish movements) have different interpretive traditions. And such differences should generally be embraced, as long as we’re all seeking an honest understanding of Tanakh. After all, the underlying concept of these four biblical verses is to hold God’s commandments – however we understand them – sacred.
* * *
 To be precise, the first two of the tefillin passages refer to our Exodus from Egypt; whereas the last two refer to the Torah (or verses from the Torah). The Karaite Korner has an excellent (and more detailed) explanation as to why Karaites understand these four passages figuratively.
12 Responses to Tefillin the Blanks
Absolutely brilliant Shawn! As a peshatist Jew myself, I often find myself in a similar situation: having to explain how the peshat isn’t necessarily the literal understanding. Oftentimes it’s quite the contrary.
This week I was having a conversation with a good friend who is a Rabbanite and he said he didn’t interpret a certain passage in a peshat way because the interpretation bordered more on the allegorical than on the literal. I tried to explain that he was still within the realms of peshat, but he couldn’t see it that way.
Have you ever thought about writing a book on the subject of what peshat actually means?
Yes! (But I think it will be part of the larger book I am hoping to put together.) (and thank you)
Great post, Shawn. A topic which is close to my heart, no pun intended. I have posted my thoughts regarding the meaning of tefillin and mezuzah at What the Bible Actually Says. I believe they expand on what you have written here.
I like the webcomic, did you draw it? That Kara’s a firecracker.
Excellent food for thought. (And no, I did not draw the characters. Shimra Starr Illustrations drew it.)
The rabbanites, in fact, interpret very metaphorically. The word ‘Tefillin’ does not appear. There is no room for literal interpretation when it does not appear. At least ‘Mezuzah/Mezuzot’ appears. Let’s not give them unwarranted credit. Moses wore tefillin? Please.
From a literary point of view, the biblical texts understood to require the wearing of tefillin seem to be a metaphor for keeping God’s will in one’s deeds (al yadekha) and thoughts (bein eynekha). This is the interpretation of one ancient Jewish source, Philo of Alexandria (late 1st c. BCE): “For the hand is the symbol of actions… And…justice is discerned everywhere as being close to the eyes.” Interestingly, Philo apparently held in a literal interpretation of mezuzot (Deut 6:9): “He ordains that those who have written out these things should afterwards affix them to every house…”. From what I understand, Karaites reject both the literal interpretation of tefillin as well as mezuzot.
Philo was a strong Hellenist, often given to metaphorical interpretations of biblical texts, and it is interesting to contrast his views with those of Josephus (late 1st. c. CE), who apparently understood tefillin to be material objects borne on the arms and forehead. Also, the Letter of Aristeas (2nd c. BCE), a Hellenistic (Alexandrian) Jewish apologetic text which predates Philo, also understands tefillin as material.
Tefillin were found both at Qumran – 27 parchment slips and 25 leather boxes, including examples of boxes with one compartment (for the hand) and four compartments (for the head) – and also in the Bar Kokhba caves, as well as at Nahal Se’elim and Wadi Murabba’at. Yadin (1969) noted that his examplar seemed to be constructed in a manner largely consistent with the halakhic regulations described in b. Shabbat 108a. Some of the Qumran tefillin contain the four halakhically prescribed passages plus some extra stuff, while others contain biblical passages not required by rabbinic law. Most of the Qumran tefillin were of a sectarian (i.e. non-Pharisaic) type, but two (8Q Phyl I and 4Q Phyl D-F) were completely consistent with Pharisaic practices.
A better conclusion may be that there was variety in Pharisaic tefillin specifications, hence all the Qumran units were of Pharisaic provenance.
While Yedidyah haLewi (Philo) may have been a “Hellenist”, one must bear in mind that Yosef ben Matityah haKohen (Josephus) was interpreting the Torah through Pharisaic-tinted spectacles, which easily accounts for his apparent accord with the tefillin interpretation.
There is some uncertainty as to the century in which the Letter of Aristeas was authored in; it could have been in the 1st or the 2nd c. BCE.
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Just as Rabbinicals invented tefillin, what would they come up with in regards to Joshua’s instructions given by God:
1:8 This book of the law shall not depart out of thy mouth; but thou shalt meditate therein day and night, that thou mayest observe to do according to all that is written therein: for then thou shalt make thy way prosperous, and then thou shalt have good success.
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