There seems to be some confusion among the Messianic/Hebrew Roots/Nazarene communities regarding Deuteronomy 6:8. Most Torah Keppers know by now that Deuteronomy 6:4-9 is known as the Shema and V’ahavta (or in general, just combined as the Shema). These verses are a significant section of the prayers recited in Judaism every day. Further, most Torah Keepers similarly recite the verses daily, as they are quoted directly from Scripture. What appears to confuse people, however, is verse 8, which reads, “8You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead.”
Many people already know the way that Judaism dictates that this commandment be kept; they make tefillin – also called phylacteries – in order to keep this commandment in the most literal sense. Tefillin are little boxes containing the Hebrew inscription of this commandment – much like the Mezzuzah – which are bound to the left hand (or right, if you're left-handed) and forehead using leather straps. In this way it is taught that one is fulfilling the commandment to “bind tefillin” as Deuteronomy 6:8 would seem to indicate.
But is this the way it is intended? Few people are confused by verse 9, which says to write the words on your doorposts. People use mezzuzot (mezzuzah is singular, mezzuzot is plural) which is a small wooden or metal container that houses the scroll with the Hebrew writing on it. (I would note that others also take after the Samaritans, who actually write or paint the Hebrew words of the Shema above their doors). So if it is so straightforward to place the written words – in the form of a mezzuzah – on your doorpost, should it not be equally as simple to use tefillin to bind the words on your hands and forehead? Yet why, then, do we see so many Torah Keepers with mezzuzot, but so very few utilizing tefillin? Let’s consider a few applications here in context.
To begin, it should be noted that YHWH never specified HOW these commandments are to be kept. By this I mean that He never gave directions for constructing mezzuzot or tefillin. Personally, I am of the opinion that verse 9 is very straightforward: write the words on your doorposts, and I believe the Samaritans get this part right. I believe using a mezzuzah is a very creative and expressive way to fulfill this commandment. But whether one chooses to use a mezzuzah or to simply write the words on the doorposts/gates, either is sufficient, as they both fulfill the command: the have the words written. So what about tefillin? It would seem that these commandments go together, would it not? But in actuality, this is a bit more difficult.
The Hebrew word used for “bind” is qashar, meaning to bind together or conspire. It is actually used fewer times in the literal sense (to physically bind) than it is in the allegorical sense. It is most often used to mean “conspire” such as when Saul accuses the priests of Nob of conspiring against him in 1 Samuel 22:8. But this word is also used in 1 Samuel 18:1 to mean “bound” or “knit” together, when it says Jonathan was “knit” to the soul of David. In the physical sense it is used in Genesis 38:28 when the midwife “tied” the scarlet thread on the newborn’s hand. The word is again used in Genesis 44:30 when Judah pleads for Benjamin, saying that his father’s life was “bound to the lad’s life.” So we see that qashar can be a literal binding in the sense of tying or knitting, or it can be a figure of speech, such as binding together to conspire against someone. So the real question then becomes this: is the usage of qashar in Deuteronomy 6:8 literal or spiritual?
Consider, if you will for a moment, the command to write them on the doorposts. Very straightforward command, right? Simply write them on the doorposts and that’s it. Should we use a pencil or a pen? Paint or perhaps a permanent marker? Does it matter? YHWH did not specify, He simply said to write them there. The word for “write” that is used is kathab which occurs over 200 times in the Hebrew text, and nearly every time it appears it is translated as “write.” It sometimes appears as “sign” in the sense of a signature, such as on a deed (Jeremiah 32:10). Regardless, it is a verb, so it means the action of writing takes place. Qashar is also a verb meaning that an action has to take place. However, in the sense of “binding” something on the hand, could it be that it is simply a metaphor? We know it is used in such a way in 1 Samuel 18 and again in Genesis 44:30, so is it not possible that it is being used in the same way here?
Let’s derail for a moment and look at a related topic. Throughout Scripture, hands are associated with work. There are a number of Psalms (such as 138, 8, 92 and so on) that use the term “works of Your hands.” The prophets use the term as well (Jeremiah 25, Haggai 2, Micah 5 etc.) in their writings. The Torah uses it in Deuteronomy 2 and 16, among other places. So we see there are many references to the “works of the hands” all throughout the Tanakh. Now in Deuteronomy 6:8 the phrase translated as “on your forehead” is actually incorrect. It is actually the Hebrew phrase “bein eynekha” meaning “between eyes.” So it should be “8You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals between your eyes." This is because something “right between your eyes” is at the forefront of your field of view. It is what you see, no matter where you turn your head; whether you look up or down, left or right.
So, to “bind” this all together, let’s recap what we have so far. You write the words on the doorposts. Then, you “bind them as a sign” on your hand and between your eyes. This implies that they are to be at the forefront of your face, always looking towards them in any direction. They are on your hands because all of the “works of your hands” should be done in accordance with the commandments.
As Paul wrote in Colossians 3:23, “23Whatever you do, do your work heartily, as for YHWH rather than for men.” Anything you do, you should do within the boundaries of the commandments, and do it with YHWH's words at the front. It should be done to glorify Him, in a way that does glorify Him.
But perhaps you think I'm over-spiritualizing what should be a physical command? Consider the following:
Exodus 13:9, “9And it shall serve as a sign to you on your hand, and as a reminder on your forehead, that the Torah of YHWH may be in your mouth; for with a powerful hand YHWH brought you out of Egypt.”
This is immediately following the Passover story. Here we see the same terminology as we do in Deuteronomy 6. A sign on the hand, and a reminder on the forehead (or really, between the eyes). So what is being referenced here? If tefillin are to be made and bound on the forehead and hand, what is this verse talking about? If you go back and read verses 1-8 you will see that it is talking about the ordinance of Passover being a sign of what YHWH did. So in actuality, this is saying that Passover should be a sign on our hands, and a reminder between our eyes. Should we bind a leather box full of Passover onto our hands and foreheads? How is that even possible? Clearly it is undisputed that the sign of Passover is not to be a literal binding on the hand and head, but rather AS A SIGN. In the same way that the Sabbath is a sign (Exodus 31:13).
Let us now consider a little something extra. To be fair, we will look at both sides. Matthew 23:1-7 shows us yet another showdown between Yeshua and some of the Pharisees. In verse 5 He says that they “broaden the phylacteries and make the tassels long.” In the context given by the rest of the chapter, we see He is yet again calling them hypocrites for teaching one thing, yet doing another. Now the pro-tefillin side could indeed argue that Yeshua never said phylacteries were wrong, or that they weren’t to be worn. In context, He mentions them alongside tsitsiyot (tassels). Indeed, the Gospels never state whether Yeshua Himself even wore them, nor do they state that He did not. We can see it was obviously their tradition by that time, since the Pharisees were already doing it. However, Yeshua never makes mention of them again, nor does He teach regarding them. Concerning tsitsiyot, we know for a fact He wore those, yet no evidence has surfaced of Him wearing tefillin. Perhaps it is simply a missing detail, or perhaps it is because He never did wear them. (Personally, I find it more likely that He did, as He lived like a Jew of His time. In all their accusations against Him, the Pharisees never condemned Yeshua for breaking with tradition; they condemned His disciples for doing so (Matt. 15 / Mark 7)).
Remember, too, that Judaism generally teaches the commandments in the more literal sense, while sometimes missing the larger, deeper, spiritual sense. They taught all the Laws along with a “circumcision of the flesh.” Which is good, as it's correct; but they often forsook the “circumcision of the heart” that was meant to accompany it. That is why YHWH said that He would take out their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). The stone contains the commands, but without the heart and the spirit it is like faith without works: dead. Circumcision of the flesh is useless without the circumcision of the heart, which was commanded not only from the Apostolic Writings (Romans 2:29) but also from the Torah (Deuteronomy 10:6) and the Prophets (Jeremiah 4:4).
Another small point to be made lies in the grammar for the Hebrew sentence structure of verse 8. In Hebrew, separate words are not used for “the” or “for” and so on. Instead, prefixes added to the word. The word “name” in Hebrew is the word “shem.” However, to say “the name” you add the prefix “ha” to the beginning of the word, thus rendering "ha’shem." The same goes for the word “to” or “for,” except the prefix for it is the Hebrew letter lamed. So in Deuteronomy 6:8, we have the word “totafot” for “frontals.” However, at the beginning of the word is a lamed, making the word “l’totafot” meaning “for frontals.” We also see the lamed prefix on “owt” the word used for “sign.” This means that the words are to be “for a sign” on the hand and “for frontals.”
Finally, we must remember that we were never given instructions for making tefillin. True, we are never told how to tie tsitsiyot either, though we know the important details regarding them. That is, they must be threads (tassels) that contain a blue cord. However we are not even given that much instruction regarding tefillin. Consider also Deuteronomy 6:6 which says, “These words which I command you today shall be on your heart.” Does that mean that we have to physically put words on our heart? Surely no one would suggest that: heart surgery seems a bit out of the scope of keeping that command. Again, as we have seen, the term for “bind” can be literal or allegorical (spiritual). If it is literal, then we are missing many details. If it is allegorical, then we can easily see how we should have His Words on our hearts, at the forefront of our minds and in all our works.
I pray this study has blessed you.
Be Berean. Shalom.
Note: for more reading on the practice of wearing tefillin in Judaism, I recommend studing Tractate Shabbt 12a in the Babylonian Talmud.