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Re-Paganizing Phylacteries and Mezuzah: An Example of Retrogressive Religion

 

Rabbi Kamin’s interesting article on the subject of Halloween reminded me of many of my own childhood experiences.

Is Halloween “permitted”? Is the children’s ritual of “Trick and Treating,” considered forbidden because it emulates the practices of the non-Jewish world?

Many years ago, a learned colleague of my from Yeshiva University once mentioned to his Young Israel congregation in Binghamton, NY, something that I have never forgotten. He claimed to have come across an Italian responsa dating back to the 17th century that claimed that the ritual had no religious significance whatsoever, and he concluded that there was nothing Halachically forbidden for Jewish children to dress up and collect candies on the night of Halloween.

Unfortunately, I have never been able to locate the source of this mysterious responsa. I have attempted many times to look it up in the Bar Illan University database, but with no success. However, the logic of the responsa makes sense to me. Rabbinic scholars have also pointed out the pagan roots of Halloween, which has its roots

Many Jews seem to forget that many practices in Jewish tradition had their origins in pagan culture and beliefs. For example, the practice of wearing tefillon (not to be confused with Teflon) originated in the pagan world of Babylonian magic. In one issue of the Bible and Review Magazine, the author showed a picture of a Babylonian prostitute wearing golden phylacteries! The word “tefillin” is better known in English as “phylacteries,” which derives from the Greek word φυλακτήριον (phylaktērion), meaning “defenses,” as in charms and amulets.

One late 19th century scholar correctly noted:

  • [Among the Jews] It was customary to tie certain kinds of phylacteries into a knot. Reference to this ancient practice is found in certain Assyrian talismans, now in the British Museum. Following is a translation of one of them: “Hea says: ‘Go, my son! take a woman’s kerchief, bind it round thy right hand; loose it from the left hand. Knot it with seven knots; do so twice. Sprinkle it with bright wine; bind it round the head of the sick man. Bind it round his hands and feet, like manacles and fetters; sit down on his bed; sprinkle water over him. He shall hear the voice of Hea. Darkness shall protect him, and Marduk, eldest son of Heaven, shall find him a happy habitation.’”[1]

The famous Assyriologist A. H. Sayce (1846-1933) cites another reference that may explain why Jews wind the tefillin straps seven times:

  • Even medical science, however, was invaded by superstition. In place of trying the doctor’s prescription, a patient often had the choice allowed him of having recourse to charms and exorcisms. Thus the medical work itself permits him to ‘place an incantation on the big toe of the left foot and cause it to remain’ there, the incantation being as follows: ‘O wind, my mother, wind, wind, the handmaid of the gods art thou; O wind among the storm-birds; yea, the water dost thou make stream down, and with the gods thy brothers liftest up the glory of thy wisdom.’ At other times a witch or sorceress was called in, and told to ‘ bind a cord twice seven times, binding it on the sick man’s neck and on his feet like fetters, and while he lies in his bed to pour pure water over him.’ Instead of the knotted cord [121] verses from a sacred book might be employed, just as phylacteries were, and still are, among the Jews. Thus we read: ‘In the night-time let a verse from a good tablet be placed on the head of the sick man in bed.’ The word translated ‘verse’ is masal, the Hebrew mashal, which literally signifies a ‘proverb’ or ‘parable.’ It is curious to find the witch by the side of the wizard in Babylonia. ‘The wise woman,’ however, was held in great repute there, and just as the witches of Europe were supposed to fly through the air on a broomstick so it was believed that the witches of Babylonia could perform the same feat with the help of a wooden staff.

Historians of ancient Near Eastern culture and religion have taught us much about the practice of phylacteries among the Assyrian and Babylonian civilizations. In the marketplace of ideals, every culture has influenced its neighboring culture and religion. The ancient peoples of Egypt also were phylacteries as protective symbols of the deity. Cultures around the world used phylacteries for a variety of magical purposes.

So, what does all of this prove? Nobody has ever lived in a cultural vacuum. Subsequent Jewish tradition managed to detach the pagan roots of this custom. Maimonides heaps criticism upon anyone who thinks the mezuzah and tefillin are designed to ward off evil spirits. In a rationalistic manner, he writes:

  • It is a common custom to write [God's name,] Shaddai, on the outside of a mezuzah opposite the empty space left between the two passages. There is no difficulty in this, since [the addition is made] outside. Those, however, who write the names of angels, other sacred names, verses, or forms, on the inside [of a mezuzah] are among those who do not have a portion in the world to come. Not only do these fools nullify the mitzvah, but furthermore, they make from a great mitzvah [which reflects] the unity of the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, the love of Him, and the service of Him, a talisman for their own benefit. They, in their foolish conception, think that this will help them regarding the vanities of the world. [3]

Elsewhere he adds:

  • A person who whispers an incantation over a wound and then recites a verse from the Torah, who recites a verse over a child so that he will not become scared, or who places a Torah scroll or tefillin over a baby so that it will sleep, is considered to be a soothsayer or one who cast spells. Furthermore, such people are included among those who deny the Torah, because they relate to the words of Torah as if they are cures for the body, when, in fact, they are cures for the soul, as [Proverbs 3:22] states: “And they shall be life for your soul.”[4]

Maimonides sums up the essential purpose of the ritual:

  • For as long as one wears them on his head and arm, he is obliged to be humble  and God-fearing; he will not allow himself to be carried away by laughter or idle talk, nor indulge in evil thoughts, but must turn his attention to the words of truth and justice.[5]

Toward the end of his life, Maimonides reaffirms the purpose of the mezuzah in his Guide for the Perplexed.  He notes that the express goal of this precept and others aims to instill a love for God that produces a God-consciousness that is permanent:

  • The precepts of the ninth class are those enumerated in the Section on Love. Their reason is obvious. The actions prescribed by them serve to remind us continually of God, and of our duty to fear and to love Him, to keep all His commandments, and to believe concerning God that which every religious person must believe. This class includes the laws of Prayer, Reading of Shema, Grace, and duties connected with these, Blessing of the priests, Tefillin, Mezuzah, Zizit, acquiring a scroll of the Law, and reading in it at certain times. The performance of all these precepts inculcates into our heart useful lessons. All this is clear, and a further explanation is superfluous, as being a mere repetition and nothing else.

Despite Maimonides’ attempt to redefine the precept of mezuzah and tefillin, subsequent rabbis like R. Menachem Mendel Schnersohn (a.k.a. Lubavitcher Rebbe) did his best to restore the precepts of tefillin and mezuzah as modern day talismans and amulets for the modern era.

Throughout his lengthy career as the leader of the Chabad movement, Rabbi Schnersohn always instructed his followers to check their tefillin and mezuzot when they were ill or had any number of problems in their lives. Schnersohn’s followers believed that hundreds and thousands of Israeli soldiers’ lives were saved due to the tefillin campaign the Lubavitcher Rebbe initiated during the six-day war. This brought protection and salvation to the soldiers.  The Rebbe’s theological position became internationally known shortly after the terrorist attack of the northern town of Ma’alot on May 15st, 1974. The massacre of seventeen children was due to the fact the school building did not have any “kosher” mezuzahs.

But then again, Rabbi Schnersohn did believe that the sun revolves around the earth! [6]

Although R. Schenersohn’s point of view has some antecedent in the Talmud [7] and especially in the mystical writings of the Kabbalah, one thing is clear. Maimonides’ attempt to recast Jewish rituals in a rationalistic format evidently fell upon deaf ears and those the angst of the Kabbalah and its legion of superstitious followers managed to re-paganize the rituals of mezuzah and tefillin, reducing them once again to talismans and protective amulets. This particular attitude is a grim reminder that many people still live in a demon-haunted world–even in the 21st century.

Still and all, I think Chabad does a fine job helping Jews reconnect to their heritage through the mitzvah of tefillon–provided they do so without the medieval superstitions.



Notes:

[1] Robert Means Lawrence, Primitive Psychotherapy and Quackery (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1910), 24.

[2] A. H. Sayce, Assyria Its Princes, Priests and People (London: The Religious Tract Society, New Edition edition, 1926), 121-122.

Chapter IV, Art, Literature, and Science.

[3] MT Hilchot Mezuzah 5:4.

[4] MT Hilchot Avodat Kochavim 11:11.

[5] Hilchot Tefillin 4:25-26.

[6] It would be remarkable if in the modern era, one could still find a geocentric advocate for Ptolemaic science, yet the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, R. Menachem Mendel Schneersohn, advocated just such a position. Here is an extraordinary letter the Rebbe wrote (September 16, 1968):

  • I am in receipt of your letter of September 10th, in which you touch upon the question of whether the sun revolves around the earth or vice versa, in view of the fact that you heard from a college student that the truth is that the earth revolves around the sun. It greatly surprises me that, according to your letter, the student declared that science has resolved that the earth revolves around the sun. The surprising thing is that a person making such a declaration would be about one half century behind the times insofar as the position of modern science is concerned. This belief is completely refuted by the theory of Relativity, which has been accepted by all scientists as the basis for all the branches of science. One of the basic elements of this theory is that when two bodies in space are in motion relative to one another (actually the theory was initiated on the basis of the movements of stars, planets, the earth, etc.), science declares with absolute certainty that from the scientific point of view both possibilities are equally valid, namely that the earth revolves around the sun, or the sun revolves around the earth. Herman Branover, Joseph Ginsburg, and Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (trans. Arnie Gotfryd) Mind over Matter: The Lubavitcher Rebbe on Science, Technology and Medicine (Jerusalem: Shamir 2003), 75-77.

[7] JT Peah 1:1; BT Menachot 43b;  BT Avodah Zarah 11a; See also Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Deut 20:5, “And the officers shall speak with the people, saying: Who is the man who hath builded a new house, and hath not set fast its door_posts to complete it? let him go and return to his house, lest through sin he be slain in the battle, and another man complete it.” The Rebbe presumed that the failure to set up a kosher mezuzah led to the death of the soldier. This is obviously a very twisted interpretation imposed upon the text.

 

 



Discussion

  1. Gnarlodious  November 8, 2013

    Thank you for posting this iconoclastic insight and a nice picture of the rebbe wearing a totaf on his forehead. Type “totaf” into Wikipedia and you get a picture of the pharaoh wearing a snake on his forehead. Now, I am sure the rebbe was a righteous Jew and doesn’t imitate the pharaoh’s divine snake intentionally, but whenever I see a rabbi wearing a totaf I can’t help but envision the pharaoh’s snake. Not a very edifying association but I can’t make it go away.

    (reply)
    • admin  December 1, 2013

      I will be posting the Totaf; many thanks for the reference!

      (reply)
  2. Yochanan Lavie  December 1, 2013

    Isn’t a talisman a guy who sells tallesim?

    (reply)
  3. Yochanan Lavie  December 1, 2013

    Isn’t a talisman a guy who sells tallesim on the Lower East Side?

    (reply)

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