Tefillin and Mezuzah, Lawrence H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia 1994.


Qumran Phylactery (Tefillin)

Qumran Phylactery (Tefillin)

Central to the religious life described in talmudic sources are tefillin and mezuzah. The tefillin, usually called phylacteries in English (a misnomer derived from the Greek word meaning “amulet”), are leather boxes containing parchments, each with certain biblical passages. The boxes are attached with leather thongs to the head and arm. The mezuzah (plural, mezuzot) is a similar parchment enclosed in a container and is attached to the right doorpost of doors and entryways. Previous to the discovery of the Qumran corpus there was much debate about the dating and extent of these practices in ancient Israel. The finding of large numbers of tefillin and mezuzot at Qumran has certainly shown that these practices date back at least to Hasmonaean times. But we still have questions about which groups practiced these commandments and how.

In dealing with the tefillin, we need to discuss several separate issues- how the leather boxes enclosing the scriptural texts were constructed, which passages were placed in the boxes, and how these passages were written.

In construction, the Qumran tefillin are generally similar to those known from rabbinic halakhah and traditional Jewish practice. The head tefillin, comprising four compartments, consists of a cube with its strap passing immediately below the cube. Each of the compartments contains one piece of parchment on which is written one or (in the case of some Qumran tefillin) more biblical passages. The arm tefillin contains passages all of which are written on one parchment enclosed in a single compartment. The arm tefillin, worn on the forearm, is arranged differently from the head tefillin, consisting of a cube sitting atop a rectangular base, the strap passing through the rectangle at its upper end. (In contrast, both head and arm tefillin today consist of cubes resting on rectangular bases.) In both head and arm tefillin, the leather compartment is stitched closed. All of the tefillin are made of blackened leather with the hair side facing out.

Everything described so far appears to have been acceptable both to the sectarians at Qumran, who certainly used these tefillin, and to the Pharisees, if we can judge by what the later Rabbis required. But such is not the case regarding what the tefillin contained. Virtually all the tefillin found at Qumran contain the four cardinal passages that were understood to mention tefillin—the same ones required by rabbinic law later on- Exodus 13-1–10, Exodus 11–16, Deuteronomy 6-4–9, and Deuteronomy 11-13–21. We can assume that at least for the Pharisees and the sectarians, these passages were required in Second Temple times. In addition, many of the tefillin contain other passages as well.

Rabbinic tradition testifies to disputes over the order of the passages enclosed in the tefillin. The evidence of the Qumran tefillin as a whole reveals fluidity in this regard- different phylacteries follow different sequences. We find the same situation in the Bar Kokhba caves, although here we find no additional passages besides the required ones. It seems that in Second Temple times, the order was not yet fixed as rigidly as it is today. And we cannot establish whether the tefillin from Qumran followed the order of the two major types known from later times as Rashi or Rabbenu Tam, named after the protagonists who continued this argument into the medieval period.

Because the Rabbis forbade insertion of additional passages to those required, scholars have theorized that those tefillin found at Qumran containing only required passages are Pharisaic-type tefillin. The Qumran sectarian tefillin are those which contain additional passages. Although this conclusion seems plausible, we have no way of proving such a contention.

When we examine how the Qumran tefillin passages are written we discover that the letters are not formed according to the halakhot found in later rabbinic texts, although corrections and other aspects of writing generally do follow rabbinic law. We cannot be sure whether this is because these laws did not yet exist, even among Pharisaic Jews, or because the sectarian users of these tefillin observed practices different from those of the Pharisaic-rabbinic movement.

These same findings about the formation of letters also apply to the biblical scrolls and mezuzot from Qumran. Since we now know that the biblical scrolls represent various communities in Israel during this period, we can conclude that these scribal regulations were either not yet in force or were not widely observed. If that were the case, then the tefillin from Qumran would be typical of those used in this period, even by Pharisees.

These tefillin raise another interesting issue- Only twenty to twenty-five have been found at Qumran. According to rabbinic sources, tefillin were not originally worn by all Jews, despite the Pharisaic-rabbinic claim that the Torah requires it. With time, however, more and more Jews began to wear them. Our specimens, then, probably date from a period before all Jews wore tefillin, which accounts for the relatively small number found at Qumran. But it is also possible that the small size and the fragility of the tefillin explain why a large number of specimens would not have survived.

A small number of mezuzot have also been found at Qumran. We learn from these that the same passages required by later rabbinic halakhah were also required here, namely Deuteronomy 6-4–9 and 11-13–21—the first two paragraphs of the Shema. But the Qumran mezuzah texts have some additional material, for example, the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20-1–14, Deuteronomy 5-6–18).

Again, we cannot be certain from the small number of samples how widely mezuzot were used by Jews then. All we can establish is that some Jews observed this commandment in the manner required by later tradition. The Rabbis constantly discussed the issue of additional passages, which some mezuzot contained.

The liturgy and ritual of rabbinic Judaism have roots in the traditions of the Second Commonwealth period, which the mishnaic Rabbis inherited. More than a century before the Destruction of the Temple, organized liturgical practices already were in place, at least among those Jews whose texts have survived among the manuscripts of the Qumran library. Prayer was becoming increasingly important. Purification rituals were being observed. We can document that tefillin and mezuzot were used in that early period. By the time the Temple was destroyed, bringing to a close the age of sacrifice, the mishnaic sages, drawing on inherited traditions, began to standardize and develop the system of prayer and ritual embodied in the Jewish prayer book and in the life of Torah as it came to be understood by generations of Jews.

Our discussion now turns from the contemporary life of Qumran Jews to their vision of the End of Days. Indeed, we will see that the sect practiced its unique way of life in large measure as preparation for the soon-to-dawn messianic era.

Pages 305-312

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