Summary: Jewish people wore/wear the tefillin (or phylacteries) to remind them of their relationship to God. There are lessons from the tefillin for Christians as well.
1. Mendel’s Tefillin
As the Nazis forced Jews into the death camps in WWII, they stripped their captives of even their most meager possessions. The Tefillin were rare ans precious commodities in the camps.
Mendel’s Tefillin were confiscated as soon as he arrived at Auschwitz. Even in the demanding environment of the death camps, he wanted to fulfill the command to wear them. He used daily food rations to bribe a Polish camp worker to steal a pair of Tefillin for him. The plan worked but the gentile had inadvertently brought him two for the arm and none for the head. To acquire the head Tefillin he had to pay another day’s ration of food.
Secretly Mendel wore the Tefillin for a few minutes every day. He shared them with any man in the camp who wanted to obey the commandment. It was a risky thing to do. One day a Jewish man borrowed them and turned them over to a German guard.
Despite the risk, Mendel would greet arriving Jews through the barbed wire fence and ask if they had Tefillin. “Pass them to us,” he would say, “they will not let you keep them.” Finally, one of the new prisoners did just that.
Again Mendel wore his Tefillin a few minutes each day and made them available to any who would keep the commandment. Meanwhile he began to work on a second pair using scraps of leather that he collected around the camp. No one understood for even if he was able to get enough leather to construct the boxes and straps he would not have the parchments for the scriptures that went inside.
One day a camp guard noticed a man borrowing Mendel’s Tefillin. He ordered the entire barracks to gather in a circle around a fire. He demanded that the owner of the Tefillin step forward and toss them into the fire. Mendel stepped forward and threw the makeshift Tefillin into the flames. The German had no way of knowing that these were the decoy pair he had made for such an occasion.
Mendel and his co-conspirators were still passing the real ones around, taking turns keeping the commandment, even on the day Auschwitz was liberated. (Tefillin by Toby Janicki, pp. 4-6)
My question is, Why would people risk their lives for a few pieces of leather straps and two sealed leather cubes?
2. Midrash Tehillim 21 – R. Tanchuma
“The Messiah will come for no other purpose than to teach the nations of the earth 30 precepts; such as those of the booth, the palm-branch, and the Tefillin.”
3. Matthew 23.1-7
a. Coupled with Tzitzit/Tallit
b. Worn by Pharisees (made broad by plaiting instead of hanging the straps from the head)
c. Worn by Yeshua (Jesus)
1) Yeshua (Jesus) criticized the manner of wearing the Tefillin, not the wearing – similar to the act of almsgiving in Matthew 6.2
2) If he had not worn them, he would have been criticized by the same people who criticized the way he observed Sabbath.
4. Composition of the Tefillin:
Straps/Four-Chambered Boxes containing these scriptures: