Contributed by Rabbi Geoffrey W. Dennis
Two leather boxes with straps containing biblical verses, which are bound to the brow and left bicep during morning and afternoon prayers. They are meant to be worn as an "ot," a sign or reminder of God's covenant with Israel. The fact that some early post-biblical literature call tefillin kamiaot, "amulets," points to the idea that many perceived them as objects of power.
Tefillin is the one religious article most mentioned in rituals for mystical ascent and for summoning angels. Safed mystics thought that the wearing of tefillin was a prerequisite for being possessed by an ibbur, a beneficent spirit. Beyond the general potential for tefillin to serve as amulets and talismans, tales of miraculous sets of tefillin also appear in Jewish literature. These items gain their wondrous power either because they were previously owned by a righteous person, or because they have supernal origins, like being a gift from Elijah.
During a time of persecution, one rabbi wore his tefillin despite the prohibition. When officers came to arrest him, he concealed his phylacteries in his hands. When the authorities demanded to see what he was concealing, the tefillin turned into doves.1
Article copyright © 2004 Geoffrey Dennis.