A Memorial Before The Eyes
“Till the day break and the shadows retire, I will
Go to the mountain of myrrh and to the hill of
frankincense” (Wisdom 4: 6)
Remember God and His Mercies
Many of the numerous observances of Jewish Law were appointed by God to remind the people of their deliverance from Egypt. Sacrifices and ceremony, precept and counsel were to be performed while remembering the Lord their God Who with a strong hand and a stretched-out arm brought them out from that land of bondage and conducted them safely through the terrifying wilderness.
While reading the Law, the pious Jew could renew his memories of that great work of God’s mercy toward His chosen people, he could revive his confidence in God’s power by which He triumphed so signally over the enemies of His favoured children. But the Lord was not blinded by His regard for them; He was not unaware of their fickleness and obstinacy. Only the prayer of Moses had saved them many times from being destroyed, and the holy leader himself, worn out by their rebellious and incredulous attitude, became guilty of the fault that caused his exclusion from the land that God had promised to his people.
Knowing their inconstancy, the Lord gave a command that was to bring the memory of Him into their daily life.
“The LORD said to Moses,
“Speak to the Israelites and tell them that they and their
descendants must put tassels on the corners of their garments,
fastening each corner tassel with a violet cord.
When you use these tassels, let the sight of them remind you
to keep all the commandments of the LORD, without going
wantonly astray after the desires of your hearts and eyes.
Thus you will remember to keep all my commandments and
be holy to your God.
I, the LORD, am your God who, as God, brought you out of
Egypt that I, the LORD, may be your God.”
(Numbers 15:37 ― 41.)
And thus it was ordained that the Jew should remember God and His mercies, not only when reading the Law in the quiet of his home or when hearing it expounded by the rabbis in the synagogue, but even on the streets and in his place of business. St. Jerome tells us that the more devout among them put thorns in their fringes or tassels so that they might often receive sudden sharp reminders of the Lord God Who brought them out of slavery and gave their them His Law to observe.
Prayer-straps to Guard
It was these devout souls, no doubt, who began the custom of wearing the Tephelim or Phylacteries ― Tephelin, a Hebrew word meaning “prayer-straps” and Phylactery from a Greek word meaning “to guard.” These were pieces of parchment inscribed with texts of Scripture, which, when literally interpreted, made the strict Jew consider the wearing of them as part of the Law itself. The custom followed was this: Two small leather boxes were made ― one to be worn on the forehead between the eyes; the other on the left arm near the heart, both being attached by leather thongs. The one on the forehead had four compartments; the one on the arm only one. The purpose of this was to point out that the mind should leisurely and carefully meditate on each part of the four texts and that the heart should embrace and observe them all. At first they were worn only at morning prayers, reminding us of the morning meditation of the religious of our own day. But later they were worn throughout the day.
Jesus Wore Phylacteries and Prayer Shawl
Remembering certain words of Jesus, the careful but uninstructed reader of the Gospels may dismiss this custom as useless and even hypocritical. But it would be wrong thus to regard the beautiful example of grateful and devout Jews through many centuries. What Jesus condemned was hypocrisy or rather the hypocrites who with great pretentions neither meditated on nor loved the Law. What He condemned was only one of their forms of hypocrisy. The italicised words give His true meaning: “and all their works they do to be seen of men. For they make their phylacteries broad and enlarge their fringes.” (Matt. 23: 5.) He condemned here only the pride and ostentation of the Pharisees who strove to appear holier than others. Jesus Himself wore the fringes or tassel, as the Law required, and it was probably one of these that the Gentile woman, troubled with an issue’ of blood, touched and thereby obtained the cure of her infirmity. (Matt. 9: 20 ― 21.) It is most probable also that Jesus Himself wore the phylacteries, for they pointed only to a greater Deliverance, to be brought about by His Death, and they foreshadowed a more perfect Law, to be observed, not only through gratitude but, more especially, through love.
Here are the Scripture texts that inspired the devout among the Jews to originate the Phylacteries. The first is taken from the Book of Exodus:
The LORD spoke to Moses and said,
“Consecrate to me every first-born that opens the womb among
the Israelites, both of man and beast, for it belongs to me.”
Moses said to the people, “Remember this day on which you
came out of Egypt, that place of slavery. It was with a strong
hand that the LORD brought you away. Nothing made with
leaven must be eaten.
This day of your departure is in the month of Abib.
Therefore, it is in this month that you must celebrate this rite,
after the LORD, your God, has brought you into the land of the
Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Hivites and Jebusites, which he
swore to your fathers he would give you, a land flowing with
milk and honey.
For seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, and the seventh
day shall also be a festival to the LORD.
Only unleavened bread may be eaten during the seven days; no
leaven and nothing leavened may be found in all your territory.
On this day you shall explain to your son, ‘This is because of
what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.’
It shall be as a sign on your hand and as a reminder on your
forehead; thus the law of the LORD will ever be on your lips,
because with a strong hand the LORD brought you out of Egypt.
Therefore, you shall keep this prescribed rite at its appointed
time from year to year.
(Exodus 13: 1 ― 10)
The second follows immediately from the same chapter:
“When the LORD, your God, has brought you into the land of
the Canaanites, which he swore to you and your fathers he
would give you,
you shall dedicate to the LORD every son that opens the womb;
and all the male firstlings of your animals shall belong to the
Every first-born of an ass you shall redeem with a sheep. If you
do not redeem it, you shall break its neck. Every first-born son
you must redeem.
If your son should ask you later on, ‘What does this mean?’ you
shall tell him, ‘With a strong hand the LORD brought us out of
Egypt, that place of slavery.
When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the LORD killed
every first-born in the land of Egypt, every first-born of man and
of beast. That is why I sacrifice to the LORD everything of the
male sex that opens the womb, and why I redeem every
first-born of my sons.’
Let this, then, be as a sign on your hand and as a pendant on
your forehead: with a strong hand the LORD brought us out of
(Exodus 13: 11 ― 16)
The third is taken from the Book of Deuteronomy:
“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone!
Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God, with all your
heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.
Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today.
Drill them into your children. Speak of them at home and
abroad, whether you are busy or at rest.
Bind them at your wrist as a sign and let them be as a
pendant on your forehead.
Write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your gates.
(Deuteronomy 6: 4 ― 9)
The fourth is from the same book:
If, then, you truly heed my commandments which I enjoin on
you today, loving and serving the LORD, your God, with all
your heart and all your soul,
I will give the seasonal rain to your land, the early rain and
the late rain, that you may have your grain, wine and oil to
and I will bring forth grass in your fields for your animals.
Thus you may eat your fill.
But be careful lest your heart be so lured away that you serve
other gods and worship them.
For then the wrath of the LORD will flare up against you and
he will close up the heavens, so that no rain will fall, and the
soil will not yield its crops, and you will soon perish from the
good land he is giving you.
“Therefore, take these words of mine into your heart and soul.
Bind them at your wrist as a sign, and let them be a pendant
on your forehead.
Teach them to your children, speaking of them at home and
abroad, whether you are busy or at rest.
And write them on the doorposts of your houses and on your
so that, as long as the heavens are above the earth, you and
your children may live on in the land which the LORD swore
to your fathers he would give them.
(Deuteronomy 11: 13 ― 21)
A Saving Help
We can see what a beautiful custom this was and what a help it was to the really devout in remembering God and in keeping His Law. These texts brought to their mind thoughts of their redemption from the land where they were slaves, the fidelity of God in so wonderfully fulfilling His promises to their fathers, their obligation to tell their children of all God’s mercies, the Great Commandment of the love of God and the rewards given to those who remember Him, love Him and serve Him.
A Jewish Forerunner
The Jew with:
….. only a shadow of the good things to come, and not the
very image of them. (Hebrews 10: 1)
was moved to invent a way of keeping in mind all that went to make up the very soul of his religion. In the painful rite of circumcision, he was made a child of Abraham. As a disciple of Moses, he wore the fringes on his garments and devised the use of the Phylacteries, while he looked forward to Him Who was to:
wash his garments, his robe in the blood of grapes.”
(Genesis 49: 11.)
In these observances generations of devout Jews lived and died.
They held to these things with a firm faith and an unshaken hope.
They did not receive what had been promised but saw it and
greeted it from afar and acknowledged themselves to be
strangers and aliens on earth, (Hebrews 11: 13.)
A Christian Equivalent
To recall all this to Christian minds is equivalent to a reminder to those among them who have neither in their homes nor on their persons a Crucifix. The image of Jesus Crucified should he a memorial before the eyes and a sign in the hands for a remembrance of our Redemption — that work of His love of which the deliverance from Egypt was a shadow and figure. It holds forth the most solemn promise of God that He will lead us to a better land than this. We have already passed from the state of bondage to the Devil through the Red Sea of His Blood. Having this Sign of Salvation to put us in remembrance of the commandments of His Law (Wisdom 16: 6.), we can go forward with confidence on our journey through the wilderness of this world. If we look upon Him, all bitter things will become sweet (Exodus 15: 25.), and even the serpent, the Devil, will be powerless to bring us to irreversible death. (Exodus 21: 8.) In this desert land we shall draw waters with joy from the Saviour’s fountains and the most barren life will bear fruit. The Crucifix — this memorial before the eyes ― will indeed be a safeguard, a guard against, evil and a guard in the keeping of His Holy Law. In the Crucifix, the Christian beholds the fulfillment of these ancient mysteries. But he, too, can see in the same holy image the shadow of a great event to come.
Blessed be Jesus the Messiah who has redeemed the world
and who will return at the end of time to bring His Kingdom
to eternal perfection.
This article has been based entirely on part of a chapter from:
“Under His Shadow” ―
Devotional Studies in the Sacred Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ,
by the Reverend Francis Shea, C.P.
(Published by the Sign Press, Union City, 1931)
Only slight alterations were made to render it suitable for 21st Century
Internet use. For instance, a modern translation of the Scriptures
(the New American Bible) has been inserted to replace the old archaic
English (with the approval of the publishers).
Although long in the public domain, we pay tribute to this author and his very helpful retreat talk; and for his heartwarming respect for the Hebrew elements which have helped shape our Christian culture.
Readers not from a Catholic background may find it a helpful introduction to why their Catholic friends love to carry, hold, touch, look at and kiss a Crucifix. The practice has its origins in the Biblical incidents outlined above. Anyone wishing to understand this a little more, may like to read our devotional article, “A Visit to the Crucifix”.
Phylacteries and tassles / fringes / tzitzit
From the first days of the
Jesus, our Messiah, fulfilled
“If anyone wishes to come
We may try every means to
We look upon Him frequently in