“You shall bind them as a sign on your arm, they shall be for ornaments between your eyes.”
The practice of phylacteries
Practically speaking, this verse commands the donning of phylacteries. This daily practice is still done by all Jewish males to this very day. The phylacteries are boxes made of hardened leather that contain small parchment scrolls inscribed with the words of the four passages in the Bible that mention the commandment to wear them, including this passage, Deuteronomy 6:4-9.
What this means is that every day, a Jewish man begins his day by binding the word of God that proclaims his faith upon his hand and head. Morning prayers are then said while wearing the phylacteries, unless it is a sabbath or festival day. The reason for this is that these are not days of work. We are not engaging in labors of the hand, or making efforts to change the world around us on these days. The phylacteries symbolize that our faith and devotion to God guide us as we engage in our daily work in this world.
You shall vs They shall
There is a nuance in this verse that is evident in both the English translation as well as the original Hebrew but can easily go unnoticed. The instruction to bind the phylacteries to the arm in the first half of the verse is phrased as a command, “You shall bind them…” But there is no second-person command in the second half of the verse. The verse does not say, “you shall place them as ornaments between your eyes.” The placement of the phylacteries on the head is not worded as a second-person commandment or instruction. The subject of the statement is the ornaments. The verse seems to be saying that the phylacteries will become “ornaments between your eyes” on their own.
To sum up, the binding of the phylacteries on the arm is stated as a commandment. The subject of the statement is “You”:
You shall bind them as a sign on your arm
The binding of the phylacteries on the head is not worded as a commandment. The subject of the statement is “they;” i.e., the phylacteries:
They shall be for ornaments between your eyes
What can we learn from this discrepancy between the two parts of this verse?
How we act vs. How we see
I believe that this linguistic nuance teaches us a psychological lesson about how we live out our faith. When it comes to modifying our behavior, we change ourselves by discipline. We make commitments to change. We habituate ourselves to patterns of behavior through choice and conviction. In time, these changes become second nature. But the decision to act according to the dictates of the word of God is a conscious one that we make.
How we think and see the world, on the other hand, is more difficult to consciously control. One can’t simply decide to think differently and immediately inoculate oneself against thoughts and attitudes that are inconsistent with God’s truth. Changing how we “see” is a process that takes time and is often the long-term result of choices that we implement to change our behavior. As a result of acting and living differently, we begin to see the world differently as well.
Perhaps this is the lesson of our verse. In addition to the practical commandment to wear phylacteries, the grammar and conjugation of the verse teach us a lesson about how we become filled with greater consciousness of God.
The arm represents action. The eyes represent how we think and understand the world. You shall bind them as a sign on your arm – discipline and modify your behavior. Make decisions to behave in a manner that is consistent with faith in the one God. As a result, they shall be for ornaments between your eyes. In other words, if we accomplish the first half of the verse, the second half of the verse will be the result.
If we make conscious choices to govern our behavior by faith in God, the result is that we will begin to see the world through eyes that reflect that faith.
This article was taken from Rabbi Pesach Wolicki’s new book, Verses for Zion. Verses for Zion offers a profound exploration of devotional Bible teachings, intricately woven around the land, people, and God of Israel. Each page is a journey through history and faith, illuminating biblical narratives with insightful interpretations and spiritual wisdom. Click here to order your copy of Verses for Zion now.
Rabbi Pesach Wolicki serves as Executive Director of Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation, and he is cohost of the Shoulder to Shoulder podcast
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