Phylacteries and Passover

04/03/2015 10:18 am ET | Updated Jun 03, 2015

The Old Testament has two different commands for using what are called phylacteries (Hebrew, tefillin): one in Deuteronomy, the other in Exodus. Observant Jews place verses from the commands into these two small, black leather boxes and wear them strapped to the forehead and left arm during morning prayer. We have no idea what they originally looked like, and today they are just symbolic. However, it's possible that at one time they had a technical purpose.


How is this related to Passover?

The first command in Deuteronomy 6 includes that part of the morning prayer called the Sh'ma, meaning "hear." It starts with "Sh'ma Yisroel," "Hear, oh Israel," and continues, "The Lord is our God. The Lord is one ... and there will be these words, which I command you today on your heart" (Deuteronomy 6:4-6). It follows with the command to "bind them [the words] for a sign on your hand and ... for frontlets between your eyes" (Deuteronomy 6:8).

Here's the interesting point: Deuteronomy 6 uses the Hebrew word totafote for frontlets while the Exodus command uses zeekawrone.

Exodus 13 orders the eating of unleavened bread for seven days, a feast to the Lord, and declares that "it will be to you for a sign on your hand and a memorial [zeekawrone] between your eyes in order that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth, for with a strong hand He has brought you out of Egypt" (Exodus 13:6-9).

NOTE: When there is a difference of terms like this, I and many scholars try to determine which writing predates the other. Deuteronomy is a recap thought to have been written around the 700s to 600s BCE, hundreds of years later than the Bible reports the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. The command in Exodus describes the exact time the Israelites are escaping from slavery in Egypt at the time it is happening. It also gives important details like the rules for Passover. In this case, Exodus' zeekawrone is the original.

But is "memorial" the correct translation for zeekawrone?

The word zeekerone comes from the verb zawchar, which does mean "to remember," but it also means "to mention." In fact, the primary meanings of its zakaru, its cognate in the Babylonian and Assyrian, are:

  • "to declare, make mention"
  • "to invoke," as to invoke "the name of a deity"
  • "to name, proclaim"
  • "to mention, to invoke, to name"(1)

Even its Egyptian cognate, secha, means "mention!"

Given these and other related communication terms, Exodus' original description may indicate that frontlets were for communicating (declaring, invoking, proclaiming, mentioning) with the deity, especially since they were to be utilized "in order that the law of the Lord may be in your mouth."

(Now it is true that totafote is also used a few verses later in Exodus 13:16, but this is almost an exact repeat of Exodus 13:9, signaling that it was probably added by someone who only had access to Deuteronomy and never knew Exodus' communicating aspect of zeekerone.)

So right at the beginning of the exodus from Egypt, when the laws of Passover were being laid out, one of those laws might have related to a device whose communicative use was long forgotten and other explanations were substituted by writers who had no conception of what "in your mouth" actually meant.

1. Chicago Assyrian Dictionary, vol. 21, 17-18.

Roger D. Isaacs is the author of Talking With God: The Radioactive Ark of the Testimony. Communication Through It. Protection From It. To order your copy, visit