The Jewish customs of phylacteries and tassels may seem foreign and somewhat mysterious to many Christians. What are they? Why are they Jewish customs?
Jesus mentions both phylacteries and tassels in Matthew 23. Because they are mentioned in a context that is critical to the scribes and Pharisees, we might get the impression that Jesus disapproves of phylacteries and tassels. But the point Jesus is making is not the custom itself; he is objecting to insincerity and pretentiousness.
“The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. Therefore pay attention to what they tell you and do it. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach.They tie up heavy loads, hard to carry, and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing even to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by people, for they make their phylacteries wide and their tassels long.” (Matthew 23:2–5 NET)
In the immediately following verses, Jesus describes our very human tendency to seek attention and to be treated with elevated honor— wouldn't we all “love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues”? Jesus is no more opposed to phylacteries and tassels than he is to banquets and synagogues— these customs are not the point he is making.
Jesus himself wore tassels. His tassels are mentioned four times in Scripture— Matthew 9:20; 14:36; and Mark 6:56.
“Wherever He would go, into villages, towns, or the country, they laid the sick in the marketplaces and begged Him that they might touch just the tassel of His robe. And everyone who touched it was made well.” (Mark 6:56 HCSB)
The word tassel used in this HCSB version is the translation for the Greek word kraspedon.
Many English Bible versions unhelpfully use hem, border or fringe to translate kraspedon. The ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament— the Septuagint— uses kraspedon as the word for the tassels mentioned in the Torah.
“Speak to the children of Israel: Tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a blue thread in the tassels of the corners. And you shall have the tassel, that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of the LORD and do them” (Numbers 15:38–39 NKJV)
“You shall make yourself tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself.” (Deuteronomy 22:12 ESV)
Naturally, Jesus followed the instructions in the Torah— he wore tassels and was ever mindful of the commandments of the Lord. These tassels are called tzitzit in Hebrew. Today, torah observant Jews wear tzitzit attached to the four corners of the tallit prayer shawl and on tallit katan undergarment.
(Tzitzit, CC BY-SA 3.0, Source in Wikimedia)
The custom of wearing phylacteries is derived from the following texts in the Torah.
“And it shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes, that the law of the LORD may be in your mouth. For with a strong hand the LORD has brought you out of Egypt.” (Exodus 13:9 ESV)
“Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead,...” (Deuteronomy 6:8 NRSV)
“Therefore impress these My words upon your very heart: bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead,...” (Deuteronomy 11:18 JPS)
Phylacteries are called tefillin in Hebrew. They are small, black leather boxes containing small pieces of parchment on which a small portion of the Torah is written. They are worn by Torah observant Jews during morning prayers.
(Tefillin, Photo by Black Stripe, CC BY-SA 3.0, Source in Wikimedia)
The rituals of another religion may seem strange— it is tempting to look negatively on them. We should resist that temptation. Jesus wore tzitzit; it is very likely that he also wore tefillin. These customs have their origins in Scripture and they are meaningful when practiced for their intended purpose— to “remember all the commandments of the LORD and do them” and “that the law of the LORD may be in your mouth”. These symbols are not an amulet or talisman— they are not intended to be mere decorations or “good luck charms”. It would be culturally disrespectful to wear them insincerely— separate from the people and the Torah observance that they signify.
(Man wearing a tallit katan with tzitzit tassels. Photo by Gilabrand, CC BY 3.0, Source in Wikimedia)
(Rabbi Shalom Nagar. He is wearing tefillin on his forehead. Photo by Boidem, Source in Wikimedia)
(Video— The meaning of tefillin in the heritage of a Jewish family.)
More Information on Tefillin and Tzitzit can be found at Wikipedia.