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In this blogpost the contention is made, based on many rabbinic sources, that unfortunately the observance of the miswa of tefillin was weakly observed during various historical periods. The author of the post has his own theory for what caused a revival in observance (the influence of Lurianic kabbalah). Earlier however, in Michael Levi Rodkinson's History of the Talmud (p. 31), it is suggested that a shift in widespread observance was a reaction to Karaite denial that tefillin are intended by the Torah (Ex. 13:9; 13:6; Deut. 6:8; 11:18):

The effects of Karaism are also traceable in some religious practices, which had not been usual among the people of ancient times. Thus Phylacteries, which it had not been customary to use, in spite of the literal interpretation of the Talmud of the passage " and thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes," (Deut. vi. 8) ; perhaps for the reason that Hillel had said: "Leave Israel alone; if they are not prophets, they are children of prophets," (Pesachim); for after all, the arguments of the Talmud in favor of the literalness of that passage, the people felt that it was only a figurative expression; and the Talmud itself prohibited the use of phylacteries to the people, permitting it only to con-firmed scholars. But when the Karaites interpreted the passage figuratively, the Gaonim permitted the use of Tephilin to the people also, to show their difference from the Karaites.

The notion that there were those that mistakenly believed that tefillin are solely the province of scholars, can be demonstrated by the responsum of R. Sherira Gaon (cited in the abovementioned blogpost). The idea that certain practices were prescribed or strengthened as response to Karaism I don't find altogether unique either (such as some suggest as the basis for the consumption of chulent/hamin, or the recitation of bameh madliqin on Friday night, etc.). However that the Geonim sought to bolster the practice of wearing tefillin specifically as a hedge against Karaism seems to me to be a unique claim. Does anyone know where Rodkinson got this idea from? Is there any support for it? Do any other scholars (traditional or academic) discuss it?

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    I'd be weary of Rodkinson's writings. One scholar put it well, that given his record, he can be considered a "scoundrel". Among his many fraudulent misdeeds, he often presented ideas that were unsourced. In this answer I mentioned that Rodkinson claimed that the Karaites falsified the Yerushalmi.
    – Harel13
    Jan 18 at 4:58
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    I later looked into the matter more and it seems that what Rodkinson wrote was, other than likely being based on earlier haskalic ideas, was mostly reactionary to an ideological break between Maskilim and Karaites in the late 19th century. There was a need by some Maskilim to go back and smear Karaites' name retroactively. And why not smear rabbis along the way?
    – Harel13
    Jan 18 at 4:58
  • @Harel13 thanks for the context! I came across his work incidentally and the biases of the era are eminently present (as you well point out). Yet at the same time I suspect that there may be some valuable contributions - it just requires a bit of discernment while sifting through the chaff. Personally, I do not see this particular claim as necessarily a smear against rabbinic Judaism. Putting renewed rabbinic effort into encouraging observance of a miswa that is weak in the hands of the masses at a time when that particular miswa is under siege kinda makes sense, no? Jan 18 at 13:46
  • Depends how you look at it. Some (such as Maskilim) might say that using the Rabbinic-Karaite schism as leverage to spread and enforce Rabbinic authority on the masses paints the rabbis in a negative light. Rather than let the masses follow more natural (again, per Maskilim) interpretations of the Torah, the rabbis used the reality to continue imposing their will on the unknowing population. Not for nothing, the early Maskilim saw the Karaites as ideological allies (until said schism when they realized they were not allies).
    – Harel13
    Jan 18 at 14:03
  • @Harel13 I hear what you are saying, but if we extract and isolate the issue from Maskilic polemics and try to look at it objectively (as if such a thing is truly possible lol) then we may come to a similar conclusion on such matters, just without the venom. Where perhaps they may have seen an "imposition of will on an unknowing population" we may see Hakhamim judiciously guiding their communities. I'm not saying I know such to have been the case here, I am however open to the possibility. In any case, I thank you for your input - your contributions and insights are always top notch! Jan 18 at 15:44

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I have to disagree with the claim being made. I can cite specific reasons why their claim would be incorrect.

Firstly, the idea that tefillin usage wasn't a common Jewish practice until Karaism simply isn't accurate. It's possible that due to the costs of materials it wasn't something the everyday Jew could easily participate in. Hence why you cite how the Rabbinum restricted their use to those who had the ability to use them appropriately and with care. They likely were extremely costly items and they needed to ensure they were protected and used with restriction. Even today the cost of tefillin is quite an investment. Yet we live at a time where this article is more affordable and accessible than it has ever been. It shouldn't be a surprise that in ancient times a person living on the most basic of basics couldn't afford them.

That doesn't mean they were uncommon in terms of use in religious practice. That just means the Rabbinum excused everyday Jews from a mitzvah they otherwise could not perform on their limited income.

Secondly, I'm sure you've heard of Qumran (the location of the Qumran caves where they found the dead sea scrolls)

There were multiple types of scrolls found in these cave systems. One of these cave systems (Caves 4a and 4b) contained 21 tefillin and 7 mezuzot)

An example of the tefillin found (Notice it still contains scrolls)

This is important for two reasons.

  1. It was found in abundance. They didn't find a single tefillin, they found 21 of them. That implies these were an everyday item and being used widely since so many were found.
  2. Archeological materials only really exist for items and things which were common. This point is specific to the science of how things get preserved. Finding scrolls and materials from ancient times isn't easy. These items need to be preserved under unique natural circumstances which prevent their degradation. Rare items are almost never found because there are fewer of them in existence. They have a lower chance of undergoing those unique preservation circumstances to protect them. Common things are around in greater abundance which means they have a higher chance of being preserved. It's like playing lottery with 1 ticket vs playing lottery with 200,000 tickets. Your chances are greater.

Think about what is most commonly found in archeological digs.

  • Food remains or pottery
  • Clothing or fabric remains
  • Tools or weapon remains
  • Human remains

These are extremely abundant things. It makes sense we would find them in archeological digs.

The core of his argument is based on an assumption. That assumption is Jews weren't doing something because they didn't believe it to be important. It only became important when they began competing with a parallel Jewish system which rejected Oral Torah.

How many ancient Israelites do you think were koshering their kitchens? It very likely was not a common issue in everyday life because nobody had the capacity to renovate the small area of their dwelling where they cooked. That doesn't mean they didn't take kashrut seriously.

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    Organic (food and fabric) remains aren't common findings.
    – Harel13
    Jan 18 at 7:32
  • @Michael I truly appreciate the time you've taken to try to answer. That said, regarding 1) I think it is possible to say that the miswa was certainly valued but was widely esteemed by the unlearned lay as a practice mostly reserved for the pious and learned. Cost/scarcity certainly could have led to this. I'm not sure how this discounts the possibility of pushing for stronger observance of this miswa - especially when our opponents wanted to claim it wasn't a miswa altogether. Jan 18 at 13:37
  • Regarding 2) Yes, we have material evidence that tefillin was in use going back to the late 2nd Temple period. That doesn't really speak however to how widely used it was in practice, nor does it address a possible increase in usage post-Karaism (many centuries later). Jan 18 at 13:37

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