59. Learning About Prayer from the Jewish Culture

Karl D Coke

Phylacteries, called in Hebrew: T’FILLIN

When Jewish men pray, they wear two boxes containing Scriptures. One is worn on the forehead and the other is strapped to the left biceps with a long leather strap. The verses of Scripture inside the boxes are: Exodus 13:1-10, 11-16, Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and Deuteronomy 11:13-21. The boxes are called T’FILLIN in Hebrew. T’FILLIN is usually translated “Phylacteries.” T’FILLIN is two leather boxes containing these hand written Scriptures. The leather boxes are bound by black straps on the left arm (with box inside the biceps next to the heart) wrapped seven times towards the hand, then wrapped upon the hand to form the Hebrew word SHADDAI. The second one is placed on the head so that the box lays upon the forehead (next to the mind).

The passage mentioned from Exodus calls the T’FILLIN a memorial”. It does not require that they be bound, as it merely says, “and they shall be”. The command is taken literally, not figuratively, due to Song of Solomon 8:6 which says, ‘Set me as a seal upon thy heart and as a seal upon thine arm”.

“T’FILLIN” comes from the Hebrew root word PALAL which means to pray. PALAL is not used in the Bible in its simple root form. It is used as nouns. In these derived forms it has the meaning of JUDGING. This is a derivation from the idea of cutting or deciding. The primary idea of this word is to roll or to revolve, hence to make even by rolling. It means to level with a roller, hence to lay even a cause or to arbitrate. It carries the idea of judging or to execute judgement. It can be used for thinking or “supposing” as in Genesis 48:11. Generally, it means to intercede, to supplicate or to pray. Proper prayer seeks to awaken God’s favour.

The fairly extensive Old Testament use of PALAL (over 60 occurrences) gives the word the uniform sense of “to pray”. Twenty-five times it is used for both sung and spoken prayer. It is the root verb for the word T’FILLIN (phylacteries) worn by Jewish men when they pray.

Only of a man who prays can it be said, “he lives”. What constitutes the greatness of a people is that God is near to them and answers their prayers. One who truly prays has for God the value of a whole person. One should approach God in prayer with purity and penitence and prepared to confess sins. One should pray voluntarily and not only when driven by necessity. Enforced prayer is worthless. God answers our prayers only in the manner profitable to us. Praying is not only profitable – it is necessary to the process of man living with his God.

The mechanics of prayer are beautifully revealed in Daniel 6:10-11. The following ten items are clearly shown from this passage:

1. Prayer took place in spite of man’s decree to not pray.

2. Prayer took place in Daniel’s home.

3. Prayer took place in Daniel’s upstairs room.

4. Prayer took place with the window open.

5. Prayer took place facing Jerusalem.

6. Prayer took place three times each day.

7. Prayer took place with Daniel on his knees.

8. Prayer took place with thanks to his God.

9. Prayer took place as it had been done before.

10. Prayer took place asking God for help.

Prayer Shawl, called in Hebrew: Tallith

The TALLITH is the Jewish prayer shawl. Originally, the word TALLITH meant “gown” or “cloak”. It is a rectangular mantle that looks like a blanket. It has been worn since ancient times by Jewish men when they pray. It is worn by men during morning prayers and during all Day of Atonement services. Before putting on the prayer shawl, the following benediction is recited:

“Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the universe, Who has sanctified us by Thy commandments, and hast commanded us to wrap ourselves in the fringed garment.” When the TALLITH is put on, the head is first covered with it and the four corners thrown over the left shoulder. After a short pause, the four corners are allowed to fall back into their original position on each side.

The original commandment to wear a prayer shawl (given to the Israelites by God) is Numbers 15:37-41. They were to place a tassel in each of the four corners of the prayer shawl. In each tassel was to be one wool thread dyed in blue. Archaeologists have long known from ancient writings that the purple (blue) dyes were produced by extraction of the hypobranchial glands of the Mediterranean gastropod mollusks. It became worth its weight in gold. It took over 3,387,000 mollusks, hand drilled, to produce a pound of dye. Cleopatra’s boat had a purple sail. Nero issued an edict in the first century A.D. making the dye the prerogative of the emperor. Aaron, the High Priest of Israel, had his robe dyed in purple recorded in Exodus 28:31-35. To this day it is called “royal” blue.

By placing one blue thread in every man’s prayer shawl, God identified every Jewish man as king in his home. The fact that each man was allowed to mix linen with wool in his tassel also reveals how God identified each man as a priest. This combination was reserved for the priests.

The Jewish prayer shawl displayed a person’s authority. The more important the person, the more elaborate his prayer shawl. The tassel was an important part of the display of his authority. Prophets would cut of one of their tassels to send along with their prophecy to ensure the king it was their prophecy.

In 1 Samuel 15:27-29, Saul tore Samuel’s tassel from his shawl. Samuel told Saul the kingdom of Israel would be torn from him as Saul had torn Samuel’s tassel (authority) from him. We also see David’s anguish in 1 Samuel 24:5 when he cut the tassel from Saul’s shawl. David knew he was to replace Saul as king over Israel, but, by cutting the tassel off Saul’s shawl, he had gotten ahead of God’s timing. Thus, stripping Saul of his authority by cutting off Saul’s tassel, David repented before God and Saul in 1 Samuel 24:5.

The tassel on the prayer shawl is called in Hebrew TZEE-TZEETH. When you add the Hebrew letters in TZEE-TZEETH, you get 600. There are 8 threads and 5 knots in each tassel. Added together, you get 613, the exact number of Laws contained in Torah. Of the 613 Laws, 365 are negative and 248 are positive. There are 365 days in each year, 248 of which Jews are in public (not home on Sabbaths). Also, each human has 248 bones held together by exactly 365 ligaments. The point is, every time a Jewish man puts on his prayer shawl, he is instructed to look upon the tassels which are to remind him that he is to do all the 613 commands of the Lord.

The tassel reminds the person wearing it of all 613 Laws. Also, it reminds him of the great commandment, “The Lord is One”, found in the Shema. The Tassel has 5 knots and 4 sets of wrappings. They numerically spell YHWH Echad (26 and 13).

Therefore, the Hebrew numeric value of the tassel wrappings (between the knots) is 26 and 13.

How do the wrappings spell YHWH is One? The first two are 7 and 8 which equals 15. Fifteen equals the numeric value of the first two Hebrew letters in YHWH – Yud and Hay. The third wrapping equals 11 the numeric value of the last two Hebrew letters in YHWH – Vav and Hay. So, the first three sets of wrappings correspond numerically to the numeric value of the letters used to spell YHWH (Yahweh/ “Jehovah”) in Hebrew. The fourth and final wrapping equals 13. Thirteen equals the numeric value of all the Hebrew letters used in the word “one”. Therefore, 26 wrappings represent YHWH and 13 wrappings represent “one”. (The verb “is” doesn’t appear as it is always “understood”),

When a Jewish man prays, he looks upon his tassels and is reminded that he must obey all 613 Laws, and, is reminded that the greatest commandment is that “YHWH is one”. Proper prayer recognizes man’s place before God.

“Swaying” as You Pray

When a Jewish man prays, he sways. Among the reasons offered to explain this moving of the body while praying, two are more widely held. The first comes from Proverbs 20:27, which says, “The lamp of the Lord searches the spirit of a man; it searches out his inmost being”. The Jews conclude that the spirit of the man is the candle of the Lord and it should flicker and wave in harmony with the light of the Torah. The second comes from Psalm 35:10, which says, “My whole being will exclaim, ‘Who is like you, O Lord?”‘

This act of swaying produces a trance in which the person thinks only of the Lord as he prays the Word of God. The Apostle Paul speaks of this in Acts 22:17 when he says, “When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the Temple, I fell into a trance and saw the Lord speaking”. Peter had a similar experience in prayer recorded in Acts 10:9-16. Peter was accustomed to praying three times daily in this manner. This was his afternoon prayer (Mincha). He obviously fell into this trance.

Visitors to Israel will see many swaying as they pray at the “wailing” wall. The real point to their prayer is not, however, their movement. It is what they are praying which counts. They are not relying upon their own desires to form their prayers. Since man’s heart is “deceitful” and “wicked” they have learned that proper prayer is praying God’s Word. God’s Word alone can be trusted to conform man to God’s will.

When you pray quote God’s Word to Him. A look at prayers recorded in the Bible reveals that men quoted a list of Scriptures to God before they petitioned Him. As an example, Nehemiah’s prayer recorded in Nehemiah 1:5-11, quotes the following verses before he petitioned God:

Deuteronomy 10:17

Deuteronomy 7:9

Leviticus 26:40-45

Leviticus 26:33

Deuteronomy 30:4

Deuteronomy 9:26

Deuteronomy 28:58

Genesis 33:10

The central point about prayer is that men should pray God’s Word. This is why Jewish men hold a book in their hands as they pray. They are praying God’s Word. They usually pray from the Book of Psalms. Jesus was praying the Book of Psalms while suffering on the cross. Praying God’s Word keeps men within God’s “will”. In Luke 11:1, the disciples asked Jesus “how to” pray. He taught them this method of praying God’s Word. He said, “This is how you pray”. Paul prayed God’s Word. David prayed God’s Word. Elijah prayed God’s Word. Jesus prayed God’s Word. All of these, and more, illustrate the value to conform to God’s Word as men pray. Having done this, men’s prayers will take on the effective quality of changing lives. They will begin to conform to His image.

Added Suggestions for Proper Prayers:

1. Identify your petition clearly before God, freeing it from lusts (James 4:3).

2. Enter the Lord’s presence with praise and thanksgiving (Psalm 100:4).

3. Affirm God’s ability to completely answer your need (Ephesians 3:20).

4. Let your requests be made known to God (Philippians 4:6).

5. Allow God’s will to be done, not your own (1 John 5:14).

6. Accept the new set of desires God places in your heart (Psalm 37:4).

7. Always give God thanks for what He has done (Isaiah 12:4-6).

A final word about prayer is that it is more listening to God than talking to God. When Nathan prayed to God (recorded in 2 Samuel 7:1-17), God did all the talking. This teaches us at least two things about prayer. We learn firstly that God speaks to men. Secondly, we learn men should listen to God. Men do not need to do all the talking during prayers. They need to learn to listen to God. In this manner, men can pray “without ceasing”. In this manner, men will be like their Lord.

(Reprinted from Tishrei Vol 3 No 3, Prayer, Autumn 1995)