What Color Were Ancient Tefillin?

Analyzing Tefillin from the Dead Sea


Modern tefillin, painted black, being strapped to the arm. Courtesy Emil Aladjem, IAA.

Tefillin, commonly known as phylacteries in English, are Jewish ritual leather cases containing Bible verses written on tiny scrolls, strapped on the forehead and arm during morning prayer. Still worn by religious Jews today, tefillin have roots stretching back 2,000 years into the archaeological record. But how similar were these ancient religious objects to the tefillin of today? Publishing in the journal PLOS ONE, a team of scholars set out to answer just that question.

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Coloring Tefillin

Traditionally (though not exclusively) worn by men, tefillin are often given as gifts once a child (typically male) reaches 13 and completes their bar/bat mitzvah. The oldest-known tefillin were found at the site of Qumran, dating to the end of the Second Temple period (before 70 CE). Rabbinic law requires that tefillin leather be colored black; however, a recent study by a joint Israeli-British research team has shown that 17 of the tefillin from Qumran were not dyed black.

Discovered in the Judean Desert caves at Wadi Murabba‘at and at Nahal Se’eli, the tefillin were subjected to a battery of scientific testing to determine if the leather was dyed black or darkened naturally over time. According to Ilit Cohen-Ofri, head of the conservation laboratory at the Israel Antiquities Authority’s (IAA) Dead Sea Scrolls Unit: “In ancient times, there were two main methods for dyeing leather black. The first method used carbon-based materials—soot or charcoal—to give the leather a black color. The second method was based on a chemical reaction between tannin, a complex organic compound found in many plants, and iron oxides.”

ancient tefillin

One of the ancient tefillin in the laboratories of the Israel Antiquities Authority, ready to undergo testing. Courtesy Emil Aladjem, IAA.

The arid conditions of the desert allowed for the leather cases to be remarkably well preserved. The researchers tested the leather to find evidence for both dying methods mentioned above, and in all cases, they determined that the dark leather was not due to any ancient dying process, but rather, the natural aging of leather, which could have been hastened due to the leakage of water into the caves. Thus, the team speculates that the rabbinic law to dye tefillin black was not in place during the Second Temple period and that the practice must have developed as a later tradition.

“It is likely that in the beginning, there was no halakhic significance to the color of tefillin,” explained Yonatan Adler of Ariel University, who led the study. “Only at a later period did the rabbis rule that tefillin should be colored black. However, even after this, the halakhic authorities continued to debate whether the requirement to color tefillin cases black was an absolute obligation or merely preferable for aesthetic reasons. It is commonly thought that Jewish law is static and does not develop. Our ongoing research on ancient tefillin shows that the exact opposite is true; Jewish law has always been dynamic. In my view, it is this vibrancy that makes halakhah so beautiful.”

The command to “Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads” found in Deuteronomy 6:8 (also mentioned in Exodus 13:9,16 and Deuteronomy 11:18) is commonly interpreted as the source behind the tradition of wearing tefillin, although it is sometimes debated whether this directive was literal. The word tefillin itself is not found in the Hebrew Bible, and it is unclear exactly what was meant to be tied or bound to the worshipers. By the first century CE, however, many early Jews understood the command to be literal and wore tefillin during their prayers. Jesus himself addresses this practice in Matthew 23:5: “[The Pharisees] make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long.”

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Qumran Phylacteries Reveal Nine New Dead Sea Scrolls

Qumran’s True Purpose Discovered?

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Qumran—The Pottery Factory

Qumran—the Evidence of the Inkwells

The Qumran Settlement—Monastery, Villa or Fortress?

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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