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New Study Reveals: Tefillin Were Not Colored Black 2,000 Years Ago

Tefillins were not black as is mandated by contemporary Jewish law. Jews wear them on their head and arms during morning prayers.

Tefillin Were Not Black 2,000 Years Ago
Tefillin from about 2,000 years ago in the laboratories of the Israel Antiquities Authority/ Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

A groundbreaking scientific study, “Black surfaces on ancient leather tefillin cases and straps from the Judean Desert: Macroscopic, microscopic and spectroscopic analyses,” has unveiled that ancient tefillin were not black, as is mandated by contemporary Jewish law.

The findings, published in the prestigious journal PLOS ONE, challenge long-held assumptions about the practice of tefillin observance.

Tefillin are small leather cases containing minuscule parchment scrolls inscribed with biblical verses. Observant Jews wear one on the head and the other on the arm during their morning prayers. According to Jewish law, the tefillin cases, or phylacteries, should be black.

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A team of researchers from Israel and Great Britain conducted extensive scientific tests revealing that ancient tefillin were not blackened. The research was led by Prof. Yonatan Adler of Ariel University, alongside Dr. Ilit Cohen-Ofri and Dr. Yonah Maor from the Israel Antiquities Authority, Dr. Theresa Emmerich Kamper from the University of Exeter, and Dr. Iddo Pinkas from the Weizmann Institute of Science.

In 1949, archaeologists discovered several leather tefillin cases in a cave near Qumran, where the first Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Additional tefillin cases were subsequently unearthed in other caves near Qumran, including Wadi Murabba‘at and Nahal Se’elim, all located in the Judean Desert.

Tefillin from about 2,000 years ago
Tefillin from about 2,000 years ago in the laboratories of the Israel Antiquities Authority/ Emil Aladjem, Israel Antiquities Authority

These findings are dated to the same period as the Dead Sea Scrolls, around the end of the Second Temple period, approximately 2,000 years ago. The arid desert climate allowed these artifacts to survive for millennia until their discovery. Today, the tefillin cases are preserved in the storeroom of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s Dead Sea Scrolls Unit in Jerusalem, where the climatic conditions of the caves are replicated.

The researchers employed various techniques, including multispectral imaging, Raman spectroscopy (a non-destructive chemical analysis technique), ATR-FTIR spectroscopy and SEM/EDX (scanning electron microscopy with energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy). The results of these analyses showed no evidence of black colorants in any of the tefillin cases.

Explained Professor Adler, “It is likely that in the beginning, there was no halakhic significance to the color of tefillin. Only at a later period did the rabbis rule that tefillin should be colored black.

“However, even after this, the halakhic authorities debated whether the requirement to color tefillin cases black was an absolute obligation or merely preferable for aesthetic reasons,” Adler continued, “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.”

“This is a very important discovery,” explained Professor Yonatan Adler of Ariel University, who led the study. “This is the first time that tefillin have been scientifically examined to determine their color. In some of the ancient tefillin, the leather has a natural brown color. However, in others, the very dark color of the leather was previously thought to be the result of artificial dyeing, which was done to comply with the law that requires the leather of tefillin cases to be black. Our tests have shown that where the leather appears dark, it is the result of a natural process and not intentional dyeing.”

According to Dr. Ilit Cohen-Ofri, head of the conservation laboratory at the Israel Antiquities Authority’s 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. In our tests, we ruled out the possibility that the tefillin cases were dyed black using either of these methods.”

“In the dark fragments we examined, the color appears to result from natural leather aging rather than intentional dyeing,” said Dr. Yonah Maor of the Israel Antiquities Authority’s analytical laboratory. “Minor water leakage into the caves over the 2,000 years the artifacts have been there could have accelerated the leather aging process. In the past, we have found that some of the Dead Sea Scrolls have also undergone a similar process, which unfortunately has caused the parchment to darken.”

The researchers suggest that the law requiring tefillin to be made black may not have been in place in the Second Temple period, when the ancient tefillin examined in the study were in use.



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