Tefillin (Phylacteries)

by Gary D. Martin

This page contains images produced as an experiment to reproduce by hand with the unaided eye tefillin of a similar size to those published by Yigael Yadin in Tefillin from Qumran (XQ Phyl 1-4) (Jerusalem: The Israel Exploration Society and the Shrine of the Book, 1969).

The example I chose to replicate was "Slip 2" found in Yadin on plate xv. Below are the respective images with their dates of creation. The text I copied is the BHS version of Deut 5:22-6:9. I did not attempt to recreate the exact text of slip 2 or follow its layout. The exercise was undertaken merely to determine the conditions under which such tiny writing can be performed.

NOTE: The actual samples of my texts are considerably clearer than the jpg formats below created for display on the web.

XQ Phyl 2
My 1st attempt
10/24/06 4 PM
My 2nd attempt
10/24/06 7 PM
My 3rd attempt
10/25/06 9 PM
My 4th attempt
10/30/06 9 PM

Actual size:
4.3 x 2.7 cm
Actual size:
5.6 x 4.0 cm
Actual size:
4.7 x 3.4 cm
Actual size:
4.5 x 2.9 cm
Actual size:
3.0 x 2.6 cm

Side-by-side enlarged (to scale) comparison of my 4th attempt with Qumran XQ Phyl 2:

Click here to download a pdf version of the images and enlarged side-by-side comparison of my 4th attempt and the Qumran text.


The tools I used for the first 2 attempts were:
Pen: Pigma Micron 005, delivering a line width of 0.20mm (cost: $1.85)
Paper: Fine smooth parchment-style paper samples (cost: 15 cents per sheet, letter-size)

For the 3rd attempt, I used the same pen as above, but found a much smoother 100% cotton paper.

For the 4th attempt I used the smooth cotton paper and a 6x0 Rapidograph pen (Koh-i-noor) with the smallest available line width of 0.13mm (cost: ca. $22.00)

Qumran has yielded two styluses from a palm leaf.


I am near-sighted with dioptre values of -9.25 (left eye) and -10.25 (right eye) and only a slight astigmatism. I wear contact lenses that give me a 20/20 correction for distance, but for reading I use +1.50 to +2.25 non-prescription corrective reading glasses, depending on the distance and size of text. My first three attempts were written using such corrective glasses over my contacts, though I could not clearly see the letters I had formed. That is when I learned that the hand is capable of writing finer strokes than the eye is capable of resolving! Try it for yourself. Write some text as small as you possibly can, and do not worry about trying to read what you write. Your hand knows precisely what gestures to make and can do so on a remarkably small scale, such that you'll need a magnifying glass to verify that you have in fact written legible text!

It then occurred to me that when I need to focus on something clearly and up close, I do better by taking out my contact lenses and holding the item about 3 to 4 inches from my eye, which roughly corresponds to my focal length (-10 dioptre means a focal length of 1/10 meter = 3.9 inches). So I used the natural advantage I possess of having extremely near-sighted vision for my fourth attempt, and, amazing as it seems, I was able to write the same amount of text as the Qumran phylactery in significantly less space. For not being a trained scribe, I'd say the resulting letter shapes and line regularity aren't too bad. As I grew weary near the bottom of the text, an enlarged view shows that my letters began to grow in size. Some letters near the bottom are about twice the height of those in the first line.

With enough practice I could easily write continuous text with letters of 0.5mm height and a line spacing of 1.0mm (or slightly less) with my unaided eye. The Cologne Mani Codex and other miniature writing examples from the ancient world (such as P. Ant. [Papyrus Antinoopolis] 54, P. Oxy. v 840, P. Oxy. xvii 2065) thus do not require us to imagine the use of some means of magnification by the ancient scribes, as is postulated in Iain Gardner and Samuel N. C. Lieu (eds.), Manichaean Texts from the Roman Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2004), pg. 40:

Measuring only 38 x 45 mm, with a single column of an average of 23 lines per page ... The tiny pages were ruled both for the lines and the margins, and the ruling is still visible in places. The height of the individual letters never exceeded 1 mm and the text is barely readable with the naked eye. A glass-bottle filled with water was the most likely enlarging tool used by the ancient scribes to execute such delicate calligraphy.

Note that my samples were written on plain paper with no ruling lines or layout markings of any kind, just as is the case with the phylactery texts XQ Phyl 1-4.

The topic of magnifying lenses has recently been explored in an article by D. Plantzos, partly in response to another article that appeared a decade earlier by G. Sines and Y. A. Sakellarakis, who suggested that “the use of lenses was widespread throughout the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin over several millennia.”[1] Plantzos finds the evidence of the so-called Sargon lens problematic:

The most famous, unjustly it would seem, among the objects identified as antique lenses is the so-called ‘Loupe of Sargon,’ a plano-convex rock-crystal lentoid excavated by Layard at Nimrud in the 1850s (fig. 5). The object is oval (40 x 35 mm) and of uneven thickness (max. th. 22.5 mm). Its focal length has been calculated at 112.5 mm. Its nominal magnification is about 2x but, owing to its imperfect surface, it would be useless as a tool. [2]

Plantzos, citing the work of “two scientists working in the fields of biology and orthodontics,” finds the most plausible explanations lie either in (1) conditions of severe myopia, or (2) the flexibility of young, healthy eyes. For the former condition, he cites the well-known case of Sir Arthur Evans, who found that his myopia was actually advantageous for examining very small objects, such as seals. As for young eyes, they are simply capable of focusing at shorter distances.[3]

[1] George Sines and Yannis A. Sakellarakis, “Lenses in Antiquity,” American Journal of Archaeology 91, no. 2 (1987). The citation is from the article’s abstract (pg. 191).

[2] Dimitris Plantzos, “Crystals and Lenses in the Graeco-Roman World,”American Journal of Archaeology 101, no. 3 (1997): 454–55.

[3] Plantzos, “Crystals and Lenses in the Graeco-Roman World,” 458.