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So long, ‘amulet.’ Hello, ‘phylactery.’ The Met Museum has updated that tefillin description.

By MARCY OSTER
(JTA) – Days after a small corner of the internet erupted with criticism of how the Metropolitan Museum of Art labeled a Jewish ritual object in its collection, the New York museum has quietly revised the description.

Where its website had previously called tefillin, the leather boxes and straps used in prayer by observant Jews, an “amulet,” it now refers to them by the word “phylactery.”

Twitter users had challenged the amulet label after an automated account that shares pictures of items in the museum’s holding posted one of the tefillin, which is part of the Islamic art collection. Some called the museum’s labeling anti-Semitic because it did not reflect the Jewish nature of the item.

A photo of the piece looks unmistakably like one piece of tefillin, the leather boxes and straps used in prayer by observant Jews. A shin, the Hebrew letter on the portion of tefillin that goes on the head, can be seen in the picture.

The new label does not indicate that the item, which is not on display publicly, is used by Jews. The museum obtained the item in 1962 and says it likely originated in sixth-century Egypt.

Raphael Magarik, a English professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago whose studies have included the understanding of tefillin by non-Jews, had  posted a thread Sunday explaining that while the object pictured is likely mislabeled, there are historical arguments for the label.

“There’s no reason not to call tefillin an amulet,” Magarik wrote. “Lexically, the Greek term now commonly used to refer to them (‘phylactery’) originally meant just that, and had a long history of usage in that sense before referring to the specific Jewish items.” He added that while tefillin have been invoked in anti-Semitic discourse in the past, the Met’s labeling more likely reflects how museums catalogue objects.

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