A Tefillin Shoppers Guide, Part II
What does one look for when purchasing a pair of tefillin? In my earlier article, I presented some of the basics of tefillin manufacture. The four parshios in which the Torah mentions mitzvas tefillin — “Kadeish li kol bechor” and “Vehayah ki yeviacha” in parshas Bo, “Shema” in parshas Va’eschanan, and “Vehayah im shamo’a” in parshas Eikev — are handwritten by a sofer. Each parsha of the tefillin shel rosh is written on a separate piece of parchment and placed in a separate compartment, whereas those of the shel yad are written on one parchment and placed in a single large compartment.
As explained in last week’s article, the
batim consist of three parts: (a) the box part, called the ketzitzah,
in which the parshios are placed, (b) the titura, the base on
which the ketzitzah rests, and (c) the ma’avarta, through which
the straps (retzuos) are inserted. The width of both the ketzitzah
and the titura must be exactly the same as the corresponding length so
that they are perfectly square, and there should be no nicks, dents, or bulges
that ruin their perfect squareness or the evenness of their sides. Someone
concerned about the mitzvah should therefore purchase batim made from gasos,
which means the hide of a mature animal. Gasos batim last much
longer, have many hiddurim in halacha, and can be repaired if
they become damaged.
We also discussed two halachic
disputes regarding the manufacture of the shel rosh. One shaylah
concerned gluing the compartments of the shel rosh together, and another
concerned whether the shin on the outside must be pulled out manually before
it is molded.
As explained last week, most stages of tefillin
production, from tanning to painting and sewing, must be performed “lishmah.”
Therefore, each stage is begun by an observant Jew who declares that his work
is for the sake of kedushas tefillin.
In last week’s article, I discussed the
manufacturing of the batim. Several steps of tefillin manufacture
were not described last week, including painting, making the retzuos,
and placing the parshios in the bayis and sealing it. We also did
not discuss at all the writing of the parshios, which is where we will
begin this week’s article.
Writing the parshios
Before starting to write, the sofer
must state that he is writing these parshios for the sake of the mitzvah
of tefillin (see Rosh, Hilchos Sefer Torah Ch. 2; Tur Orach
Chaim Chapter 32). In addition, every time he writes any of the names of
Hashem, he must first state that he is writing the name for kedushas Hashem.
If he did not make these statements verbally, it is questionable whether the tefillin
are kosher (see Rama, Orach Chaim 32:19; Rabbi Akiva Eiger
comments on Shulchan Aruch 32:8).
The parshios must be written with
meticulous care, since an error that affects the kashrus of a single
letter invalidates the entire tefillin (Menachos 28a). Thus, if
only one letter is missing or written incorrectly, the tefillin are posul,
and the person who wears these tefillin has not fulfilled the
mitzvah (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 32:23). Furthermore, all the brachos
he recites on the tefillin are in vain.
Here are some examples of mistakes that
can occur while writing tefillin. If two letters touch one another, the tefillin
are posul (Menachos 34a; Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim
The same thing is true if the sofer
intended to write one letter and, instead, wrote something that looks like a
different letter or does not meet the halachic requirements of how the
required letter must be written. For example, if a sofer intended to
write the letter “zayin” and made it so long that it could be read as a
“nun sofis,” the tefillin are invalid. Similarly, if the sofer
intended to write the letter “reish,” which is supposed to have a
rounded upper right corner, and instead wrote it with a square corner, the tefillin
Sometimes the letters of the parshios
may seem perfect, and yet the tefillin are absolutely posul. For
example, the letters written in tefillin (as well as sifrei Torah and
mezuzos) must be written or formed directly. A letter cannot be formed
indirectly by scratching off ink around the letter, until only the letter
remains. This halacha is called “chok tochos,” which literally
means, “hollowing out the inside.”
(The origin of this expression is from a
case in the Gemara where a get was written by carving a piece of
wood until the letters projected. This get is invalid, since the letters
of the get were not written but were formed indirectly by removing the
area around them. This does not fulfill the Torah’s requirement that a get
be written [Gittin 20a]. “Writing” requires that the letters must
be formed, and not created indirectly.)
Therefore, if a sofer wrote the
letter “dalet” instead of a “reish,” it is halachically invalid
to erase the sharp corner of the “dalet” and form a “reish” (Tur
Orach Chaim Chapter 32, quoting Sefer Haterumos). If someone did
this, he has not written a “reish” but rather he formed a “reish”
indirectly, and this is not considered “writing.” Any tefillin, sefer
Torah or mezuzah made this way will be invalid (Shulchan Aruch
Orach Chaim 32:18).
If a sefer Torah was written
through “chok tochos,” the letter can be erased and rewritten. However,
if this problem occurs in tefillin or mezuzos, the parsha
will often be irreparable (Taz 32:16), and the parsha will have
to be put into sheimos (genizah).
Why not fix it?
Why can’t this mistake be corrected?
Halacha requires that
the parshios of tefillin and mezuzos be written in the
order in which the words appear in the Torah (rishonim, quoting
Mechilta, end of Parshas Bo). This requirement is referred to as
being written “kesidran,” in their proper sequence. For this reason, if
a letter was skipped and filled in afterwards, the tefillin or mezuzah
is posul and cannot be corrected. Similarly, if a “reish” was
mistakenly written as a “dalet,” and the problem was discovered after
more letters were written, the parsha is posul, unless one erases
all the letters written after the invalid “reish.”
The law of kesidran (in their
proper sequence) applies only to tefillin and mezuzos. Sifrei
Torah, megillos, and other holy writings do not have this rule, and their
letters may be written out of order. Therefore if some of their letters become posul,
they can be corrected.
Thus, we see that there are instances
that cannot be checked, in which we are completely dependent on the integrity
of the sofer. After investing many hours writing a beautiful parsha,
a sofer checks the parsha and discovers that one of its letters
was written incorrectly in a way that might invalidate the parsha. He
takes the parsha to his rav, who paskins that the parsha
is indeed posul and cannot be rectified. If the sofer lacks
integrity, what is to stop him from fixing the invalid letter so that it now
appears one hundred percent kosher?
Fortunately, tefillin and mezuzos
purchased from reputable sources should not have problems of dishonesty like
that just described. However, one should still try to find out about the sofer
whose tefillin one’s son will be wearing. Although it is difficult to
check whether someone is a yarei Shamayim, one should at least attempt
to ascertain whether the sofer appears to be a yarei Shamayim.
Furthermore, the sofer must be
thoroughly familiar with the halachos of writing tefillin or he
will certainly produce posul tefillin. There are literally
hundreds of ways that a non-knowledgeable sofer can write tefillin
that will be invalid. Thus, when purchasing tefillin, one must insist
that the sofer who wrote them is knowledgeable in the halachos of
safrus and that he has up-to-date certification from a recognized
organization or posek. Some of these organizations insist that the sofrim
they certify take periodic examinations to ascertain that they are still
competent in the halachos required for their profession.
A modern innovation
After the sofer finishes writing the tefillin parshios,
he reads them over several times, and then they are checked by a specially
trained examiner, or even better, by two trained examiners. In our era, the
checking process has been tremendously enhanced by a modern innovation –
computer-checking. The written parshios are scanned into a computer that
has a program comparing the written parshios with the computer’s
version. The computer checks for missing and extra letters and words, for
poorly and mistakenly formed letters, for connected or cracked letters and for
Experience has proven that computers
have an infinite attention span and never get distracted by boredom or
exhaustion. (Of course, the computer’s proper performance depends on an alert
operator.) So, it is common for computers to catch mistakes that humans
overlook. There is a recorded instance of a pair of tefillin that was
checked nine different times without discovering that a word was missing, until
it underwent a computer-check! When purchasing tefillin, one should
insist that the parshios be computer-checked.
However, one may not rely only on a
computer-check of the tefillin since, at present, computers cannot check
for certain items such as proper spacing between letters and words.
It should be noted that neither the
examiner nor the computer can detect certain problems that occur, such as
letters written out of order and letters formed through “chok tochos.”
This is why the sofer’s yiras shamayim and his halachic knowledge
are absolutely indispensable.
The batim are painted jet-black
using paint containing only kosher ingredients (Shulchan Aruch 32:40).
Because there is little space between the compartments of the shel rosh,
it often happens that after the painting one can no longer see the separation
between the compartments. Since the individual compartments must be visible,
the batim macher carefully separates the compartments from one another
with a razor.
On inferior batim, non-scrupulous
batim machers may merely scratch the outside of the bayis to mark
where the four compartments actually are. This is invalid; there must be four
separate compartments, both inside and outside. Alternatively, sometimes a deep
groove is mistakenly scratched in the wrong place and does not demonstrate the
actual separation between the compartments. This is also invalid. A responsible
batim macher cuts between the compartments, to guarantee that they are indeed
fully separate, even after the painting.
Some poskim contend that one
should also request that the parchment used for the parshios be only
avodas yad. If one chooses to order avodas yad parchment, ask for
extra thin parchment. This special parchment is less likely to crack when
rolled and inserted into the batim, and thus, there is less likelihood
that the letters will eventually crack. It is also easier to fit the thin
parchment properly into the batim. The difference in cost for this
parchment is fairly small, relative to the overall cost of the investment in
the pair of tefillin.
Rolling up the parshios
All the components of the tefillin
are now complete, and it is time to insert the parshios into the bayis.
Before being placed into the ketzitzah, each parsha is rolled
from left to right, and then tied closed with a bovine tail hair (Elyah
Rabbah 32:43). These hairs should preferably be from a calf, to remind us
of the sin of the eigel hazahav, the golden calf (Beis Yosef,
quoting Shimusha Rabba). The parsha is then wrapped in a blank
piece of parchment, and this parchment is then tied closed with another bovine
hair. (According to Rambam, Hilchos Tefillin 3:1, these last two
steps are both halacha leMoshe miSinai.) One or more of these hairs is
pulled through a hole on the right side (from the perspective of the wearer) in
front of the bayis. This hole is one of those that will be soon be used
to stitch the titura closed. Thus, the hair used to tie the parsha
closed is visible on the outside of the tefillin (Zohar).
According to Rashi’s opinion,
which is the halacha, the parshios are now inserted according to
the order that they appear in the Torah. Thus, the first parsha, Kadeish
li kol bechor (Shemos 13:1-10), fills the leftmost compartment (from
the perspective of the wearer), with Vehayah ki yeviacha (Shemos
13:11-16) next to it. Shema (Devorim 6:4-9) is placed next; and Vehayah
im shamo’a (Devorim 11:13-21) is inserted inside the rightmost
compartment. However, according to Rabbeinu Tam, the last two parshios
are reversed, with Shema in the rightmost compartment and Vehayah im
shamo’a next to it. (There are, also, at least two other opinions
concerning the correct order of the parshios.)
Although we fulfill the mitzvah with
Rashi tefillin, the Shulchan Aruch states that a G-d fearing
person should wear Rabbeinu Tam tefillin, in addition to wearing Rashi tefillin
(Orach Chaim 34:2). However, the Shulchan Aruch qualifies this
ruling by stating that only a person known to observe beyond the requirements
of halacha is permitted to wear Rabbeinu Tam tefillin (Orach
Chaim 34:3). This is because of the prohibition against being pretentious
in one’s Yiddishkeit. Ashkenazim follow the Shulchan Aruch’s
ruling. However, the practice among many Sefardim and chassidim is that
all married men wear Rabbeinu Tam tefillin. In their opinion, once many
people follow a certain practice, it is no longer ostentatious for an
individual to observe it.
The parsha should fit completely
inside its compartment. Sometimes the shel yad parsha is too tall
to fit properly in the ketzitzah and the bottom of the parsha
protrudes into the titura, a situation that should be avoided (Shu”t
Shevet Halevi 3:3; Shu”t Yabia Omer 1:2:5). If the person who orders
the tefillin coordinates the correct size with the sofer and the batim
macher, this problem can be avoided.
Sewing the titura
After the parshios are placed
into their appropriate compartments, the titura is sewn closed. There is
a halacha leMoshe miSinai that this stitching must be made with
sinews (giddin; singular, gid) of a kosher animal (Shabbos
108a). There is another halacha leMoshe miSinai that these stitches must
form a perfect square (Menachos 35a). This is something that a person
can readily check on his own tefillin. I have often seen tefillin
where the stitching or the punching of the holes is sloppy, making the
stitching not square. This makes the entire pair of tefillin posul!
The tefillin should be stitched
with a single length thread of sinew (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim
32:51). Although there are lenient opinions that one can tie two pieces of gid
together, insist that your tefillin be stitched with a single gid.
Some batim machers glue
the top and bottom titura together, in addition to the stitching, to
help the titura stay closed. Some poskim contend that this
practice invalidates the tefillin, since the halacha leMoshe miSinai
is that the titura should be closed only by stitching with giddin
and with no other materials (Chazon Ish, Orach Chaim 11:10). One should
consult with his rav whether to request that the titura not be
We have now completed our lessons on the
manufacture of the batim and the parshios. In our next and last
installment, in two weeks, we will discuss the manufacture of the retzuos,
proper maintenance of kosher tefillin, and how to purchase them.