A Tefillin Shoppers Guide

Question: I am in the process of purchasing tefillin for my son. This is a major purchase, since I hope that he will use these tefillin for many, many years to come, and tefillin are such an important mitzvah. Therefore, I have been making a lot of inquiries as to what to look for. Unfortunately, the more questions I ask, the more confused I become. Rather than gaining clarity, I am hearing many unfamiliar terms such as avodas yad (handmade), devek bein habatim (glue between the compartments of the tefillin shel rosh), perudos (separated), and gasos batim (tefillin made from the hide of a mature animal). Could you please explain what I should be looking for in my search for mehudar tefillin?

Answer: Your questions are all very valid, and I am very glad that you have provided me the opportunity to explain these issues. Your quest is also complicated by the fact that because most tefillin are made in Eretz Yisroel, it is sometimes difficult for someone who lives elsewhere to find out all the details about their manufacture. However, I hope to present you with enough halachic and practical basics to assist you in your search.

First, we need to understand the basics of tefillin manufacture.

As we will see, many details of the halachos of tefillin are halacha leMoshe miSinai, meaning that they were taught to Moshe Rabbeinu directly by Hashem, even though there is no reference or allusion to these halachos in the written Torah. The Rambam counts ten such examples (Hilchos Tefillin 1:3, 3:1).

There are four places in the Torah where the mitzvah of tefillin is mentioned, twice in parshas Bo, a third time in parshas Va’eschanan,and a fourth time in parshas Eikev. Handwritten copies of these four sections of the Torah are placed inside specially-made cases, and this comprises each of the tefillin worn on the arm and the head.

COMPONENTS OF THE TEFILLIN

Tefillin have three major components:

  1. The parshios (singular, parsha). These are the parchments on which the sofer painstakingly and carefully writes the four sections of the Torah mentioned above. For the tefillin shel yad (arm tefillin), all four parshios are written on one piece of parchment, whereas for the tefillin shel rosh (head tefillin), each parsha is written on a separate piece of parchment.
  2. The batim (singular, bayis). These are the housing of the parshios. The bayis itself has three subcomponents: (a) the ketzitzah, the cube-shaped box inside which the parshios are placed; (b) the titura, the base on which the ketzitzah rests; (c) the ma’avarta (Aramaic for “bridge”), the extension of the titura through which the straps are inserted. In good quality tefillin, the entire bayis — that is the ketzitzah, titura, and ma’avarta — are all made from one piece of hide.
  3.  The retzuos, the straps.

Processing of the hide

Every pair of tefillin contains parts made from three different types of animal hide: the parchment on which the parshios are written; the thick hide from which the batim are manufactured; and the softer leather used for the retzuos.

The parchment, hide and leather used for making tefillin and all other devarim she’bi’kedusha (holy items) must come from a kosher species, although not necessarily from an animal that was slaughtered in a kosher way (Shabbos 108a; Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 32:12).

Tefillin must be manufactured “lishmah,” for the sake of the mitzvah. Practically speaking, this means that the beginning of each process should be performed by an observant Jew who declares that the production is for the sake of the mitzvah of tefillin (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 32:8).

Modern tanning of hide for parchment, batim and straps is a multi-stage process. For this reason, it is preferable that each step be performed, or at least begun, by an observant Jew, lishmah. Because of this, one of the questions to be ascertained when purchasing tefillin is to what extent an observant Jew was involved in the processing of the hide. This issue impacts on the question of machine-made vs. hand-made parchment and retzuos, which I will discuss later.

Manufacture of the batim

At this point, we will investigate the complicated process of making proper tefillin batim. The manufacturer of batim is generally referred to by the Yiddish term, “batim macher.”

Several basic types of tefillin batim are manufactured. The highest quality batim are called “gasos,” large ones, because they are made from the hide of mature (large) cattle. Their leather is high-quality and very durable. From the buyer’s perspective, these batim are well worth the higher cost. In additional to their superior durability, gasos batim have halachic advantages. Furthermore, they can be repaired easily, if the tefillin are damaged. These are the type of batim purchased by people concerned about doing mitzvos properly.

A modern innovation

In fact, gasos batim are a relatively new development, made possible through the invention of the hydraulic press. Until this invention, the tough gasos hide could not be worked into the form required for the shaping of tefillin. Today, a huge amount of pressure can be applied to the leather with a hydraulic press to produce the finest tefillin from the thick hide of gasos animals.

Gasos batim take several months to manufacture. Since the hide is very strong and tough, each step requires moistening it to make it malleable, forming it with the assistance of molds and a hydraulic press, and then allowing several weeks for the hide to dry.

Forming the separate sections of the tefillin shel rosh into four compartments is a delicate task. The hide must be bent and squeezed into separate compartments without tearing it. Although one internal tear does not invalidate the batim, more than one tear can render the bayis posul. For this and other reasons, one must be confident in the expertise, halachic knowledge and yiras shamayim of the batim macher.

The shin of the shel rosh

There is a halacha leMoshe miSinai that the tefillin shel rosh must have the letter “shin” on each side, a normal three-headed shin on the right side of the wearer and an unusual four-headed shin on the left side (Tosafos, Menachos 35a, quoting Shimusha Rabba; Rambam, Hilchos Tefillin 3:1). The commentaries cite many reasons why the left side of the tefillin must have a four-headed shin (see Smag, Smak, Beis Yosef, Bach). Some say that the four-headed shin is reminiscent of the letter shin as it appeared in the luchos (Taz 32:35).

There is a dispute among early poskim whether the shin on the tefillin can be made completely by placing the leather of the batim in a mold. According to the lenient opinions, one can simply take a mold, soften the leather, push the mold onto the bayis and press out the shin on the tefillin shel rosh (Or Zarua, quoted by Darkei Moshe 32:18; Beis Yosef). However, the accepted practice is to be machmir and form the letter in a direct way first (many rishonim quoted by Beis Yosef; Magen Avraham 32:57). This is done by painstakingly picking and pulling the leather until a kosher shin has been directly formed by hand. Only after the shin has been formed to the point that it is a halachically kosher letter is the mold applied to enhance and beautify it. This is permitted, since the minimum halachic requirements of the letter shin have been already met. It is worthwhile to clarify how the shin of the tefillin one purchases was made.

The dispute whether the shin may be molded takes us to a different discussion. Creating the shin through a mold is an act of “chok tochos,” indirectly creating a letter. Letters written for a sefer Torah, tefillin, mezuzos or a get, are invalid when written as chok tochos, but must be created “directly,” by forming the letter, not by scraping away around the letter. If so, why do so many poskim rule that the shin of the shel rosh may be created through a mold?

The answer is that the Torah never states that one must “write” a shin on the side of the tefillin. The halacha leMoshe miSinai merely states that there must be a shin on the side of the tefillin, without specifying that the shin must be written there. Therefore, the lenient opinions contend that there is no requirement to “write” a shin on the tefillin, and it is sufficient for the shin to be made in any way, even through chok tochos. As mentioned above, we paskin that the shin should be formed in a direct way first.

Tefillin must be square

There is another halacha leMoshe miSinai that the tefillin must be perfectly square (Menachos 35a). The rishonim dispute whether min haTorah both the bayis and the titura must be square, or only one of them. Since this matter is a controversy, and, furthermore, since some opinions require that they must both be square, accepted practice is that both the bayis and the titura be perfectly square.

The width of the bayis must be the exact same measurement as its length, and there may be no nicks, indentations, or bulges that ruin its perfect squareness. The height of the tefillin does not need to be the same as the width and length (Rambam, Hilchos Tefillin 3:1). As a matter of fact, some batim machers deliberately make tefillin that are taller than they are wide. This is so that the tefillin will fit properly on the arm, without requiring that the parshios be made very small.

Similarly, the titura is shaped so that its length and width are equal.

In order to get the four compartments of the shel rosh to form a perfect square, many batim machers paste the sections of the bayis together to help them hold together. Although there is much halachic controversy about gluing the compartments together, many prominent poskim in earlier generations permitted it (such as Yeshuas Yaakov 32:24; Shu”t Chasam Sofer Orach Chaim #5, however cf. Vol. 6 #68; Shu”t Beis Yitzchok, Orach Chaim 7:6; Daas Torah 32:40).

Other poskim permit gluing the compartments only if the paste is applied to less than half the height of the wall of the compartment and is not applied along the outside edges. However, since there are poskim who disapprove of using any paste, it is certainly a hiddur not to use any at all (Chayei Adam 14:4). These batim are referred to as “perudos ad hatefer legamri,” which literally means, separated completely down to the stitch, referring to the stitching on the top of the titura (which will be explained later).

Germane to this discussion is a well-known ruling from Rav Chaim Volozhiner. When asked whether pasting the compartments of the shel rosh together is permitted, he responded that he would not permit it, because the two gedolei hador of the previous generation, the Vilna Gaon and the Shaagas Aryeh, both contended that pasting the compartments invalidates the tefillin.

In earlier generations, when tefillin batim were made from much softer calf leather or even flimsier parchment, it was very difficult to make tefillin that would remain square unless the compartments were pasted together. However, today’s gasos batim are kept square through the stiffness of the hide and the pressure of the hydraulic press. Since the gasos batim are not dependent on paste to hold their shape, many contemporary poskim contend that one should refrain from placing any paste in the batim.

Why not glue?

What is wrong with gluing the compartments together?

The problem is that the shel rosh is required to have four separate compartments, one for each parsha. The poskim who prohibit pasting the compartments contend that glue makes them into one connected compartment, thus invalidating the tefillin. Those who are lenient contend that pasting the compartments together does not halachically make them into one compartment.

The compromise position contends that the compartments are considered separate, if they are pasted less than half way up and the outside edge is clearly not connected. This makes the batim noticeably separate, which they contend is all that is required. Ask one’s rav whether one should request batim in which no paste was used, at all.

The titura

The titura consists of two parts, the widening at the bottom of the ketzitzah (upper titura) and the flap that closes and seals the parshios inside (lower titura). In gasos tefillin, the titura is formed out of the same piece of leather as the ketzitzah. The lower titura is bent 180 degrees until it is directly beneath the upper titura. The gap between the two is filled with pieces of leather, and then the hide is shaved until it is perfectly square.

At one point in time, ordinary scrap leather was often used as filler, but this is rarely done today. Although batim using ordinary scrap leather as filler are kosher, it is preferable that the filler be hide that was tanned lishmah (Shu”t Minchas Yitzchak 6:1). This is standard contemporary practice.

Some poskim contend that it is acceptable to fill small nicks in the side of the titura with glue. Others feel that it is not kosher, lechatchilah, to do this, but that nicks should be patched with hide or parchment tanned lishmah (Shu”t Minchas Yitzchak 6:1; Shu”t Shevet Halevi 3:2; 9:4).

When the titura is completed and perfectly square, twelve holes are punched through it so that it can later be stitched closed. The stitching must also be square. Therefore, it is vital that these holes form a perfect square and that they are not too large (which may cause the stitching not to be square).

At this point, the batim are almost ready, except that they need painting and the parshios have not yet been inserted. One minute — we have not yet discussed the writing of the parshios. We also need to talk about the processing of the retzuos, the finishing and sewing of the titura, and various other hiddurim of tefillin. There is always next week, when we will continue this topic.