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 “V’hayah ki y’viacha” in Parshas Bo, “Shema” in Parshas Va’eschanan, and “V’hayah im shamo’a” in Parsha 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.
We also discussed certain problems that can occur while the parshios are written, the importance of using a skilled, knowledgeable, and G-d fearing sofer, and that the completed parshios should be checked carefully, preferably by two trained examiners and by computer.
As explained in the previous 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 square-ness 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 in the first article, 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.
Several steps of tefillin manufacture were not described in the first article, including painting, making the retzuos, and placing the parshios in the bayis and sealing it. We will resume our narration and guide at this point, beginning with the manufacture and laws of the titura, the wide base upon which the ketzitzah holding the parshios rests.
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 then 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 these batim 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 l’chatchila 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. 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).
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 make it appear where the four compartments actually are. This is an invalid method of marking the batim. The actual, separate compartments must be visible from the 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. Therefore, to prevent this, a responsible batim macher cuts between the compartments to guarantee that they are indeed fully separate even after the painting.
Now that we have excellent parshios and batim for our tefillin, we will investigate what constitutes excellent retzuos.
IS THERE A HALACHIC PREFERENCE TO HANDMADE RETZUOS?
The contemporary process of tanning retzuos is similar to the method used to tan leather for mundane uses, such as belts and handbags. However, retzuos must be tanned lishmah, for the sake of the mitzvah (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 33:3). After the tanning of the retzuos is complete, the retzuos are painted black in order to fulfill a halacha le’Moshe mi’Sinai (Menachos 35a). The painting of the retzuos must also be performed lishmah (Mishnah Berurah 33:18).
In earlier days, tanning retzuos involved salting the hide and then soaking it in lime wash. Today, although both salt and lime are used in the tanning process, most of the tanning of retzuos is usually accomplished by the gradual, automatic adding of other chemicals to the soaking leather after the salt and lime have been rinsed out. Thus, although early poskim ruled that placing the lime into the water lishmah is sufficient to make retzuos lishmah, this may not be true today. For this reason, most contemporary poskim rule that one should use “avodas yad” retzuos, meaning that the extra chemicals added to the water were done lishmah by a Torah-observant person (Zichron Eliyahu). However, most retzuos sold for tefillin are not avodas yad.
According to my information, most retzuos are painted by transporting them on a conveyor belt through a large, electrically powered paint sprayer. This provides an additional reason to use only avodas yad retzuos. Most Torah-observant Jews use hand matzos for the seder because of concern that machine matzos are not considered lishmah. (I am not suggesting that machine matzohs are a problem for Seder use. Many great poskim contend that they are fine.) In all likelihood, the manufacture and painting of machine-made retzuos has greater halachic concerns than the shaylos involved in machine matzos. When one realizes that the mitzvah of eating matzah is only once a year, whereas the tefillin will IY”H be worn daily for decades, I believe the choice is obvious.
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.
It is important to check periodically that the retzuos are still completely black. Many authorities contend that the entire length of the retzua must always be black (Biur Halacha 33:3 s.v. retzuos). If the paint peels off, fades or cracks, one must blacken the retzuos with kosher black retzuos paint. Before painting the retzuos, one must state that he is doing it l’sheim kedushas tefillin.
The reverse side of the retzua that lies on the skin need not be dyed at all. There is an opinion that the edges of the retzuos should also be painted black (Keses HaSofer 23:2). However, this opinion is not accepted in halachic practice (see for example, Mishnah Berurah 33:24 quoting Pri Megadim in Eishel Avraham 33:7).
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 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 with a blank piece of parchment, and this parchment is then tied with another bovine hair. (According to Rambam, Hilchos Tefillin 3:1, these last two steps are both halacha le’Moshe mi’Sinai.) After each parsha is placed inside its appropriate bayis, one or more of these hairs are pulled through the left hole in front of the bayis that will 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 (Shmos 13:1-10), fills the leftmost compartment (from the perspective of the wearer), with V’hayah ki y’viacha (Shmos 13:11-16) next to it. Shma (Devarim 6:4-9) is placed next to it; and V’hayah im shamo’a (Devarim 11:13-21) is inserted inside the rightmost compartment. However, according to Rabbeinu Tam, the last two parshios are reversed, with Shma in the right-most compartment and V’hayah im shamo’a next to it. (There are also at least two other opinions on this question.)
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.
OTHER HALACHOS RELEVANT TO ASSEMBLING THE TEFILLIN
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.
After the parshios are placed into their appropriate compartments, the titura is sewn closed. There is a halacha le’Moshe mi’Sinai that this stitching must be made with sinews (giddin; singular gid) of a kosher animal (Shabbos 108a). There is another halacha le’Moshe mi’Sinai 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 le’Moshe mi’Sinai 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 glued.
The retzuos should be about ½ inch wide. When purchasing new retzuos, they should be wider so that they remain the proper width even after they become stretched out.
WHERE SHOULD I BUY MY TEFILLIN?
The individual selling tefillin should be a halachically reliable person and preferably a talmid chacham. Furthermore, he should be fully familiar not only with the halachos of tefillin, but also with the details of tefillin manufacture. From my personal experience, it is not uncommon that a person selling tefillin, although extremely ehrlich, is totally unfamiliar with the halachic issues and concerns involved. Unfortunately, many sofrim and rabbanim lack sufficient training in the practical details of tefillin manufacture.
Assuming that one is purchasing tefillin from someone familiar with the halachos and practical aspects of tefillin manufacture, be specific what level of tefillin kashrus you are looking for. If you don’t tell him that you want tefillin that are kosher l’chatchila (in the preferred way), you might receive tefillin that only meet the very minimum standards of kashrus. A person who discriminately buys food with high kashrus standards should not settle for less when purchasing tefillin. Such a person should order “kosher mehudar tefillin,” or “kosher tefillin with extra hiddurim.” These descriptions may also affect other questions that we have not discussed, such as the quality of the writing or the source of the batim.
THE PRICE OF TEFILLIN
Considering how much time, labor and trained skill are required to produce a kosher pair of tefillin, it amazes me how inexpensive tefillin are. Imagine purchasing an item that requires tens of hours of skilled expert workmanship! What would you expect to pay for such an item? Probably thousands of dollars! And note that one wears tefillin every weekday of one’s life, without exception. The tefillin are certainly hundreds of times more valuable than a top quality suit! Remember that a top quality pair of tefillin should last many decades. A pair of tefillin that costs $1000 and lasts for forty years are worn approximately 300 times a year or a total of 12,000 times. Thus, this pair of tefillin cost about 8 ½ cents a day. Compare this to how much value one gets per wearing from a nice suit!
WHAT TO ASK WHEN ORDERING TEFILLIN?
When ordering a pair of tefillin, one is entitled to ask as many questions about the tefillin as one chooses. After all, one is making a major purchase. In addition, asking these questions informs the seller that one wants tefillin that are mehadrin and are not simply minimally kosher.
Thus, it is perfectly acceptable to ask whether the seller knows the sofer personally or at least by reputation. Why did he choose this sofer? Is the sofer licensed by an organization that tests him periodically on the relevant halachos? One should definitely request that the sofer be instructed to write parshios that are kosher l’mehadrin, and not simply kosher or even kosher lichatchila.
Request that the parshios be checked by two different examiners and also by computer. Also insist that the examiner be instructed that the parshios should be kosher l’mehadrin. Usually, the examiners are only checking to see if the parshios are minimally kosher.
From which manufacturer are the batim being ordered? Why did the seller choose this batim macher? Do the batim carry a hechsher? Order batim that are kosher l’mehadrin.
Order batim where no glue is added to the titura. Clarify that the batim macher cuts between the compartments after painting to guarantee that they are properly separated. Specify that the seller should make sure that the parshios, both shel yad and shel rosh, fit completely inside the ketzitzah.
Of course, one needs to verify that the tefillin are set up for someone left-handed or right- handed, and whether the ksav (the script) and the knots are for nusach Ashkenaz, Sfard or Edot HaMizrah. Clarify in advance how large the batim of the tefillin will be. If the bar- mitzvah bochur is small, one may have a shaylah whether the tefillin are too large to fit on his arm correctly. Clarify this issue in advance with your tefillin seller and with your rav.
None of the items above should cost anything extra and therefore one should always ask for them even if one’s budget is limited.
WHAT EXTRA ITEMS SHOULD I ASK FOR WHEN ORDERING TEFILLIN?
There are several other hiddurim one can order when purchasing new tefillin. Bear in mind that each of these items will add to the price of your tefillin and may require more advance time to order your tefillin.
1. Ask your rav whether you should order tefillin that were manufactured originally “perudos ad hatefer le’gamrei,” literally, separated completely down to the stitch, referring to the stitching on the top of the titura. This means that the batim were manufactured without any glue between the compartments of the batim.
When ordering tefillin that are perudos ad hatefer le’gamrei, ask for batim that were made originally this way from the beginning of their manufacture. Sometimes a batim macher receiving an order for “perudos ad hatefer le’gamrei” will take a knife and attempt to cut through the compartments of the bayis in order to separate them. You do not want these batim. Firstly, the cutting could damage the batim. Furthermore, the batim macher may not have succeeded in separating all the glue.
Although all poskim agree that it is halachically preferable to have batim that are constructed without any glue between the compartments, there is a risk that these batim could separate with time and thus no longer be properly square. For this reason, if the person wearing the tefillin will not be checking periodically to ensure that his tefillin are still properly square, it may be preferable to have the compartments glued together. Your rav should be consulted.
2. Order parshios and retzuos that are avodas yad. If ordering parshios that are avodas yad, instruct the sofer that they should be written on extra thin parchment.
3. Order tefillin where the shin was pulled out by hand and the mold was used only to enhance an existing shin. (See part one article for the explanation.)
WHAT SHOULD I CHECK WHEN THE TEFILLIN ARRIVE?
The big day arrives. Your local sefarim store, sofer, or rav tells you that your tefillin have arrived! Is there anything you should check on the tefillin?
Check if the batim, titura and stitching are all properly square. You do not need to have a trained eye to check. Look if they appear perfectly square to you. Pay special attention that the titura area that faces the ma’avarta is smooth. It is not unusual that this area is not finished to the extent that it should be.
WHAT SHOULD I BE CHECKING ON MY OWN TEFILLIN?
Just as a car owner knows that he must check the level of the motor oil every fill-up or two, the tefillin owner should know to periodically check certain things on his tefillin.
First, check that the retzuos and batim are completely black and are not rubbed out, cracked or faded. Are the retzuos black all the way to their tip? Be particular to check that they are black near where the knot is tightened, because at that point the paint often rubs out. One should also check that the retzua is still wide enough near the knot. If they are not fully black, blacken them with kosher tefillin paint. (Everyone who wears tefillin should have access to kosher tefillin paint or markers.) If someone’s retzuos are cracking in several places, perhaps he should consider replacing them.
The knot of the shel yad should be connected that it touches the ketzitzah of the tefillin.
Check that the batim, titura, and stitches are still perfectly square. This means that the width and the length appear to be the same length to the naked eye, and that there are no dents, nicks, or projections along the sides or in the corners of the bayis. The back corners of the batim often become rounded because of hats or taleisim that are constantly rubbing them.
If the stitch of the titura is not taut or it loops in the middle, it is not kosher and you should contact your batim expert. With time or damage, the stitches often loosen or move, or the batim get banged or nicked and are no longer properly square. Your local batim expert has the equipment and know-how to repair them.
Know a batim macher or batim repair expert. Every major Jewish community should have at least one person who is trained and has the equipment to repair batim. Just as the community has shatnez testers, a mohel, a butcher, a mikvah for dishes, sefarim stores, and talmidei chachamim who are trained to check mezuzos, a community must have a talmid chacham who is trained properly in the repair of batim.
HOW TO MAINTAIN YOUR TEFILLIN PROPERLY
Maintaining your tefillin is fairly easy. Never leave your tefillin in direct sunlight, in a very hot place, or inside your car during the daytime. As much as possible, your hair should be dry while wearing your tefillin. Protect corners by leaving the cover on the shel yad. (It should be noted that some poskim contend that one should not place these covers on the shel yad while one is wearing them or while making the bracha. However, since most poskim permit leaving these covers on, one may be lenient.)
Tefillin are one of the special signs that Hashem gave the Jewish people, and we should certainly excel in treating this mitzvah with the appropriate dignity. When Yidden request that their tefillin be only mehadrin, they demonstrate their reverence for the sign that bonds us to Hashem.