What Could be Wrong with the Steak?

Since this week’s parsha includes the prohibition of gid hanasheh, we have the opportunity to discuss certain issues of shechitah.

One of my editors suggested that I mention to those who are squeamish that this article will be graphic about aspects of shechitah, so I am fulfilling this request.

Question #1:

When Yankel returns from kollel one day, his wife Miriam asks for his advice about the following situation. While visiting a neighbor, Miriam noticed her neighbor using a brand of meat that nobody she knows considers reliably kosher. “Should I tell her that her meat does not have a good hechsher?”

Question #2: Chayim asks me the following: “In parshas Vayeishev, Rashi mentions that Yosef reported to his father that his brothers ate meat that was prohibited, even for a Ben Noach; but Yosef was mistaken — the brothers were very careful to eat only properly shechted meat. Could it be that they were following different kashrus standards, so that Yosef thought what they were eating was treif, whereas the brothers were convinced that it was kosher?”

The Torah requires that kosher meat and poultry be slaughtered in a specific, halachically approved way (shechitah) and may be eaten only if they are without certain defects that render them tereifah. In Parshas Re’eih, the Torah (Devarim 12:20-21) teaches, When Hashem will enlarge your border as He has promised you, and you will say, “I will eat meat” because you desire to eat meat, to your heart’s desire you may eat meat… And you shall slaughter as I have commanded you. Yet,nowhere in all of Chumash does the Torah provide such instructions. This is one of the internal proofs that the written Torah was accompanied by an explanatory Oral Torah, and, indeed, the laws referred to in the verse, And you shall slaughter as I have commanded you, are part of this Torah she’baal peh. Via halacha leMoshe miSinai, an oral communication that Hashem taught Moshe at Har Sinai, the Torah provided five regulations that must be followed for a shechitah to be kosher (Chullin 9a). Violating any one of these regulations means that the meat was not slaughtered as I have commanded you, and is not kosher.

The five rules are:

  1. Shehiyah — Pausing during the act of shechitah invalidates it, even if the shechitah is subsequently completed (Mishnah Chullin 32a).
  2. Drasah – Pressing down or chopping with the knife invalidates the shechitah. A proper shechitah involves a slicing motion, usually with a back-and-forth stroke (Mishnah Chullin 30b).
  3. Chaladah – Burrowing the knife into the neck and then cutting in an outward direction invalidates the shechitah. Proper shechitah requires that the back of the knife is always exposed (Mishnah Chullin 32a).
  4. Hagramah – Cutting above or below the area of the neck designated by the Torah for proper shechitah (Mishnah Chullin 18a).
  5. Ikur – Tearing, rather than cutting, is not kosher (Tosafos, Chullin 9a s.v. Kulhu, in explanation of Rashi). If the shechitah knife has nicks in it, it may tear, rather than cut. 

Thus, a shocheit must be highly competent, both in the halachos of shechitah and in the skills necessary to do the job correctly. His shechitah blade must not only be sharper than a razor, but also totally smooth, because a slight nick invalidates the shechitah (see Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 18:2). It takes a considerable amount of time and effort for a shocheit to learn all the skills of his trade adequately, including how to quickly hone his knife to the required sharpness and how to check with his fingernail that its blade is completely smooth. These are difficult skills to learn. I recently borrowed the shechitah knife of someone who is in the process of learning the skill, and although his knife was adequately smooth, it was not nearly sharp enough to pass muster. Indeed, halachic literature is replete with anecdotes of rabbonim who discovered that shochatim active in the profession were not as proficient in their skills as the halacha requires. The Maharshal reports checking the knife of a well-experienced shocheit doing his rounds of shechting chickens for kaparos Erev Yom Kippur, and discovering that not only was the shocheit’s knife nicked, but the shocheit repeatedly checked his knife too speedily  to notice it! (Yam shel Shelomoh, Chullin 1:39)

Furthermore, a shocheit must be fully proficient in the detailed laws applying to his profession; he is expected to review the laws of his field every thirty days to maintain his expertise.

Since it is easy for a shocheit to invalidate a shechitah without anyone but him knowing about it, one should use only a shocheit who is known to be G-d-fearing, a yarei shamayim. We now understand why the old European shtetl people viewed the shocheit with tremendous esteem. He was respected second only to the rav for his erudition and his fear of heaven.

Other rules regarding shechitah include that the shechitah must be performed by an observant Jew. A gentile’s shechitah is not kosher, even if a knowledgeable observant Jew supervises to ensure that everything is done correctly.

We can already see why people sometimes hesitate to use a particular shechitah. Although one cannot be sure whether a shocheit is a yarei shamayim, one can sometimes sense that he is not. Indeed, the responsa literature is full of cases concerning shochatim whose behavior or personal shortcomings caused concern about their trustworthiness. Unfortunately, I, too, have met shochtim whose lackadaisical attitude to mitzvah observance did not reflect the type of person I would want to entrust with this responsibility.

But maybe it’s treif!

Even if the animal passed muster and merited a flawless kosher shechitah, it may still not be kosher. The Torah prohibits eating meat of a bird or animal that is tereifah, meaning that the animal has certain physical defects (Chullin Chapter Three). For example, a bird or animal that has a perforated lung, gall bladder or intestine; that has a torn spinal cord; or that has been attacked with the fang of a predator, is tereifah. Although people colloquially use the word tereifah for any non-kosher food, technically speaking, it refers to an animal or bird with one of these defects. Not only is a tereifah animal non-kosher, but so, too, are its milk or eggs that were produced after it became tereifah.

This leads us to an interesting question. If the milk produced by a tereifah cow is not kosher, how can we drink milk without checking to see if the milked cow has none of these defects? Most signs of tereifah are internal and cannot be verified on a living animal without a CT scan or MRI equipment, not commonly available on a farm.  Obviously, such testing would drive up the price of eggs and dairy products, even more than last year’s heat wave.

The answer is that although the milk of an animal and the eggs of a bird with any of these imperfections is indeed tereifah, so long as we do not know that the animals or birds are tereifah, we assume that most animals and birds are kosher and follow the majority. Therefore, we can rely on milk and eggs being kosher, unless there is reason to assume that there is a problem.

Regarding meat, we are not required to check for a particular tereifah unless the defect occurs frequently. Thus, since animals commonly have lung problems, one is required to check their lungs, even if they do not smoke. Another example is a perforation in the intestinal wall that renders its possessor treif. There is a section of the small intestine, called Meckel’s diverticulum, that in poultry frequently becomes infected and swollen, often resulting in a perforation that renders the bird tereifah. Since this defect is not unusual, mashgichim in kosher poultry plants routinely check this part of the intestine.

How do I check?

There are often different opinions among rabbonim how carefully one needs to check for these tereifos, and, at times, whether one needs to check altogether. There may also be a disagreement over other subtle details, such as whether the factory is set up in a way that allows the shochatim sufficient time to do their work properly. The rav overseeing the packing plant may feel that all is in order, whereas another rav may feel it is lacking.

At this point, I return to the question that Miriam asked her husband Yankel: “While in my friend’s house, I noticed that they were using a brand of meat that no one I know uses. Should I tell her that her meat does not meet a proper kashrus standard?” The answer here would depend on circumstances: If there is indeed a real, serious problem at that abattoir, then Miriam should certainly tell her friend not to purchase that meat. However, this applies only if Miriam has firsthand knowledge of this issue, which is rarely the case. In the vast majority of situations, Miriam herself has no idea why the people in “her circle” do not use that shechitah. It may indeed be for the reasons we have mentioned, but sometimes it is not.

Yankel realized that besides the laws of loshon hora involved here, he would also need active kashrus experience to answer her question. Lacking this qualification, he decided to educate himself on the subject by asking a rav who is experienced with the kashrus of meat. Since this rav requested not to be identified, we will call him Rav Posek as we present their conversation.

No brisket for me!

“I want to give you a bit of a history of shechitah,” began the rav. “Originally, almost all American kosher meat packers used a method called shechitah teluyah, which means ‘hanging shechitah.’ This method of shechitah was highly popular, because a non-kosher meat packing plant can very easily be used to produce kosher meat. This was  advantageous, since the kosher market in America does not use the meat from the hindquarters, and the non-kosher market considers hindquarter cuts to be the highest quality cuts. The non-kosher meat packers had trouble selling their forequarters, so arranging a shechitah was a very convenient way of finding a new market for their product without jeopardizing their existing customers. It was a classic win-win arrangement that encouraged large, non-kosher meat plants to have kosher shechitah and was responsible for making kosher meat widely available and keeping its price down.

“The standard method of shechitah in these packing plants involved hanging the animal from a hind leg, while gentile employees held the animal’s head still for the shocheit. Although the abattoir owners encouraged this method because it involved no investment on their part, it was not viewed favorably among most of the other people involved. Not the rabbanim, for reasons I will shortly explain; not animals’ rights advocates, who justifiably noted that this method is cruel; not the shochatim and plant workers, because it is unnecessarily dangerous; and, presumably, not the animals themselves, although they were not consulted.

“Many rabbonim frowned on shechitah teluyah because it inflicts unnecessary pain on the animals (Shu”t Mishneh Halachos 16:2). Although this was perhaps the most popular method of shechitah both in North and South America until fairly recently, many rabbonim had additional reasons to disapprove of shechitah teluyah.”

Pulling a sefer off his bookshelf, the rav continued. “Let me read you a teshuvah from Rav Pesach Frank, the Rav of Yerushalayim for several decades, written on the 19th of Elul, 5755, to Rav Shmuel Yaakov Glicksburg, then the rav of Buenos Aires, Argentina:

‘I rejoiced when I read your letter saying that you have succeeded to organize a shechitah where the animals are not hung, similar to what we have here in Eretz Yisrael. This is a tremendous accomplishment, and the merits of the public are yours. If you have any other news about the kashrus of the shechitah, please notify me, as I am often asked whether one may eat the meat from Argentina and am constantly uncertain how to respond. I would like to hear from his dignity if I can guarantee to a G-d-fearing person that this meat is kosher without any concerns, because this is what they ask me’ (Shu”t Har Tzvi, Even HaEzer #189).

“In an article published in the rabbinic journal Hamaor, in Teiveis, 5719 Rabbi Eliezer Silver ruled that one may not use shechitah teluyah because he had concerns about the actual shechitah being non-kosher. He felt that the gentile holding the animal might actually push the animal into the shechitah knife, which would involve the gentile partially performing the shechitah and thereby invalidating it.

“Rav Silver recorded that during the years the Ridbaz (who served as the Rav of Slutzk, Tzefas, and served briefly as the Chief Rabbi of Chicago) spent in the United States, he once saw a shechitah teluyah in Denver and prohibited it. Also, when a shaylah about this matter was sent from Caracas, Venezuela to Rav Menashe Klein, he prohibited it (Shu”t Mishneh Halachos 9:151). Similarly, in an interesting letter to Rav Pinchas Hirschsprung of Montreal, Rav Moshe Feinstein describes a shechitah teluyah facility that he saw in Toronto. Although his initial reaction was that there was basis to allow the shechitah, he told them that he would need to examine the matter further. Upon further research, Rav Moshe withdrew his original psak permitting this shechitah and permitted it only if the animal’s head was secured during the shechitah, and not if it was simply held by workers (Shu”t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 2:13). Rav Moshe makes no mention of any of the other concerns about this shechitah, such as the possibility that the gentile may move the animal into the shechitah or about tzaar baalei chayim.

“Nevertheless, this method of shechitah was very popular in the United States even among some of the most responsible hechsherim. When I was involved in examining shechitos, back in the 1980’s, most shechitos that I saw were still shechitah teluyah.

“As the animals’ advocacy organizations became stronger and plant procedures came under the scrutiny of the general public, shechitah teluyah became less popular and was replaced with shechitah in a pen. Although the pen would certainly resolve Rav Moshe’s concern that the head must be secured during the shechitah, it may have created its own issues.”

At this point Yankel interrupted the Rav’s monologue: “What do you mean by shechitah in a pen?”

“I have seen many such pens, each one with a slightly variant design. The basic idea is that the entire animal, especially its head, is secured by a pen operated either by electricity or through hydraulic power, which holds the animal securely during the shechitah. This appliance makes the shechitah very safe for the shocheit, and he has plenty of time in which to perform the shechitah and to check afterwards that it was performed correctly. In the United States, this became the standard method for most shechitos, but it is unusual to find such a shechitah in Europe, in Eretz Yisroel, or in those in South America that shecht for a chareidi market.

“Why do they not use this method in Europe?”

Again the Rav perused his well-stocked bookshelves and produced a sefer Yankel had never seen before.

“In 1988, a movement was afoot in England to require that all animals be shechted only while standing in a pen. However, there was fierce opposition to requiring all Anglo-Jewish hechsherim to shecht with this device. This volume, Bishvilei Hashechitah, by an English shocheit named Rabbi Simcha Bunim Lieberman, includes an essay that cites many reasons to oppose the change.

“1. The shocheit has to shecht upwards. This is a highly technical halacha, but there are authorities who contend that it is prohibited to shecht upwards, predominantly out of concern that this might cause the shocheit to press rather than slice while he is shechting, violating the Torah rule of drasah.

“2. A shocheit who is shechting in a manner to which he is accustomed should not suddenly be required to shecht in a different way, foreign to his experience.

“3. The greatest concern was that since these devices are usually custom made, it is possible that the mechanical force used to control the animal’s head may be so strong that it renders the animal tereifah, before the shechitah takes place. The contention was that such a device should not be used, without first seeing whether the animal appears physically unharmed, and, ideally, the animal should be checked carefully afterwards.”

Yankel asked Rav Posek if he was familiar with the particular hechsher that Miriam had seen in the neighbor’s house.

“Although I have not been in that shechitah recently, I was there once many years ago. I cannot say that I was that happy with the operation. The shochatim and bodakim all needed to work quickly to keep pace with the speed of the assembly line production. I found it difficult to imagine that they could do their jobs properly in the time allowed. As I recall, I even mentioned this to the rav hamachshir, who responded that he hires exclusively competent personnel who are up to the task. I left very unsatisfied.”

“What would you tell our neighbor?”

“If she seems to be the type of person who wants to do the correct thing, tell her: ‘According to what I have heard, people feel that the kashrus standard used by that company is not the highest.’ This statement is accurate and reflects exactly what you know.”

CONCLUSION

We now more fully appreciate the difficulties in maintaining high kashrus standards, particularly when producing meat. We should always hope and pray that the food we eat fulfills all the halachos that the Torah commands.

Paying Workers on Time – The Mitzvah of “Bal Talin”

In honor of Yaakov Avinu’s contractual dealings with his father-in-law, I present:

In parshas Ki Seitzei, the Torah instructs, “Beyomo sitein secharo ve’lo sa’avor alav hashemesh – On that day [the day the work was completed] you should pay his wage, and the sun shall not set [without him receiving payment]” (Devarim 24:15). The Torah mentions two mitzvos; a positive mitzvah (mitzvas aseh) and a negative mitzvah (mitzvas lo sa’aseh) to guarantee that a worker is paid before sunset of the day that he performed his job. Thus, someone who pays his worker on time fulfills a positive mitzvah, whereas if he neglects to pay him on time and the worker demands payment, he has transgressed a lo sa’aseh.

The Torah gives us a definition of “on time” – before sunset. This mitzvah is mentioned in parshas Kedoshim as well. However, there the Torah presents the mitzvah somewhat differently: Lo salin pe’ulas sachir it’cha ad boker, “The wages of a worker shall not remain with you until morning” (Vayikra 19:13). Here, the Torah requires that the worker be paid before morning, implying that one has the entire night to pay him, rather than being responsible to pay him before the day is over. The two verses appear to be contradictory, one implying that I must pay my worker before sunset, the other implying that I have until morning.

Chazal resolve this conflict by explaining that there are indeed two deadlines, the end of the day and the end of the night, but that the two pesukim discuss different cases. The pasuk in Ki Seitzei discusses a worker whose job finished during the day or precisely at the end of the night. Such a worker must be paid before the following sunset, which is the first deadline that arrives after he completed his job. However, the pasuk in Kedoshim refers to a worker who completed his job at the end of the day or during the night. Such a worker must be paid by morning.

Thus, the two verses together teach that there are two payment deadlines, one at sunset and the other at daybreak. One is obligated to pay his worker before the next deadline that occurs after the job is completed. If the work was completed before the end of the day, he must be paid by sunset. If the work was completed at night, he must be paid before daybreak (Bava Metzia 111a, quoting the amora, Rav). It should be noted that one violates the lo sa’aseh only in a case where the worker demanded payment and the owner refused to pay. Furthermore, as we will note, there is no violation if it is understood or prearranged that payment will be delayed.

WHAT TYPE OF WORK IS INCLUDED IN THIS MITZVAH?

The Torah was very concerned that a worker be paid on time. This mitzvah applies not only to an employee, but also to a contractor hired to perform a specific job; he must be paid by the first deadline after the job is completed. It also applies to someone who works on the client’s item on his own premises, such as a repairman of small appliances, or people who do dry cleaning and tailoring. Payment on these items is due by the first deadline after the item is returned (Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 339:6).

Likewise, someone hired for a specific length of time must be paid by the first deadline after completion of employment. In all these situations, if the job is completed (or the item returned) during the day, the worker should be paid by sunset. If the job is completed by night, he should be paid by morning.

This mitzvah applies to all kinds of hired work, whether the worker is a contractor or an employee, permanent or temporary, poor or wealthy, adult or minor. Thus, by paying on the day we receive the service, we fulfill the mitzvah of beyomo sitein secharo, paying a worker on the day he completes a job, as well as fulfilling other mitzvos mentioned later in this article. The following is a partial list of workers included in this mitzvah: automobile and appliance repairmen, babysitters, dentists, dry cleaners, house cleaners, housing contractors, gardeners, lawyers, physicians, psychologists, rebbes, teachers and tutors.

EXAMPLE:

Shimon picked up his garment from the tailor, who asked him for payment. Shimon forgot to bring money to pay the tailor, and asked the tailor if he minds waiting a couple of days until Shimon would be back in the neighborhood. The tailor answered that his rent is due today, and he is short on funds. Shimon is obligated min haTorah to make a special trip to pay the tailor today. Of course, his reward for fulfilling the mitzvah is increased many times because of the inconvenience involved.

Similarly, one is required to pay the doctor on the day of the appointment, unless other provisions have been prearranged. If I hire a teenager to mow the lawn, I must pay him when he finishes the job. I should not delay payment to a later date because of my convenience.

The employee or hiree must be paid in cash (Tosafos, Bava Basra 92b; Shach Choshen Mishpat 336:4) or by check that he can readily convert into cash. One may not pay a worker or contractor with merchandise unless this was arranged in advance.

The employer has not fulfilled his mitzvah if he pays with a post-dated check or a check that cannot be cashed immediately (such as, if the bank is closed that day). Again, if the employee is told before he is hired that these are the arrangements, then there is no violation.

In keeping with the Torah’s concept of protecting workers’ rights, it is prohibited to call a repairman knowing that I have no money to pay him, without telling him that payment will be delayed (see Ahavas Chesed 1:10:12).

RENTALS

Bal talin also applies to rental arrangements. Thus, if I rent an appliance or an automobile, I must pay the rental fee by the sunset or daybreak after the rental is completed.

EXAMPLE:

Leah borrows a wedding dress from a gemach that charges a fee for dry cleaning and other expenses. When she returns the dress, she should pay the gemach before sunset or daybreak, whichever comes first.

SMALL WAGES AND SMALL EMPLOYEES

Even the delay of a wage less than a perutah is a violation of bal talin (Ritva, Bava Metzia 111b). As mentioned above, I am required to pay a minor on the day he performs a job for me. Thus, if I hire a child to run an errand for me, I must pay him that day (Ahavas Chesed 1:9:5). Furthermore, if I offer a young child a candy to do a job, I am required to give him the candy on the day he did the job.

EXAMPLE:

Reuven asked an eight-year-old to buy him an ice cream cone, offering the child to buy himself a cone at the same time. The grocery had only one cone left. If Reuven takes the cone for himself, he must make sure to buy the child a cone before sunset that day. (In this instance, it will not help Reuven if the child says that he does not mind, since a child cannot waive his legal rights.)

Running a large business or being preoccupied is not a valid reason for not paying on time (Tosafos, Bava Metzia 111a s.v. Amar). Furthermore, arranging that someone else pay the workers or contractors does not exempt the owner from responsibility if the agent is remiss. This is because of a halachic principle that one may not assume that an agent carried out a Torah command on my behalf (see Nesiv Hachesed 1:10:25).

WHAT IF I DIDN’T REALIZE I WOULD BE EXPECTED TO PAY THAT DAY?

Unless there was a reason to assume that I was not expected to pay until later, I am responsible to pay the day the work is performed.

EXAMPLE:   

Mr. Siegal enters the doctor’s office and sees a sign on the wall, “Payment is due when service is rendered.” Mr. Siegal had assumed that he would pay when the bill arrives, and he has no money until his next payday. He should tell the receptionist of his inability to pay and request that the doctor be so informed before the appointment.

WHAT IF IT IS ASSUMED THAT THE WORKER IS PAID LATER?

The Gemara (Bava Metzia 111a) discusses the following situation and rules it halachically acceptable. The Jewish merchants of Sura hired workers and paid them at the end of the next market day, when the merchants had cash. Until market day, it was assumed that the merchants would use their available cash to purchase more merchandise (Ritva ad loc.), and the workers were always paid after market day. The Gemara states that these merchants did not violate bal talin, since it was assumed that the workers would not be paid until the following market day.

A contemporary analogy is when a business pays its workers on Tuesdays for the week’s work or on the first of the month for the previous month. In these situations, there is no violation of bal talin, since this is the agreed arrangement.

WHAT IS THE HALACHA IF AN AGENT HIRED THE WORKERS?

The Gemara (Bava Metzia 110b) discusses a case where the foreman hired workers on behalf of the employer, notifying them that he is not responsible for their wages. Subsequently, the wages were delayed. The Gemara states that neither the foreman nor the employer violated bal talin. The foreman was not personally obligated to pay the workers, and the owner did not violate bal talin, because he did not hire the workers himself. Nevertheless, he is still required to pay them on time, if possible (Shulchan Aruch Choshen Mishpat 339:7).

WHAT SHOULD I DO IF I MAY NOT BE ABLE TO PAY ON THE DUE DATE?

To avoid violating any Torah mitzvos, the owner should tell the workers before they begin working that he is making a condition that they forgo their right to be paid on time (Nesiv Hachesed 1:10:24).

WHAT SHOULD THE OWNER DO IF HE WILL BE OUT OF TOWN ON PAYDAY?

The owner is responsible for having his workers paid on time. If he will be absent when his workers finish, he must make provisions to pay them on time (Ahavas Chesed 1:10:12).

EXAMPLE:

Mrs. Schwartz is taking her child to the doctor and has hired a babysitter to take care of her other young children until her teenage daughter comes home at 4:00 p.m. Unless Mrs. Schwartz arranges otherwise, she must see that her babysitter is paid before sunset.

There are several ways Mrs. Schwartz can avoid violating the Torah’s law. When hiring the sitter, Mrs. Schwartz can tell her that she is hiring her with the understanding that the sitter waives her right to be paid before the day ends. In this case, if Mrs. Schwartz fails to pay the sitter before sunset, she will not violate any prohibition, although she will have missed the opportunity to perform a mitzvah. Therefore, it is better if Mrs. Schwartz gives her teenage daughter money to pay the sitter. This way Mrs. Schwartz has fulfilled the mitzvah of paying her worker on time. Optimally, Mrs. Schwartz should do both; that is, she should ask her sitter to waive her right, just in case the sitter is not paid on time, and arrange for her daughter to pay, so Mrs. Schwartz fulfills an extra mitzvah.

If the sitter did not waive her right to be paid before sunset, Mrs. Schwartz must check with her daughter later in the day to see that she did, indeed, pay the babysitter (see Nesiv Hachesed 1:10:25).

WHAT IF THE OWNER HAS NO MONEY WITH WHICH TO PAY?

Kalman Mandel’s business is running into a cash-flow problem, and he is having difficulty paying his contractors. There are several shaylos he should ask his rav:

(1) Is he required to pay his contractors from his own personal money, or can he assume that, since his business is incorporated, he is obligated to pay them only from his business account?

(2) How much is the business required to liquidate to pay the contractors?

(3) How aggressively is the business required to collect its receivables?

(4) Is he required to sell merchandise at a lower price? At a loss?

Chofetz Chayim (Ahavas Chesed 1:9:7) rules that one is required to borrow money to pay one’s workers on time, whereas Pischei Tshuva (339:8) and Graz rule that it is the correct thing to do (midas chassidus), but it is not required.

According to Biur Halacha (242:1), if one does not have enough money both to pay wages due on Friday and to make Shabbos, one is required to pay the wages, even if, as a result, he will not have money for Shabbos.

Similarly, if sunset is approaching and the owner has not yet paid wages that are due today, he must attend to paying his workers, if they are demanding payment, even if the result is that he is unable to daven mincha.

As we have mentioned before, if the employee does not claim payment or states that he doesn’t mind if the payment is delayed, the employer does not violate bal talin. Nevertheless, the employer should still attempt to pay on time, and he fulfills a mitzvah by doing so.

It is wrong for the owner to delay paying the worker, forcing him to repeatedly return for payment. These actions violate the mitzvah taught by the pasuk in Mishlei, “Al tomar le’rei’acha lech vashoov umachar etein ve’yeish itach – Do not tell your neighbor ‘Go and come back, I’ll pay you tomorrow,’ when you have [the money] with you” (Mishlei 3:28).

If the employer refuses to pay his worker altogether, he violates the prohibition of Lo sa’ashok es rei’acha, “Do not hold back payment due your neighbor” (Vayikra 19:13). If the employee or contractor is needy, the employer violates an additional prohibition, Lo sa’ashok sachir ani ve’evyon, “Do not hold back payment due to a poor or destitute person” (Devarim 24:14).

The Gemara (Bava Metzia 111a) counts a total of seven Biblical mitzvos involved in withholding wages, including gezel, stealing, as well as the above-mentioned mitzvos.

WHAT SHOULD THE OWNER DO IF HE IS SHORT ON MONEY?

What should the owner do when he does not have enough money to pay all his employees and contractors? The Chofetz Chayim discusses this exact shaylah in his sefer Ahavas Chesed. He rules that if some of the workers are poor, he should pay those workers first. If all or none of the workers are poor, he should divide the available funds among them equally.

MAY THE OWNER OFFER COMPENSATION FOR DELAYED PAYMENT?

The owner missed his deadline. Feeling bad, he considers compensating his workers by providing them with a bonus for their patience. Unfortunately, although he means well, the owner has now incurred a different prohibition, because this is considered as paying interest (ribis). Since he is obligated to pay his workers, the amount owed is a debt. The prohibition against interest applies to any debt, even if it did not originate as a loan. Therefore, an employer who delayed paying his workers or contractors cannot offer them compensation for the delay, nor can they charge him a late fee (Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 173:12; Rema ibid. 176:6).

Similarly, if the owner is tight on cash, he may not offer his workers, contractors or other creditors a bonus if they agree to wait for payment. This situation might entail a Torah prohibition of ribis (see Bris Yehudah pg. 451 ftn 15). If necessary, he could arrange this with a heter iska, and a rav should be consulted.

THE CONTRACTOR IS OVERCHARGING ME. WILL I VIOLATE BAL TALIN IF I HOLD BACK PAYMENT?

When a person feels he is being overcharged, he usually considers withholding part of the payment until the matter is clarified. If indeed he is correct, this plan is not a problem. However, if he is mistaken and the contractor deserves, and demands payment for, the total amount, it means that he has violated bal talin by not paying the contractor on time. For this reason, the Chofetz Chayim suggests always negotiating a price with a contractor or repairman in advance.

SUGGESTION:

If the repairman is uncertain how much the work will cost, tell him before he starts that you are stipulating that he waive his right to be paid on time (see Graz Vol. 5 pg. 890 #18). This avoids violating the prohibition of bal talin should a dispute develop between the parties.

If this was not stipulated in advance, and a dispute develops, discuss with a rav or posek how to proceed. Bear in mind that if the worker is demanding payment and the contracting party is wrong, he might end up violating a serious Torah prohibition by not paying on time.

It is important that people become more familiar with the details of bal talin in order to conduct their business dealings according to halacha. Unfortunately, not everyone realizes that they perform a mitzvah each time they pay their workers on time. Apparently, this is not a recent phenomenon. Over a hundred years ago, the Chofetz Chayim decried the fact that otherwise observant people were inattentive to the observance of this mitzvah. He attributed this to ignorance of its details. Hopefully, this article will spur people to learn more about this mitzvah and the great reward for being attentive about its observance.

Writing a Sefer Torah

Question #1: Why not?

“Why doesn’t everyone write his own Sefer Torah?”

Question #2: Partners in Torah

“May two people partner together to fulfill the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah?”

Question #3: Traditional Chapters

“Why did some gedolei Yisroel not use perakim and pesukim numbers to identify pesukim, whereas others did?”

Introduction:

The last mitzvah mentioned in the Torah, which we are taught in parshas Vayeileich, is that each individual is required to write a Sefer Torah. The words of the Torah from which we derive this mitzvah are, Ve’atah kisvu lachem es hashirah hazos velamdah es Bnei Yisroel simah befihem lema’an tihyeh li hashirah hazos le’eid bivnei Yisroel, “And now, write for yourselves this song, and teach it to the Children of Israel, place it in their mouths, so that this song shall be a testimony among the Children of Israel” (Devorim 31:19). We should note that two of the targumim, the early Aramaic translations of the Torah, authored by Onkelus and by Yonasan ben Uziel, both translate the word shirah not as “song,” but as “praise.” On the other hand, both Rashi and the Rambam (Hilchos Sefer Torah 7:1) explain the posuk a bit differently from the Targum, translating shirah as “song” and understanding it to refer to the song of parshas Ha’azinu. The Rambam explains the posuk to mean that one should “write the Torah, which contains the song of Ha’azinu.”

The Baal Haturim on the posuk notes two gematriyos, one that the words velamdah es Bnei Yisroel equal zeh Torah shebiksav,“this is the Written Torah,” and the words simah befihem equal zeh Talmud, “this is the Oral Torah.”

Nothing missing

Fulfilling the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah requires that one write an entire Sefer Torah — even if one letter is missing, one has not fulfilled the mitzvah (Rambam). A Sefer Torah must be written in black ink on parchment. Parchment is made from animal hide, and the mitzvos of Sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzos require that the parchment is produced from the hide of a kosher species. There is no halachic requirement to make it from an animal that was slaughtered in accordance with Jewish law, and, as a matter of fact, the hide is usually not from animals that were slaughtered according to halacha.

Lishmah

The tanning of the hide into parchment must be done lishmah, for the purpose of using it for a Sefer Torah. At the first step of the tanning, the Jew who processes the hide into parchment should state that he is processing it lishmah. Whether or not a non-Jew can perform some of the tanning under a Jew’s supervision, or whether doing this undermines the requirement that the processing must be lishmah, is a lengthy discussion among early halachic authorities (Rosh, Hilchos Sefer Torah #3).

The writing of the Sefer Torah must also be performed lishmah. Before he begins writing, the sofer should state aloud, “I am writing this Sefer Torah for the sanctity of Moshe Rabbeinu’s Torah” (Rosh, Hilchos Sefer Torah #4). There is an additional requirement that, when writing the names of Hashem, the scribe write them for the sake of creating holy names.

Dipping the quill

There is an interesting halacha that, when writing the name of Hashem, the sofer should not dip his quill into the ink immediately before writing His name. The reason is that the first letter written after a quill is dipped into ink often smears, and one does not want this to occur while one is writing Hashem‘s name.

Scoring

Prior to writing the words of the Torah on the specially-made parchment, one must score the parchment in a way that leaves no written marks. This process, called sirtut, is accomplished by running an awl or other sharp instrument across the parchmentto mark the lines on which one plans to write (Rambam, Rosh, Tur; cf. Rabbeinu Tam, who disagrees). This law is a halacha leMoshe miSinai, meaning that it is a mesorah, a tradition, that we were taught by Moshe Rabbeinu, who learned it directly from Hashem when he learned the Torah on Har Sinai.

Punctuating Torah

We have a mesorah how the words of the Torah are vowelized and punctuated; the markings indicating this appear in every standard chumash. However, in a Sefer Torah itself, halacha dictates that no periods, other punctuation marks, reading aids or music notes appear.

Chapters

Similarly, the division of the Torah into chapters, perakim, is originally from non-Jewish sources and is never used in handwritten Sifrei Torah. Indeed, this is true not only of the Torah, but also in most of the rest of Tanach. The chapter divisions that are commonly used for most of Tanach do not originate in Jewish sources. The two books that are exceptions, where the chapters are according to Jewish sources, are Tehillim and Eicha. In all other kisvei hakodesh, the division into pesukim is part of our tradition, but not the division into chapters. Consequently, the numbering of the pesukim, which is based on the non-Jewish chapter division, is also not our tradition.

At this point, we can address one of our opening questions: “Why did some gedolei Yisroel not use perakim and pesukim numbers to identify pesukim, whereas others did?”

Many of our gedolim, for example, the Chofetz Chayim and the Ohr Somayach, refrained from referring to pesukim according to chapter and posuk. Instead, they would refer to them by the parsha of the week and its location within the parsha. Clearly, they did not want to use a system that was non-Jewish in origin. Those who do use the chapter and posuk system felt, presumably, that since there is no prohibition to use this system, which makes it much easier for the student to locate the posuk being quoted or studied, one may use it to facilitate the student’s learning.

Pesuchos and sesumos

The Torah itself is divided into sections using a different system, which are called pesuchos and sesumos. These are indicated by the letter “pei” or “samach” in our standard chumashim.

There is a dispute among rishonim exactly how one is to make the pesuchos and sesumos. Both approaches agree that when the pesucha is in the middle or beginning of a line, it is indicated by leaving the rest of the line blank, and then continuing the next passage on the next line. When a sesumah is in the middle or beginning of a line, it is indicated by leaving blank an area at least nine spaces long and then continuing the next passage on the same line. However, when a pesucha or sesumah is at the end or towards the end of a line, the poskim dispute how it must be written. In order to avoid writing a Sefer Torah that is kosher only according to some authorities, accepted practice is to avoid having a pesucha or sesumah at the end or towards the end of a line. We will see shortly how we make sure that this happens.

Write the letters carefully

The sofer must be careful to write the letters clearly and to follow the halachic rules governing how the letters are to be written. He must also make sure that each letter is completely surrounded by parchment. This last requirement, called mukaf gevil, means that each letter must be written in a way that it does not connect to another letter, nor may it run to the top or bottom of the piece of parchment on which it is written.

One of the rules for writing a Sefer Torah is that the scribe must have another Sefer Torah or a tikun in front of him that has all the words of the Torah correctly spelled. In practice, sofrim use a tikun not only to help them spell the words correctly, but to mimic their exact placement on the line and column. Among other reasons, this is to avoid having the sesumos and pesuchos occur towards or at the ends of lines, which creates a halachic problem, as mentioned above.

Size of letters

A Sefer Torah may be written with very small letters or with very large ones, but the relative size of the letters within the same Sefer Torah must be consistent, except for those few letters that have a tradition to be written larger or smaller.

The scribe who writes a Sefer Torah must be a yarei shamayim and knowledgeable in all the laws of writing a Sefer Torah. There are many more details of these laws, far more than we can discuss in this article. Suffice it to say that numerous works are devoted entirely to the topic of the correct writing of letters in a Sefer Torah.

Someone who does not believe in the G-d-given nature of the Torah at Har Sinai is ineligible to be a scribe for Sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzos. Such a person may write a kesubah, which is halachically a contract and not holy writing.

How does it dry?

After writing a section of parchment that needs to dry, it is prohibited to suspend it upside down to prevent dust from settling on it. Notwithstanding that this is a simple method for making sure that the parchment remains clean while drying, it is a disrespectful way to treat the words of Hashem (Tur, Yoreh Deah Chapter 277).

Stitching

The pieces of parchment are stitched together with a specially-made thread processed from sinews of kosher animals. (As before, the animals must be of kosher species, but there is no requirement that they be kosher-slaughtered.) It should not be stitched all the way to the top or all the way to the bottom (Tur, Yoreh Deah Chapter 278).

Requirement

Until now, we have been discussing the halachos germane to writing a Sefer Torah, all of which are essential to fulfill this mitzvah. At this point, we will discuss some of the other laws germane to fulfilling the mitzvah.

The Gemara writes that a person who purchased a Sefer Torah that was not kosher, even if only because of one letter, and then repaired the error, it is considered as if he wrote an entire Sefer Torah (Menachos 30a). This is because one is not permitted to own an incorrect Sefer Torah.

Why would someone get credit for writing the entire Sefer Torah when all he did was write one letter? The answer is that a Sefer Torah containing mistakes must be repaired or checked within 30 days. Otherwise, one should place it in genizah. Thus, the individual who corrected the one letter took an incomplete Sefer Torah that would have required genizah and made it into a source that can be used for study and reading the Torah.

Selling a Sefer Torah

The Gemara teaches that one may not sell a Sefer Torah, even if he does not have food to put on his table (Megillah 27a). There are two situations in which one is permitted to sell a sefer Torah: (1) one needs funds to study Torah, or (2) one needs funds to get married (ad locum). The Rema (Yoreh Deah 270:1) adds a third case, permitting the sale of a Sefer Torah in order to have funds with which to fulfill the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim, redeeming captives.

One may not sell a Sefer Torah, even if he owns several already, and even if he wants to sell an older one in order to have the funds with which to purchase a newer one (Tur, Yoreh Deah, Chapter 270).

Purchasing a Sefer Torah

Does one fulfill the mitzvah if one purchases a Sefer Torah? Based on his understanding of the Gemara (Menachos 30a), the Rema rules that one fulfills the mitzvah only if the Sefer Torah had mistakes and he purchased it and hired a sofer to repair it (or repaired it himself); but, if the Sefer Torah was in good order, he has not fulfilled the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah by purchasing it.

Indeed, there is a dispute among the rishonim concerning this halacha: Rashi (Menachos 30a) and the Sefer Hachinuch explain that one fulfills the mitzvah in a non-optimal way by purchasing a Sefer Torah, whereas the Rambam, Smag, Shulchan Aruch and Rema all rule that one is not yotzei by purchase, because the Torah states that the mitzvah is to “write.”

The Minchas Chinuch notes that if he hired a sofer to write a Sefer Torah and then failed to pay him, not only has he violated the Torah prohibition of failing to pay a hiree, he has also not fulfilled the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah.

Gave it away

According to the Toras Chayim (Sanhedrin 21, quoted by Pischei Teshuvah, Yoreh Deah 270:3 and by Minchas Chinuch), someone who sold, lost or donated his Sefer Torah no longer fulfills the mitzvah and he must write another one. The Sefer Hachinuch implies that he agrees with this approach, since he writes that the mitzvah is that each individual should own a Sefer Torah. However, there are prominent authorities who dispute this conclusion, ruling that once he fulfilled the mitzvah by writing a Sefer Torah, selling it or giving it away does not invalidate his fulfilling of the mitzvah (see Pischei Teshuvah).

Partners in Torah

At this point, let us examine another of our opening questions: “May two people partner together to fulfill the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah?”

The Pischei Teshuvah, an anthologized commentary on the Shulchan Aruch, quotes a few poskim who discuss this question. Most are inclined to rule that one has not fulfilled the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah this way.

The Sefer Hachinuch defines the mitzvah as being that each person must own a Sefer Torah, which sounds as if he also holds that one does not fulfill the mitzvah by partnering with someone else to hire a sofer to write it.

The Sefer Hachinuch also writes that the optimal hiddur is to write the Torah himself, with his own hand. If someone is unable to write it himself, he should hire someone to write it for him.

Purchasing seforim

Does one fulfill the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah by purchasing seforim used to study Torah? The Rosh writes: Today, when people write a Sefer Torah and it is then left in shul to be used for the mitzvah of kerias haTorah, it is a positive mitzvah on every Jewish male who can afford it to write Chumashim, Mishnayos, Gemaras and their commentaries, in order that he and his children be able to study them. This is because the mitzvah of the Torah specifies “in order to learn from them,” and with the Gemara and commentaries one understands the mitzvos and their details well (Hilchos Sefer Torah #1).

The Beis Yosef (Yoreh Deah 270) explains that the Rosh was not coming to rule that there is no longer a mitzvah to write a Sefer Torah, but that there is also a mitzvah to write other seforim, and that this acquisition is a bigger mitzvah than writing a Sefer Torah. In the Shulchan Aruch, he reflected this opinion. However, there are prominent acharonim who disagree with the Shulchan Aruch and understand that the Rosh’s conclusion is that there is no mitzvah today to write a Sefer Torah (Perisha; Shach). This understanding of the Rosh explains that the mitzvah of the Torah is to produce materials used to study Torah. Since a Sefer Torah is not used today for this purpose, writing one does not fulfill the 613th mitzvah of the Torah.

According to this approach, there is an easy answer to our opening question: “Why doesn’t everyone write his own Sefer Torah?”

There are other reasons to explain why people do not write their own Sefer Torah. Another approach is that one is not required to spend more than a fifth of what he owns to fulfill a mitzvah (Minchas Chinuch). Thus, many poor and middle-class people are exempt from the mitzvah. (See the Sha’agas Aryeh, Shu”t Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah #52 and #54 and the Minchas Chinuch for yet other reasons to exempt people today from the mitzvah of writing a Sefer Torah.)

Conclusion

The goal of the Torah’s mitzvah to write a Sefer Torah is so that, wherever Jews live, there should be readily available seforim to study Torah. However, if this was the Torah’s only concern, it would have required each individual to purchase seforim according to his ability. Instead, the Torah required each individual to write a Sefer Torah, thus implying two additional ideas. (1) The Torah wanted each individual to be involved in the providing of Torah learning material, regardless of his personal financial situation. (2) The Torah wanted each individual to be involved, himself, in the writing of Torah materials and their procurement, and not to deputize this mitzvah to others, even when they are more skillful.

The Torah is referred to as a Tree of Life.  B’nei Yisroel are depicted as an agricultural people.  As the Torah is, indeed, a source — the Source — of life, it is certainly appropriate that we care for its proper “planting” and flourishing, as outlined in halacha.

Maaser Sheini

Photo by david Kadosh from FreeImages

Question #1: Where?

Many mitzvos can be performed only between the “walls” of Yerushalayim. Do these laws apply to everywhere within the walls of today’s “Old City”?

Question #2: What?

“What may I not remove from Yerushalayim?”

Question #3: When?

“When am I permitted to eat maaser sheini?”

Introduction:

This week’s parsha includes the mitzvah of maaser sheini. Although people currently living in chutz la’aretz often feel that they do not need to know the laws applicable to the agricultural mitzvos of the Torah, everyone must know the basic laws of this mitzvah for many reasons, including:

1. When in Eretz Yisroel, to which we all aspire, we need to be sure that all terumos and maasros are properly separated. Someone living outside of Eretz Yisroel also needs to know the details of the laws on produce that grows in Eretz Yisroel.

2. We daven three times daily for Moshiach to come so that we can live in Eretz Yisroel and observe the mitzvos that apply there. Although most of the laws of maaser sheini do not apply today even in Eretz Yisroel, they will all apply again, iy’H, when the Beis Hamikdash is rebuilt and we can achieve a state of taharah by virtue of the ashes of the parah adumah.

3. Fruits of chutz la’aretz may have the status of neta reva’ie, which shares the laws of maaser sheini.

The basics

Produce grown in Eretz Yisroel and the lands nearby must have several small portions separated from it before it may be consumed. These are:

Terumah

First, a small amount is separated as terumah, which is property of the kohen. When we are all tahor, the owner gives the terumah to a kohen of his choice. Terumah may be eaten by any close member of the kohen’s family – including his wife, sons, and unmarried daughters — as long as they are completely tahor.

Since no kohen is tahor today, terumah may not be eaten. If the terumah is itself tamei, it is destroyed, preferably by burning it. If the terumah is tahor, we are not permitted to eat it, nor to destroy it. What does one do with it?

We put it in a place where no one will mistakenly eat it, and leave it there until it decomposes to the point that people will not eat it. At that point, it is disposed of. We will soon explain why decomposition permits one to destroy terumah.

Maaser rishon

After terumah has been separated, a tenth of the remaining produce is separated as maaser rishon, which is the property of the Levi. The Levi is required to separate one tenth of what he receives, which is called terumas maaser and has all the laws of terumah as explained above. The remaining maaser rishon has no sanctity, and therefore may be eaten by anyone, even when tamei. Therefore, maaser rishon can be eaten today, even though we are all tamei, and the Levi can sell it or give it away to whomever he chooses. Furthermore, none of the restrictions we will discuss shortly regarding redemption or use applies to maaser rishon.

Maaser sheini/maaser ani

After maaser rishon is separated, there is an obligation to set aside a tenth of what is left. Depending which year it is relative to the shemittah cycle, either maaser sheini or maaser ani is separated.

These two types of maaser are halachically very different. Maaser ani is the property of the poor and has no sanctity, similar to maaser rishon. The owner of the field decides to which poor person or persons he gives the maaser ani. There is detailed halacha defining who qualifies as “poor” for the purposes of this mitzvah, but since the theme of this article is maaser sheini and not maaser ani, we will leave this question for a different time.

When is one required to separate maaser sheini, and when is one required to separate maaser ani? The halacha is that Eretz Yisroel follows a seven year shemittah cycle. In the first, second, fourth and fifth years, the second tithe is maaser sheini, and in the third and sixth years it is maaser ani. Since shemittah produce is ownerless, there are usually no terumah and maasros separations that year. In the unusual instances where there is, which is a topic for a different time, there is extensive halachic discussion whether the second tithe is maaser sheini or maaser ani.

Maaser sheini, the topic of our article, must be eaten in Yerushalayim by people who are tahor. Any tahor Jew is permitted to eat it, but it must be eaten within the walls of the ancient city of Yerushalayim. We will soon discuss what that means and we will also see that there are many other laws that apply to it. We will also discuss what can be done if it is impractical to transport all of one’s maaser sheini to Yerushalayim.

Which maaser?

We should note that the term maaser, without specifying which one, is used sometimes to refer to maaser rishon and sometimes to refer to maaser sheini, notwithstanding that their laws are very different from one another. Usually, one can understand from context which maaser is intended. If the context alludes to maaser owned by a Levi, or to the first maaser being separated, maaser rishon is intended. If it refers to something that has sanctity, usually maaser sheini is intended. Since the rest of this article will be discussing the specific and unusual sanctity of maaser sheini, I will henceforth use the term maaser to mean only maaser sheini.

The parsha

At this point, let us examine the appropriate pesukim in this week’s parsha: “And you shall eat the maaser of your grain, your wine, and your olive oil… before Hashem your G-d, in the place that He will choose to rest His Name — so that you will thereby learn to be in awe of Hashem at all times. However, when you are blessed by Hashem, your G-d, such that you are unable to carry [the maaser sheini] to a place as distant as the one that Hashem chooses, then you may exchange it for money that you bring with you on your visit to that place that Hashem has chosen. Once you are there, you shall exchange the money for cattle, sheep, wine or anything else you desire, which you shall eat there, before Hashem, your G-d. In this way, you and your family will celebrate” (Devarim 14:23-26).

Obviously, the place that He will choose to rest His Name refers to the city of Yerushalayim. Thus, we are told the following halachos: Maaser should be brought with you when you travel to Yerushalayim. However, if you have more produce than you can easily carry to Yerushalayim, you may redeem the maaser produce, a process that removes the sanctity and special laws from the maaser produce and places it on coins. The Torah shebe’al peh teaches that this redemption can be performed only onto minted coins. When the owner is redeeming his own maaser produce, he must redeem it for coinage that is worth 25% more than its value. Then he brings this money to Yerushalayim, where it is used to purchase food to be eaten within the confines of the city. This acquisition transfers the maaser sheini sanctity from the money to the food, which means that this newly acquired food can be eaten only within the walls of Yerushalayim and must be eaten while tahor.

Vacation fund

Whether one transports one’s maaser sheini produce itself to Yerushalayim, or purchases food with the money to which the sanctity has been transferred, the farmer remains with a lot of maaser sheini that may be consumed only in Yerushalayim, a city bursting with sanctity and special, holy people. The beauty of this mitzvah is that it entices the farmer to ascend to the Holy City and be part of the spiritual growth attainable only there.

One can even look at the maaser sheini as “vacation fund” money that the Torah provides. Although the farmer may not be wealthy, when he arrives in Yerushalayim, he can eat and drink like a king!

Sanctity and purity

As mentioned above, the original maaser sheini that was separated and brought to Yerushalayim, and the food purchased in Yerushalayim with the redemption money are holy and may be eaten only within the walls of the old Yerushalayim and only when both the food and the individual eating it are tahor, ritually pure.

In addition, there is another halacha pertaining to Yerushalayim. Once maaser produce has been brought within the Holy City’s walls, it may not be removed or redeemed.

O’ my Jerusalem!

By the way, the current “Old City” walls of Yerushalayim, constructed by the Ottoman Turks almost 1500 years after the churban, are not the borders that define the halachic sanctity of the city. The Turkish walls encompass areas that were not part of the city at the times of Tanach and Chazal, and therefore do not have the sanctity of Yerushalayim; and, without question, parts endowed with the sanctity of the Holy City are outside these walls. Thus, it will be necessary when Moshiach comes to determine exactly where are the borders of the halachic “old city of Yerushalayim.”

What food?

What food may one purchase with maaser sheini money? There are many laws regarding what one may purchase. The Torah specifies that, once in Yerushalayim, one may exchange maaser sheini money for cattle, sheep, wine or anything else you desire, which seems both wordy and unusual. The Torah sheba’al peh explains this to mean that one may not purchase any food with maaser sheini money, but only those that grow either from the ground or meat and poultry, that grow “on the ground.” Therefore, one may use maaser sheini money to purchase fruit, vegetables, breads, pastry, meat or poultry; but not fish, which do not grow on the ground; not salt or water, which do not grow; nor mushrooms, which are fungi and are therefore not considered as growing from or on the ground.

The pasuk’s reference to purchasing cattle or sheep teaches a new law. It is considered exemplary to purchase animals that will then be offered in the Beis Hamikdash as korbanos shelamim. The owner takes home most of the meat of these korbanos to eat with whomever he chooses to invite. Of course, this must be eaten following all the laws of korbanos shelamim, which includes that everyone eating it must be tahor and that the meat is eaten only within the walls of the city, as explained above. Among many other laws, the meat may be eaten only until nightfall of the day following the offering of the korban. Whatever is not eaten by that time must be burned.

There is an interesting halacha germane to those who purchase animals for korbanos shelamim with maaser funds. One may use maaser funds to purchase an animal as a korban, even though it is not completely eaten. Parts of the animal are burned on the mizbei’ach, and the hide and bones are not consumed by anyone. Notwithstanding the strict rules governing the consumption of maaser, the hide, which was purchased as part of the animal with maaser funds, has no sanctity and belongs to the owner!

Sanctity of maaser sheini

Although any tahor Jew is permitted to consume maaser, there are many detailed rules governing how one must consume maaser. For example, one may not cook foods that are usually eaten raw, nor may one eat raw produce that is usually cooked. Therefore, one may not eat raw maaser sheini potatoes, nor may one cook maaser sheini cucumbers or oranges.

Similarly, juicing vegetables and most kinds of fruit is considered “ruining” maaser sheini produce and it is therefore prohibited, although one may press grapes, olives and lemons, since the juice and oil of these fruits are considered more valuable than the fruit itself.

How do we determine whether processing a food “ruins” it or not? Some poskim contend that one may not process maaser in such a way that its brocha is changed (Shu”t Mishpat Cohen #85, based on Brachos 38a and Rambam, Hilchos Shevi’is 5:3). Others contend that it is permitted when this is the most common use of this fruit (Minchas Shelomoh, Shvi’is pg. 185). A practical difference in halacha between these two positions is whether one is permitted to squeeze oranges and grapefruits.

One must certainly be careful not to actively destroy maaser sheini. Therefore, one may not destroy it when it could still be eaten. Similarly, peels that are commonly eaten, such as those of cucumber or apple, still have kedusha and may not simply be disposed of. One is required to place them in a plastic bag and then place the bag in a small bin or box called a pach maaser, where it remains until the food is inedible. When it decomposes to this extent, one may dispose of it in the regular garbage.

Sanctity until spoilage

This leads us to a question: If indeed one may not throw maaser sheini produce in the garbage because it has sanctity, why may one do so after the produce decomposes? Does decomposition remove kedusha?

Indeed it does. Kedushas maaser sheini means that as long as the food is still edible, one may not make it inedible or use it atypically. This is because maaser sheini food is meant to be eaten. However, once the maaser sheini is inedible, it loses its special status and may be disposed of as trash.

This sounds very strange. Where do we find that something holy loses its special status when it becomes inedible?

Although the concept that decay eliminates sanctity seems unusual, this is only because we are unfamiliar with most of the mitzvos where this principle applies. Other mitzvos where this concept exists are shevi’is, terumah, challah, bikkurim, and reva’ie (Rambam, Hilchos Terumos Chapter 11; Hilchos Maaser Sheini 3:11; Hilchos Shevi’is 5:3). Of these types of produce that are holy, but meant to be eaten, only shevi’is may be eaten by someone tamei. Even though someone tamei may not consume tahor terumah, challah, or maaser sheini, one also may not dispose of them or even burn them. Instead, one must place them in a secure place until they decay and only then dispose of them (Tur, Yoreh Deah 331).  We burn the special challah portion after separating it, only because it has become tamei. If it did not become tamei, one may not destroy the challah portion, but must place it somewhere until it decays on its own.

Contemporary maaser sheini

The fact that one must be tahor to consume maaser sheini changes the way one observes this mitzvah today, since we cannot become tahor. Without the ashes of a parah adumah with which to purify ourselves of certain types of tumah, we cannot eat maaser produce, nor the food purchased with the redeeming coins. Because we cannot eat maaser food, it is pointless to purchase food with these coins; instead, maaser coins remain unused and are eventually destroyed. To avoid excessive loss, one is permitted to redeem large quantities of maaser sheini onto a very small value within a coin, and this is the way we redeem maaser sheini today. Of course, we are missing the main spiritual gain of consuming the foods in Yerushalayim, but this is one of the many reasons for which we mourn the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash and pray many times daily for its restoration.

There is another law that is different because of our unfortunate circumstances. Since the maaser will not be consumed, it is permitted to redeem tamei maaser produce onto coins, even within the boundaries of the Holy City. Otherwise, one is permitted to redeem maaser produce only in a place where it cannot be eaten.

In conclusion, when we buy produce that grew in Israel, either we should check that there is a good hechsher that attended to all the maaser needs or we should make sure to separate all the terumos and maasros ourselves and redeem the maaser sheini.

Neta reva’ie

I mentioned above that all the laws that apply to maaser sheini also apply to reva’ie. Reva’ie is the fruit that grows in the fourth year of a tree’s life. In a different article, I have explained how we calculate the years of a tree’s life. There is also an article titled Could the Fruit of My Tree Be Orlah? where I discussed whether and when the laws of reva’ie apply to trees planted in chutz la’aretz or only to those in Eretz Yisroel.

Conclusion

A prominent talmid of Rav Moshe Feinstein once related to me the following story. A female calf was born that was completely red. Of course, conversations were abuzz: Could this possibly be a hint that Moshiach will be coming soon, and that we would soon have a parah adumah to use in removing our tumah?

Some of the talmidim in Rav Moshe’s yeshivah approached him with this information, expecting to see his reaction to the great news. Much to their astonishment, Rav Moshe did not react at all. Surprised, one of them asked Rav Moshe: “Does not the Rosh Yeshivah think that this might be a sign that Moshiach will be coming soon?” To this, Rav Moshe answered: “A parah adumah is not kosher until it is three years old. I daven that Moshiach should come today, not in three years.”

We should all have Rav Moshe’s desire for Moshiach to be here, today, and, to demonstrate this desire, be as knowledgeable as we can in all the halachos that will then be germane. May we soon see the day when we can bring our maaser sheini and our reva’ie and eat them betaharah within the rebuilt walls of Yerushalayim!

It’s for the Birds

The Mitzvah of Shiluach Hakein

Photo by MojtabaT from FreeImages

Question #1: Required???

“Must I physically send away the mother bird? I am squeamish!”

Question #2: Keep the Babies

“Must I take the young to fulfill the mitzvah?”

Question #3: Educated!

“I am so excited about the opportunity to fulfill this special mitzvah, with all its rewards, but I want to make sure I do it properly. Can you please enlighten me?”

Well known and poorly understood

This week’s parsha includes the laws of a mitzvah, or more accurately, two mitzvos that are both well-known and yet poorly understood. The Torah teaches that when we happen to find a nest of birds, we are to send away the mother and keep the young; that is, either the baby birds or the eggs. An entire chapter of Mishnah and Gemara, the twelfth and last perek of Chullin, is devoted to understanding this mitzvah, which actually involves two mitzvos, a lo saaseh, a prohibition against taking the mother, and a mitzvas aseih, a positive mitzvah to send away the mother. At the same time, the Torah itself teaches of a very specific reward gained by someone who observes this mitzvah. We will therefore begin the study of this fascinating mitzvah in this article.

Let us rephrase briefly the first two of our opening questions:

1. Should I find such a nest, may I simply ignore it and continue on my way, or is doing so ignoring a requirement to fulfill a mitzvah?

2. “Must I take the young to fulfill the mitzvah?” When I send away the mother bird, am I required to keep the young, or, at least, to physically lift up the eggs or baby birds, thereby taking possession of them? Or have I completed the performance of the mitzvah simply by sending away the mother?

Introduction

At this point, we should read the words of the Torah very carefully, because answering some of our questions will depend on properly understanding these words.

Ki yikarei kan tzipor lefanecha baderech, bechol eitz oh al ha’aretz, efrochim oh beitzim, veha’eim rovetzes al ha’efrochim oh al habeitzim, lo sikach ha’eim al habanim. Shalei’ach teshalach es ha’eim, ve’es habanim tikach loch, lemaan yitav loch veha’archata yamim.“If a bird’s nest, containing either chicks or eggs, happens to be before you on the road, whether it (the nest) is in a tree or on the ground, and the mother is nesting upon the chicks or upon the eggs, you shall not take the mother from/with the offspring. (I will explain shortly why I left the translation this way.) You shall certainly send away the mother and take the young for yourself, so that it will be good for you, and you shall lengthen your days” (Devorim 22:6-7).

Off the derech

Several points in these pesukim are uncertain. The Torah states that the nest must be on the derech, which means on the way or road. Why does the Torah need to tell you that it was on the road? Does this mitzvah not apply if the mother bird is off the derech?

The Gemara first suggests that the Torah is teaching that there is no mitzvah of shiluach hakein if the bird built her nest on the water. However, the Gemara demonstrates that this halacha is inaccurate — a waterway is also called a derech, and, should one find a nest on a waterway, the mitzvah of shiluach hakein applies.

So, what case is exempt, because mommy bird is “off the derech”? The Gemara concludes that there is no mitzvah of shiluach hakein should the nest be on your property, since this is not called “on the way,” which implies an ownerless area (Chullin 139b). The Mishnah states that geese or chickens that set up their nests in an orchard are included in the mitzvah of shiluach hakein, whereas there is no requirement to send away the mother goose or hen if she set up her nest in the house. The Mishnah’s term “chickens that set up their nests in an orchard” means that they have run away from the owner’s jurisdiction. However, if the chickens or geese are “rebellious,” occasionally wandering beyond the confines of their usual home, but still returning to the owner’s barn for nesting, they are still considered “owned.” Similarly, the laws of shiluach hakein apply to an ownerless bird that nests on your property (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 292:2).

Late poskim explain that you are exempt from performing the mitzvah on birds that could easily become yours, even if at the moment they are not your property. Without delving into the halachic analysis entailed, they conclude that the mitzvah of shiluach hakein does not apply to chickens and similar domesticated species, unless this particular bird refuses to be domesticated (Shu”t Imrei Yosher #158; Minchas Shelomoh 2:97:26).

On the other hand, the mitzvah does apply, in general, to doves and pigeons, which, even when kept in dovecotes, are not as domesticated as chickens. However, one is exempt from performing the mitzvah of shiluach hakein in the case of homing pigeons, which accept human domination. This means that someone can remove chickens or homing pigeons roosting on a nest and bring them to the shocheit.

Mommy or daddy

There are species of birds in which the father roosts on the nest, or the two parents take turns. In this instance, does the mitzvah apply, regardless as to which parent is on the nest, or is the mitzvah gender-specific, applying only if the mother bird is on the nest? This question is debated in the Mishnah and discussed in the Gemara. Normative halacha rules that the mitzvah applies only if mother bird is on the nest. This conclusion is implied by the posuk when it says veha’eim rovetzes, “and the mother is nesting.”

Therefore, in order to fulfill the mitzvah of shiluach hakein, one must first determine that the nesting bird is, indeed, the mother. One does not require a DNA test to verify these facts – usually a bit of observation will show you whether one bird or two are nesting.

This question is germane to pigeons, who present the most common contemporary application of shiluach hakein, since non-domesticated ones often create their nests near or in human habitation. Pigeons, which are loyal to their mates for life, take turns roosting on the nest. Usually, the daddy bird takes day shift and mommy does the night shift. (During their time off, each parent goes out to earn a living. Not many social-life options in a full nest.)

There are several halachic ramifications to this social knowledge of pigeon family structure, of which I will share two. Should someone be interested in harvesting both a pigeon parent and its eggs or young, he can determine which parent is male, and then, at the appropriate time, seize daddy bird and the young at the same time without violating any prohibition of the Torah.

A second ramification applies to someone eager to fulfill the mitzvah of shiluach hakein. Before sending away the nesting bird, one should determine whether, at the moment, mommy or daddy is roosting there. If it is daddy, no mitzvah is fulfilled by sending him away, even if you are a father’s rights activist.

From or with?

Allow me to return to the laws that we derive from understanding the posuk. The Torah writes, lo sikach ha’eim al habanim, which can be translated and explained in more than one way. It could mean that you should not take the mommy from the young, which would mean that the prohibition is taking the mother, even should you leave the offspring, which is the way Rashi explains the verse (as explained by Maharal; note that Mizrachi seems to have understood Rashi differently). On the other hand, the Rambam (Sefer Hamitzvos, Lo Saaseh #306) translates the phrase ha’eim al habanim as with the young, meaning that one violates the lo saaseh prohibition only if one takes both mother and offspring. Should someone take the mother and not the offspring, in the Rambam’s opinion, he violated the mitzvas aseih commanding him to send away the mother, but not the lo saaseh. According to Rashi, this person also violated the lo saaseh. Thus, we see that a halachic difference can hinge on how you translate the preposition al.

Earlier in this article, I translated this passage as “You shall not take the mother from/with the young.” This was in order to avoid biasing someone from translating the posuk in a way that supports either side of the dispute between rishonim.

Required???

Our opening question was: “Must I physically send away the mother bird? I am squeamish!” Or, as I explained it: Should I find such a nest, may I simply ignore it and continue on my way, or would I thereby be ignoring a requirement to fulfill a mitzvah?

To explain this a bit better: The Torah includes mitzvos that I am required to observe, such asputting on tefillin and eating matzoh on Pesach. Shiluach hakein is certainly not such a mitzvah, since it depends upon circumstance and applies only when I find a nest. However, among mitzvos of the Torah that are non-obligatory, there are different levels of requirement. Some mitzvos are simply a matir, they permit me to do something, but I have no obligation to do them, whereas others become obligatory when certain circumstances apply.

Some examples will make our explanation clearer. Here is an example of a mitzvah that is not required: shechitah. I am not required to walk down the street looking for animals to shecht. Even if I am a shocheit and someone asks me to shecht for them, it is not a requirement. The mitzvah is simply: If you want to eat meat, the animal must be shechted in a specific way. If one does not shecht it correctly, one may not eat the meat.

This type of mitzvah is a matir. There is no requirement to observe the mitzvah, but if I want to gain a certain benefit, the Torah provides me with specific instruction how to permit it.

If we understand shiluach hakein to be a matir, then what the Torah instructed is that if I find a nesting bird, I may not take both the young and their mother for my purposes. If I want to take the young, I must first send away the mother. (By the way, it is forbidden to take the mother, even if I do not want to take the young.)

Required

There is another way to understand shiluach hakein, which holds that this mitzvah is not a matir, but a requirement, should I encounter the appropriate situation. I will explain the second approach by comparison to a different mitzvah.

One of the Torah’s mitzvos is to return lost objects. There is no requirement for me to try to find lost objects in order to return them to their owner. However, once I see a lost object, I am required to retrieve the item and return it. If one understands that the mitzvah of shiluach hakein is comparable to hashavas aveidah, then, although I am not required to go looking for nesting birds, should I find one, I am required to send away the mother.

Based on Talmudic sources, early acharonim discuss whether shiluach hakein should be considered a matir or a requirement. If it is a matir, then our squeamish questioner is not required to fulfill the mitzvah. However, if it is a requirement, then it is a mitzvah that must be fulfilled. Halachically, it will be approximately equivalent to living in a house and not putting mezuzos on the doors.

Shalei’ach

The question is how one explains the words of the posuk, which says Shalei’ach teshalach es ha’eim, “You shall certainly send away the mother.” Here are two ways:

There is no requirement to send away the mother, but should I happen upon a nest and want to eat the mother bird, the young, or both, I may not take the mother, but must send her away. The act of sending away the mother permits me to keep the young, should I want to take them. According to this approach, the mitzvah of shiluach hakein is similar to shechitah. There is no requirement to shecht, but should I want to eat meat, this is the way to do so.

On the other hand, perhaps the mitzvah of shiluach hakein is similar to the mitzvah of hashavas aveidah. This would mean that should I find a nest, I am now required to send away the mother.

Among the early acharonim, we find a responsum from the Chavos Ya’ir (#67) discussing this issue. To quote the Chavos Yair: “I was asked: if someone comes across a nest while he is walking through a field, is he required to send away the mother, or may he just continue on his way without doing anything?”

The Chavos Yair analyzes several passages of the Gemara in his attempt to prove which approach is correct. Based on his analysis of several texts of Chazal, he concludes that shiluach hakein is like hashavas aveidah, and, should one find a nest that meets the halachic requirements, there is an obligation to send away the mother, even though one has no interest in the young. This position is also accepted by several other prominent, later poskim (Shu”t Chacham Zvi #83; Rabbi Akiva Eiger to Yoreh Deah 292:1; Aruch Hashulchan, Yoreh De’ah 292:1-2).

On the other hand, there are several prominent poskim who dispute this ruling, concluding that shiluach hakein is a matir, like shechitah (Sefer Hamitzvos Hakatzar [of the Chofetz Chayim] Mitzvos Aseh #74; Chazon Ish (Yoreh De’ah 175:2); Shu”t Avnei  Neizer, Orach Chayim #48; Minchas Shelomoh 2:5:4 [5760 edition].

Keep the babies

Our second question that I quoted above was: “Must I take the young to fulfill the mitzvah?” I explained that the question is: When I send away the mother bird, am I required to keep the young, or, at least, to physically lift up the eggs or baby birds, thereby taking possession of them? Or have I completed the performance of the mitzvah simply by sending away the mother?

This is another halachic question that is dependent on the translation of a word of the posuk: The Torah says “You shall certainly send away the mother and take the young for yourself.” Does the Torah mean that you may take the young for yourself or that you are required to take the young? According to the second approach, the mitzvah is fulfilled only if one picks up the eggs or baby birds. If one does not pick them up, one has not fulfilled the mitzvah. According to the first approach, the mitzvah is fulfilled by sending away the mother. Once one has sent her away and fulfilled the mitzvah, one may pick up the eggs, should one want them, or leave them as is.

Again, the correct interpretation depends on a proper understanding of the posuk.

The Torah states, ve’es habanim tikach loch, “And take the young for yourself.” Is this part of the requirement of the mitzvah? In other words, did the Torah command that we perform two steps, send away the mother and take the young? Or, more simply, the Torah instructed that once you sent away the mother, you are permitted to keep the young for yourself.

This question is discussed by a prominent, early acharon, the Chacham Tzvi (Shu”t Chacham Tzvi #83). To quote him: “That which you asked me: One who sends away both the mother and the offspring, did he fulfill the mitzvah of shiluach hakein? Do we say that the words of the Torah, send away the mother and keep the young, must be fulfilled literally to fulfill the mitzvah, or not? You wrote me that the great scholars of Lublin were uncertain about this.”

The Chacham Tzvi rallies source material from the Gemara that the mitzvah is to send away the mother, and one fulfills the mitzvah, even if one does not take the young. Therefore, taking the young is not a requirement for the fulfillment of the mitzvah, but presents an option for the individual performing the mitzvah.  He compares this to the words of the Torah, “Six days shall you work, and do all your melacha.” Clearly, the Torah is not requiring one to work, but limiting one’s work time to six days of the seven-day week. Similarly, shiluach hakein should be understood that should you want to take the young, you may do so only after sending away the mother, but there is no requirement to take the young. Put in other terms, sending away the mother is a matir that permits taking the young, similar to shechitah being the matir permitting one to consume the meat. Just as shechitah does not require that someone eat the meat, so too, it is not required to take the young, and one fulfills the mitzvah without taking them.

Other acharonim disagree, demonstrating from the Zohar that one is supposed to take the offspring (Beis Lechem Yehudah). The Aruch Hashulchan (Yoreh Deah 292:3-4) concludes, like the Chacham Tzvi, that there is no requirement to take the offspring. Nevertheless, since the posuk implies that one should, and there is evidence of this approach from some rishonim, the Aruch Hashulchan concludes that the proper approach is to make a kinyan on the young, such as by lifting them up. Furthermore, he notes that, according to the reason for the mitzvah of shiluach hakein proposed by many early authorities, which I hope to discuss in a future article, one should take the young.

Conclusion

The mitzvah we have just studied teaches that although we may eat kosher birds, we are prohibited to take a mother bird when she is in her nest tending to her young. In explanation of the reason for this mitzvah, Rav Hirsch sees a lesson to be learned regarding the sacred role of motherhood. To quote him: “The respect that a nation accords to the woman’s calling is a reliable barometer of that nation’s moral level… the paramount importance the Torah attaches to the woman’s activities… traces even into the sphere of animal life. It assures protection for a mother bird while she is engaged in her activity as a mother and it demands that everyone… should demonstrate through his actions this appreciation of the female as she carries out her task.”

Tefillin Retzuos, Maintenance, and Purchasing Instructions

Question #1: How are tefillin retzuos made?

Question #2: My tefillin did not come with an “owner’s manual.” What should I do to maintain them in good condition?

Question #3: How can I make sure I get “quality” tefillin?

Introduction:

This week’s parsha has a very indirect allusion to the mitzvah of tefillin, since it refers to the mitzvah of zakein mamrei, the rebellious elder. The details of zakein mamrei are rather extensive and will not be discussed in this article. However, the example chosen for establishing a person as a zakein mamrei is someone who declares that tefillin are supposed to contain five parshios rather than four (Rambam, Hilchos Mamrim 4:3).

As I sent out two articles on the topic of tefillin manufacture only weeks ago, this article will be our “wrap-up” of the topic, and will discuss the halachos of tefillin straps, what one should ask when purchasing them and how to maintain your tefillin in perfect “operating” order.

For the sake of tefillin!

Tefillin must be manufactured lishmah – for the sake of the mitzvah. In practical terms, this means that an observant Jew begins each process and declares that the production is for the sake of the mitzvah of tefillin (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 32:8).

The contemporary process of tanning hide for parchment, batim and straps is a multi-stage process, similar to the method used to tan leather for mundane uses, such as belts, shoes and handbags. However, as I mentioned above, the parchment, batim and straps for tefillin must be tanned lishmah, for the sake of the mitzvah (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 32:37 and 33:3). For this reason, it is preferable that each step be performed, or at least begun, by an observant Jew, lishmah. Therefore, 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. handmade retzuos.

Is there a halachic preference for handmade retzuos?

In earlier days, tanning retzuos and other leather items involved salting the hide and then soaking it in lime wash. Today, although both salt and lime are still used in the tanning process, most of the tanning of retzuos is usually accomplished by the gradual, automated adding of other chemicals to the soaking leather after the salt and lime have been rinsed out. Thus, although many early poskim ruled that placing the hide into the water lishmah (after the salt and lime have been added) is sufficient to make retzuos lishmah, this may not be true today. The hide must be processed in a way that it meets the requirements of lishmah, which, in today’s world, probably requires that the other chemicals were added to the water lishmah by a Torah-observant person (Zichron Eliyahu).

Most Torah-observant Jews use hand matzos for the seder, because of concern that machine matzos are not considered lishmah. (I am not ruling that machine matzos are a problem for seder use. The majority of 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, for several reasons, including the fact that the processing of retzuos is not one continuous process, as I explained above. In addition, there are and were halachic authorities who preferred the use of machine matzos because they are baked much faster, and therefore might reduce the chance of chometz. This is not a factor in the manufacture of tefillin retzuos. It is clearly advantageous to use handmade retzuos, and, to the best of my knowledge, no disadvantage. When one realizes that the mitzvah of eating matzoh is only once a year, yet most people use only hand matzos rather than machine-made, whereas the tefillin will iy”h be worn daily for decades, I believe the choice is obvious.

An additional question is whether lishmah can be created by pushing the buttons that start the electric process. Although most, but not all, halachic authorities accept that this is considered lishmah, it is easier to comprehend that this works for matzoh than for retzuos.  The lishmah for matzoh is to make sure it does not become chometz and therefore an observant Jew supervising the process to make sure everything is kosher lepesach who starts the machine’s operation lishmah is sufficient.However, germane to retzuos and the like, the goal of tanning the leather lishmah is to create kedusha on the leather so that it can be used for a sacred purpose. It might follow that pushing buttons cannot be considered an act that creates kedusha.

Painting

After the tanning of the retzuos is completed, they are painted jet-black lishmah (Mishnah Berurah 33:18).

Must the side of the retzua be black?

The underside of the retzua, the part that lies on the skin, need not be dyed at all. There is an opinion that the edges of the retzuos must 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, Eishel Avraham 33:7).

Thoroughly black

Some manufacturers of tefillin retzuos soak the entire leather in a kosher black solution, so that the entire thickness of the strap is now black. Although I see no halachic requirement in this additional process, there is a practical advantage that is up to the consumer to decide. As the retzuos age, they develop cracks. If the retzua was originally soaked in black solution, when the leather cracks, the retzua may still be black and not require painting. However, if the retzua is not soaked, the now-showing cracked area is light colored and requires painting. I have found it annoying to constantly check to see whether my retzuos are still black, and therefore, when I purchase retzuos, I ask for those that have been soaked black to avoid this issue. (Although from my own observation, how black the inner part of the retzua gets when this is done varies tremendously from batch to batch, I still usually find it worthwhile.) From a consumer perspective, I think the additional cost is worthwhile, because it is probable that these retzuos can be used for a longer period of time before they become so difficult to paint constantly that one replaces them. Again, I note that this is not a halachic consideration.

How wide are my retzuos?

The retzuos should be about half an inch wide. When purchasing new retzuos, they should be wider, so that they remain the proper width, even after they become stretched out.

How to maintain your tefillin

What should I do to maintain my tefillin in good, kosher condition?

Maintaining the batim and parshios of 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. When going to mikvah before weekday davening, make sure to dry your hair well before putting on your tefillin.

Protect the corners of the batim 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 brocha. However, since most poskim permit leaving these covers on, one may be lenient.)

Checking retzuos

It is important to check periodically that the retzuos on one’s tefillin are still completely black and are not cracked or faded. Although a good quality pair of tefillin should last a lifetime, the straps on the tefillin do wear out and periodically need to be replaced.

The Mishnah Berurah, whom many people consider the finalauthority in these areas of halacha, implies that the entire length of the retzua must always be black (Biur Halacha 33:3 s.v. haretzuos). (There are authorities who disagree, most notably Rav Yosef Chayim Sonnenfeld, who contends that it is adequate for most of the retzua to be black.) Check that the retzuos are black all the way to their tip. Be particular to check that they are black near where the retzua is tightened daily, because at that point the paint often rubs off. One should also check that the retzua is still wide enough where it is tightened near the knot and that the yud of the shel yad is touching the ketzitzah of the tefillin. If it is not, this can be corrected by a knowledgeable sofer or a batim macher (a trained tefillin manufacturer).

If the retzuos are no longer fully black, blacken them with kosher tefillin paint. Everyone who wears tefillin should have access to kosher tefillin paint or kosher tefillin markers.

Depending on where you live, this might be an easy item to purchase; it usually comes either as a pen-looking marker or in a small container reminiscent of correction fluid.

Before painting the retzuos, one must state that he is doing it lesheim kedushas tefillin. I once wrote a halachic teshuvah (in Hebrew) in which I concluded that someone who painted the faded parts of their retzuos, but forgot to say that they were doing it lishmah, has not invalidated the tefillin, and they may be worn as they are. Still, one should lechatchilah (the preferred way) be careful to say that one is blackening them lesheim kedushas tefillin.

If someone’s retzuos are cracking in several places, he should consider replacing them.

While checking the retzuos, check that the batim, titura, and stitches are all perfectly square. This means that, to the naked eye, the width and the length appear to be the same, 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 against them.  By the way, the edges of the ma’avarta (the part of the tefillin bayis  through which the straps (retzuos) are inserted) do not need to be square.

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.

Where should I buy my tefillin?

The individual selling tefillin and tefillin accessories (such as replacement retzuos) 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 for a person selling tefillin to be extremely ehrlich but totally unfamiliar with the halachic issues and concerns involved. Unfortunately, many sofrim and rabbanim lack sufficient training in the practical details of tefillin manufacture.

Where not to buy your tefillin!

I’ll share with you one frightening story of my personal experience. I was once “tipped off” by someone about a manufacturer of tefillin batim who was personally not observant. Shortly thereafter, I realized that an errand would require me to be in the same city in which this manufacturer was located. I presented myself to the owner, who was clearly not observant, as a rabbi from America looking for a supplier of tefillin for his congregation, but who would like to familiarize himself with the process of how tefillin are made. One would think that the manufacturer might be interested in the possibility of making some sales, but, indeed, he would not even let me past his front door! When one realizes the myriad details involved in tefillin manufacture that require yiras shamayim, one grasps how unlikely it is that these tefillin were kosher. We will never know how many pairs of tefillin this manufacturer produces annually, but clearly, lots of people are, unfortunately, purchasing these tefillin.

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 $1,500 and lasts for sixty years is worn approximately 300 times a year, or a total of 18,000 times. Thus, this pair of tefillin cost about 8½ cents a day. Compare this to the cost per wearing of a nice suit!

Ask for what you want

Assuming that one is purchasing tefillin from someone familiar with the halachos and practical aspects of tefillin manufacture, be specific as to the level of tefillin kashrus you are seeking. If you don’t tell him that you want tefillin that are kosher lechatchilah, you might receive tefillin that meet only 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 in this series of articles, such as the quality of the writing of the parshios or the source of the batim.

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 lemehadrin, and not simply kosher or even kosher lechatchilah.

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 lemehadrin. 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 lemehadrin. Clarify that the batim macher cuts between the compartments of the shel rosh after painting to guarantee that they are properly separated.

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 (Chassidish) 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 correctly on his arm. Clarify this issue in advance with your tefillin seller and with your rav.

None of the items above should cost anything additional, and therefore one should always ask for them, even if one’s budget is limited. These questions also make your seller aware that you are looking for tefillin that are kosher lemehadrin, just as you shop for food that is kosher lemehadrin.

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 that you order the tefillin more in advance.

1. Ask your rav whether you should order tefillin that were manufactured originally perudos ad hatefer legamrei, 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.

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. This is one of the many reasons why your rav or posek should be consulted.

If you are ordering tefillin that are perudos ad hatefer legamrei, 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 legamrei” will take a knife and attempt to cut through the glue that is holding the compartments of the bayis together, in order to separate them. If you are purchasing perudos ad hatefer legamrei, then you should ask not to have these batim. Firstly, the cutting could damage the batim. Secondly, if you are paying for tefillin that are mehudar, why settle for second best? Furthermore, the batim macher may have made his batim assuming that they will hold together with glue, and without glue in the middle, they will quickly separate and become posul.

2. Order batim, parshios, gidin, and retzuos that are avodas yad. Discuss with the sofer whether the parshios 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.

What should I check when the tefillin arrive?

The big day arrives. Your local seforim 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 periodically, the tefillin owner should know to periodically check certain things on his tefillin.

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 retzua is tightened daily, because at that point the paint often rubs off. 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.

The yud of the shel yad should be connected in such a way that it touches the ketzitzah of the tefillin.

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 mehadrin, they demonstrate their reverence for the sign that bonds us to Hashem.

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 32:4).

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 are invalid.

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 other errors.

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.

Painting

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.

Big parshios

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 glued.

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.

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. But 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. See part II of this article for more on this topic.

Must I Toivel This?

Photo by Thomas Picard from FreeImages

Question #1: The Vanilla Cruet

“We received a gift of a glass cruet, a salad oil dispenser, that we doubt we will ever use for that purpose. We decided, instead, to use it is a flower vase and were told that we do not need to toivel it. Subsequently, we decided that we might use it for soaking vanilla beans and alcohol to make our own natural vanilla extract. Do we need to toivel it?”

Question #2: Restaurant Silverware

“I have always assumed that caterers and restaurants toivel their silverware and glasses. Recently, I was told that some hechsherim do not require this. Is this true? Am I permitted to use their silverware and glasses?”

Question #3: The Salami Slicer

“I have a knife that I use for my work, which is not food-related. May I occasionally slice a salami with the knife that I have never immersed in a mikveh?”

Question #4: The Box Cutter

“Before I toivel my new steak knife, may I use it to open a box?

Answer:

After the Bnei Yisroel’s miraculous victory over the nation of Midyan, they were commanded regarding the booty that they had now acquired: Concerning the gold and the silver; the copper, the iron, the tin and the lead: any item that was used in fire needs to be placed in fire to become pure – yet, it must also be purified in mikveh water. And that which was not used in fire must pass through water (Bamidbar 31:22-23). From these verses, our Sages derive the mitzvah of tevilas keilim — the requirement to immerse metal implements used for food in a spring or kosher mikveh prior to use. According to the Talmud Yerushalmi (Avodah Zarah 5:15), the immersion of the implement elevates it to the sanctity of Jewish ownership, similar to the requirement that a non-Jew converting to Judaism submerges in a mikveh (Issur Vaheter 58:76; see also Ritva, Avodah Zarah 75b).

The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 75b) rules that, in addition to metal items, we are also required to immerse glass utensils, because both metal and glass are similar: they are recyclable. When they break, one can melt or weld the broken parts to create new utensils or to repair old ones. As a matter of fact, in the time of the Gemara, people kept broken pieces of metal and brought them to the blacksmith when they needed to manufacture new items (see Shabbos 123a). It is also interesting to note that this function is the basis of the Hebrew word for metal, mateches, which means meltable or dissolvable (see Yechezkel 22:22; Rashi, Shemos 9:33). In this characteristic, metal ware and glassware are different from items made of stone, wood or earthenware, which cannot be recycled in this manner.

Prior to dipping the metal ware or glassware, one recites a brocha, Asher ki’deshanu bemitzvosav vetzivanu al tevilas keilim. As we will soon see, this brocha is recited only when there is a definite requirement to toivel (immerse) an item.

Used without immersing

If, in violation of the Law, someone used an item that was not immersed, may one eat the food that came in contact with it? According to many authorities, this is the subject of a dispute between two opinions in the Gemara. Some early authorities (Baal Halachos Gedolos, Chapter 55; Or Zarua, Piskei Avodah Zarah #293) conclude that, indeed, this food is prohibited. However, the consensus of halachic authority is that it is permitted to eat food that was prepared using non-toiveled equipment (Tosafos, Avodah Zarah 75b s.v. Vechulan; Ritva, ad locum; Rema, Yoreh Deah 120:16). This is useful information when visiting someone who, unfortunately, does not perform the mitzvah of tevilas keilim. Although one may not use non-toiveled utensils to eat or drink, the food prepared in them remains kosher. According to most authorities, if the food is served in non-toiveled utensils, one should transfer it to utensils that do not require immersion or were properly immersed.

The halachah is that when I know that someone will use pots and other equipment that were not immersed, I may not ask him to cook for me, since I am causing him to violate the Torah (lifnei iveir).

A matir or a takkanah?

Why is it forbidden to use a utensil that has not been toiveled? There are two different ways to understand this halachah.

A matir

The first approach explains that min HaTorah one may not use a utensil that has not been immersed, similar to the halachah that one may not eat meat without first shechting the animal. This logic holds that when the Torah created the mitzvah of tevilas keilim, it prohibited use of any food utensils that require immersion, and the immersion is what permits me to use the utensils. I will refer to this approach as holding that tevilas keilim is a matir.

A takkanah

Alternatively, one can explain that, although the requirement to immerse food utensils is min HaTorah, the prohibition to use non-toiveled utensils is a takkanah, a rabbinic prohibition. The reason for this prohibition is to encourage people to immerse their utensils in a timely fashion. Chazal were concerned that if it is permitted to use utensils without immersing them, people would postpone, indefinitely, fulfilling the mitzvah.

This second approach appears to be how the Mishnah Berurah understood this mitzvah, since he states that although most authorities contend that the mitzvah to immerse utensils is min HaTorah, the prohibition to use them if they were not immersed is only rabbinic (Biur Halachah 323:7 s.v. Mutar). This exact idea is expressed by Rav Shlomoh Zalman Auerbach (Minchas Shlomoh 2:66:13, 14).

Notwithstanding the Mishnah Berurah’s understanding of this mitzvah, the Or Zarua,a rishon, writes that the prohibition to use non-immersed equipment is min HaTorah (Or Zarua, Piskei Avodah Zarah #293; A careful reading of Shaagas Aryeh #56 will demonstrate that he was of the same opinion.) This implies that the mitzvah is indeed a matir, its purpose is to permit the use of the utensil. If not, where do we have any evidence that the Torah prohibited use of a non-immersed vessel?

Rushing to immerse

Is there a halachic requirement to immerse a utensil as soon as I purchase it, or may I wait for a convenient time to immerse it, as long as I do not use the utensil in the interim?

We find a dispute among the poskim concerning this. Some rule that there is no requirement to immerse a utensil as soon as possible (Levush, as explained by Pri Megadim, Mishbetzos Zahav, Orach Chayim 323:5),whereas the Maharshal (Yam shel Shelomoh, Beitzah 2:19) explains that this question is dependent on a dispute in the Gemara (Beitzah 17b-18a). The Maharshal concludes that one is required to immerse the utensil as soon as possible, out of concern that one will mistakenly use it before it was immersed. The latter ruling is quoted by other authorities (Elyah Rabbah 323:12).

Better to borrow?

The Gemara (Avodah Zarah 75b) explains that the mitzvah of tevilas keilim does not apply to utensils that a Jew borrowed or rented from a non-Jew (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 120:8). The Torah taught that utensils that a Jew acquires require immersing, but not items that are not owned by a Jew. Furthermore, whether a utensil requires immersion is determined by who its owner is and not by who is using it. We will soon see another ramification of this ruling.

The poskim rule that, under circumstances when one cannot immerse utensils, one may transfer ownership of a utensil from a Jew to a non-Jew to avoid immersing it. Therefore, should a Jew own a utensil and have nowhere to immerse it, or if he does not have time before Shabbos or Yom Tov to immerse it, he may give it to a gentile and then borrow it back from the gentile (Mordechai, Beitzah #677; Shulchan Aruch and Rema, Yoreh Deah 120:16). Since the utensil is now owned by a gentile, there is no requirement to immerse it. Consequently, borrowing it from the gentile does not present any problem.

This ruling applies only to utensils that are owned by a non-Jew and borrowed from him by a Jew. However, if a Jew owns a utensil that he has not immersed, another Jew may not borrow or use it without immersing it (Tosafos and Rosh ad loc., both quoting Rashbam). Once the owner is required to immerse the utensil, no other Jew may use it without immersing it first.

Only klei seudah

The Gemara concludes that the mitzvah of tevilas keilim applies only to klei seudah — literally, implements used for a meal. This includes items used to prepare food or to eat. As we will soon discuss, there are some interesting ramifications of this law.

“Rav Nachman said in the name of Rabbah bar Avuha: ‘One can derive from the verse that one must immerse even brand-new items, because used vessels that were purged in fire have the same kashrus status as brand new, and yet they require immersion.’

Rav Sheishes then asked him: ‘If it is true that the mitzvah of immersing vessels is not because of kashrus concerns, then maybe one is required to immerse even clothing shears?’

Rav Nachman responded: ‘The Torah mentions only vessels that are used for meals (klei seudah)'” (Avodah Zarah 75b).

Rav Sheishes suggested that if the immersion of utensils is not a means of kashering a non-kosher vessel, then perhaps we have many more opportunities to fulfill this mitzvah, and it applies to any type of paraphernalia — even cameras, cellphones and clothing shears! However, the conclusion is that the mitzvah is limited to items used for food.

Kitchen or Leather?

Reuven is a leather worker who purchases a brand-new kitchen knife that he intends to use exclusively for this leather work. Does this knife require immersion in a mikveh?

Although this utensil was manufactured for food use, since Reuven is now the owner and he purchased it for leather work, it is no longer a food utensil.

The early authorities dispute whether someone who borrows the knife from the owner to use it for food is required to immerse it. The primary position contends that the borrower is not required to immerse the knife (Hagahos Ashri, Avodah Zarah, 5:35; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 120:8). This approach understands that the halachic status of a utensil is determined by its owner and not by the person borrowing it. There is, however, a dissenting opinion that contends that since the owner himself would not be allowed to use the knife for food, even temporarily, someone else may not either (Issur Vaheter 58:89, quoted by Shach, Yoreh Deah 120:16). Thus, the latter approach requires that the borrower immerse this knife before using it for food. As a compromise position, some authorities conclude that one should immerse this utensil, but should not recite a brocha before doing so (Shach, Yoreh Deah 120:16).

However…

All this holds true as long as the owner, our leather worker, uses the knife exclusively for non-food use. The owner may not use it for food, even temporarily (Rema, Yoreh Deah 120:8). Furthermore, later authorities note that the Shach implies that, should Reuven decide to use the knife for food, albeit only once, he may not use the knife even for non-food use without first immersing it (Darchei Teshuvah 120:39, quoting Ginzei Elimelech; Sefer TevilaskKeilim, page 104, quoting Pri Eliyahu).

We see from this Shach a very interesting ruling. The halachah is not that food use requires that the vessel be immersed. The halachah is that a food utensil must be immersed before use – no matter what type of use.

This last ruling means that someone who purchased a knife that he intends to immerse, may not use it, even to open a package, before it has been immersed.

We can therefore answer one of our opening questions:

“I have a knife that I use for my work, which is not food related. May I occasionally slice a salami with the knife that I have never immersed in a mikveh?”

Although many people may find this ruling to be surprising, according to the Shach, you may not.

The vanilla cruet

At this point, I would like to discuss one of our opening questions, an actual shaylah that I was asked: “We received a gift of a glass cruet, a salad oil dispenser, that we doubt we will ever use for that purpose. We decided, instead, to use it is a flower vase and were told that we do not need to toivel it. Subsequently, we decided that we might use it for soaking vanilla beans and alcohol to make our own natural vanilla extract. Do we need to toivel it?”

This is an interesting question. I agree that if someone receives a vessel that is usually klei seudah, but one does not intend to use it for this purpose, there is no requirement to immerse it. Subsequently, the individual decides that he might use the cruet to process vanilla flavor, a use that would require immersing. (For reasons beyond the scope of this article, I would suggest not reciting a brocha, when immersing the cruet.) According to the Shach, once they decide to use the cruet for making vanilla flavor, not only do they now need to immerse it, but they can no longer use it for anything else. This is because a cruet is inherently a vessel that should require immersion. The only reason they were not required to immerse it until now was because they had decided not to use it for food. But once they decide to use it for food, they may not use it for anything without immersing it.

The salami knife

We can also now address a different question that was asked above: “I have a knife that I use for my work, which is not food related. May I occasionally slice a salami with the knife that I have never immersed in a mikveh?”

The answer is that, if this is a knife that was made for food use, one would not be allowed to use it for food without immersing it. On the other hand, if it is a box cutter, which is clearly not meant for food use, we have no evidence that one is required to immerse it. There are sources in halachah that state that an item that is not meant as klei seudah may be used occasionally for food, even by the owner, without requiring tevilah (see, for example, Darchei Teshuvah 120:70, 88).

Klei sechorah — “merchandise”

The halachic authorities note that a storekeeper does not toivel vessels he is planning to sell, since for him they are not klei seudah, but merchandise. Later authorities therefore coined a term “klei sechorah,” utensils used as merchandise, ruling that these items do not require immersion until they are purchased by the person intending to use them (based on Taz, Yoreh Deah 120:10).

In the nineteenth century, a question was raised concerning the definition of klei sechorah. When rail travel became commonplace, enterprising entrepreneurs began selling refreshments at train stations. (No club car on those trains!) A common occurrence was that Jewish vendors would sell beer or other beverages at the stations, which they would serve to their customers by the glassful. The question was raised whether these glasses required immersion and whether one was permitted to drink from them when the vendor presumably had not immersed them. Although it would seem that one may not use them without tevilah, there are authorities who rule that these vessels are considered klei sechorah for the merchant and that, therefore, the customer may use them (Darchei Teshuvah 120:70, 88; Shu”t Minchas Yitzchak #1:44).

According to this approach, a restaurateur or caterer is not required to immerse the utensils with which he serves his guests. Although most authorities reject this approach (Minchas Shlomoh 2:66:14), I have found many places where, based on this heter, hechsherim do not require the owner to toivel his glassware, flatware and other items.

Conclusion

According to Rav Hirsch, metal vessels, which require mankind’s mining, extracting and processing, represent man’s mastery over the earth and its materials. Whereas vessels made of earthenware or wood involve man merely shaping the world’s materials to fit his needs, the manufacture of metal demonstrates man’s creative abilities to utilize natural mineral resources to fashion matter into a usable form. Consuming food, on the other hand, serves man’s most basic physical nature. Use of metal food vessels, then, represents the intellectual aspect of man serving his physical self, which, in a sense, is the opposite of why we were created; to use our physical self to assist our intellect to do Hashem’s will. Specifically, in this instance, the Torah requires that the items hereby produced be immersed in a mikveh, to endow them with increased kedusha before they are put to food-use. This demonstrates that, although one may use one’s intellect for physical purposes, the product of one’s creative power must first be sanctified in order that we focus on the spiritual.

Taking Care of the Ill — The Mitzvah of Bikur Cholim Part II

Question #1: Not a doctor

“If the mitzvah of bikur cholim is to see that the patient’s needs are taken care of, what am I accomplishing by visiting him in the hospital? I am not a physician, and my inquiring about the patient’s medical care is probably intrusive and counter-productive.”

Question #2: Is there a rabbi in the house?

“Why do people ask tzaddikim to pray on behalf of someone who is ill?”

Question #3: Visiting alone

“I was told not to visit a sick person by myself. Is there a halachic basis for this practice?”

Introduction

The Gemara (Sotah 14a) teaches that we have a mitzvah to follow in Hashem’s ways, and that this mitzvah includes the requirement to take care of the needs of the ill. “Rabbi Chama the son of Rabbi Chanina said, ‘How are we to understand the words of the Torah: “You should follow Hashem, your G-d.” How is it possible for a human being to follow the Holy One, blessed is He, when the verse states that ‘Hashem, your G-d, is a consuming fire?’ Rather, it means that we are to emulate Hashem’s attributes – just as he dresses the naked… takes care of the sick… consoles the mourners, and buries the dead, so should we.

Based on a pasuk in parshas Korach, the Gemara (Nedarim 39b) teaches: “There is an allusion to the mitzvah of bikur cholim in the Torah: When Moshe declares ‘If these people (Korach’s party) will die like most people do, and the destiny of most people will happen to them, then Hashem did not send me.’ How do we see an allusion to the mitzvah of bikur cholim in the pasuk? Moshe declared: If these people will die like most people do – if they will become ill and bedridden and people will come to inquire about their needs – the people will say ‘Hashem did not send me.’” Thus, the Gemara cites this week’s parsha as one of the direct sources in the Torah for the mitzvah of bikur cholim.

Last week, our article was on the topic of bikur cholim and discussed many of its basic halachos. This article includes a review of some of the basic laws and concepts of this very special mitzvah, but will primarily cover details that were not discussed in the previous article.

Every community should have an organization devoted to the needs of the sick, and it is a tremendous merit to be involved in organizing and participating in such a wonderful chesed project (Ahavas Chesed 3:3).

What does the word bikur mean?

Although the word “bikur” means “visit” in modern Hebrew, the original meaning of “bikur” is not “visit” but “examine” or “check.” The primary responsibility of the mitzvah of bikur cholim is to check and see what the ill person needs and to do whatever one can to meet those needs (Toras Ha’adam). Thus, a physician, nurse, nurse’s aide, or medical clown performs the mitzvah of bikur cholim all day long. If they regularly have in mind that they are fulfilling what Hashem wants us to do, they are rewarded for each and every time that they stop in to inquire about the ill and assist in his care. Each time a person visits an ill person, he fulfills an additional act of the mitzvah of bikur cholim, provided that the ill person appreciates the visit. However, one who performs the same activities while looking at it exclusively as a job, but not as an opportunity to imitate Hashem’s wondrous deeds, misses the opportunity to receive all this reward. In addition, constantly recognizing that I am acting like Hashem and fulfilling His mitzvos makes a tremendous impression on one’s neshamah.

There are two main aspects of this mitzvah:

I. Taking care of the physical and emotional needs of ill people.

II. Praying for their recovery (Toras Ha’adam, based on Nedarim 40a).

Taking care of needs

In addition to raising the sick person’s spirits by showing one’s concern, the visitor should also ascertain that the physical, financial, and medical needs are properly cared for, as well as other logistical concerns that may be troubling the patient. Often, well- meaning people make the effort to visit the sick, but fail to fulfill the mitzvah of bikur cholim fully, because they fail to check if the choleh needs something (Gesher Hachayim).

Visiting a child

The mitzvah of bikur cholim includes visiting a child who is ill (Yalkut Yosef, Volume 7,page 27). If the child is accompanied by a parent, one can accomplish all aspects of the mitzvah by visiting the parent and child in the hospital, seeing that their needs are being met and praying for the recovery of the child.

Praying

The Beis Yosef (Yoreh Deah 335) writes, “It is a great mitzvah to visit the ill, since this causes the visitor to pray on the sick person’s behalf, which revitalizes him. Furthermore, since the visitor sees the ill person, the visitor checks to see what the ill person needs.” We see that the Beis Yosef considers praying for the ill an even greater part of the mitzvah than attending to his needs, since he first mentions praying and then refers to attending to the other needs as “furthermore.”

The authorities note that someone who visits a sick person without praying for his recovery fails to fulfill all the requirements of the mitzvah (Toras Ha’adam; Rema, Yoreh Deah 335:4). Therefore, physicians, nurses, aides and medical clowns should accustom themselves to pray for their sick patients in order to fulfill the complete mitzvah of bikur cholim. A simple method of accomplishing this is to discreetly recite a quick prayer (such as “Hashem, please heal this person among the other ill Jewish people [besoch she’ar cholei Yisroel]”) as one leaves the person’s room. (A doctor in his office can recite the same quick prayer.) When wishing someone refuah sheleimah, what one is doing is praying on his behalf.

When praying for someone ill, always include a request that he get well together with the rest of the Jewish ill (Shabbos 12b).

Small illness

The Gemara (Yerushalmi, Brochos 4:4) implies that one should pray for the healing of even a relatively minor illness. To quote: “We should assume that any illness carries with it the potential to become dangerous.”

Just pray?

At this point, let us look at the first of our opening questions: “If the mitzvah of bikur cholim is to see that the patient’s needs are taken care of, what am I accomplishing by visiting him in the hospital? I am not a physician, and my inquiring about the patient’s medical care is probably intrusive and counter-productive.”

Aside from the advantage in cheering them up, which can certainly help in their medical care, visiting the patient and seeing him motivates one to daven harder for his recovery and that Hashem should give the medical personnel the wisdom to provide the proper treatment (Shu”t Yechaveh Daas 3:83).

Is there a rabbi in the house?

At this point, let us address the second of our opening questions: “Why do people ask tzaddikim to pray on behalf of an ill person?”

Anyone can daven on behalf of an ill person, and should do so; of course, this includes the ill person himself. The Gemara teaches that King Chizkiyahu was healed exclusively in the merit of his own prayer.

Notwithstanding that everyone can and should pray for the sick, the prayers of a great tzaddik have additional merit and can accomplish what the prayers of others cannot. The Gemara (Bava Basra 116a) teaches this lesson in the following way: “Whoever has an ill person in his house should go to a wise man, so that he can pray for mercy on his behalf, as the verse states, ‘The angels of death are the fury of the King, but a wise man will atone for it’ (Mishlei 16:14).”

Ben gilo

The Gemara (Nedarim 39b; Bava Metzia 30b) teaches that the most effective person to visit someone ill is one who qualifies as a ben gilo. The Gemara states that when a ben gilo visits someone ill he takes with him 1/60 of the illness. This means that the ill person is better, but the ben gilo may be affected. What is the definition of a ben gilo?

Among the authorities, I found three interpretations of the term.

(1) One approach I found is that a ben gilo shares a common mazel, meaning that he and the ill person were born under the same astrological sign (Rosh and Ran, Nedarim 39b; Taz, Yoreh Deah 335:2).

(2) The Meforeish (Nedarim 39b) defines ben gilo as a young person visiting someone young, or an older person visiting someone in his age range.

(3) The Meiri (Nedarim 39b) defines ben gilo as someone whose company the ill person enjoys. The company of someone the patient enjoys eases the illness, but it also affects the health of the friend seeing him so ill.

The probable source for the Meiri is a Midrash Rabbah (Vayikra 34:1), where it states the following: “Rav Huna said: ‘Whoever visits the ill removes one sixtieth of his illness.’ They then asked Rav Huna, ‘Then let sixty people come and visit him, and he’ll leave with them afterwards for the marketplace, completely cured!’ To this Rav Huna answered: ‘Sixty people can indeed accomplish this, but only if they love him as they love themselves!’”

Thus, we see the tremendous value of feeling empathy for the pain of the ill. (We should note that the Gemara supplies an answer to the question that was asked of Rav Huna that disputes the answer provided by the Midrash.)

Brocha for bikur cholim

One of the interesting aspects of the mitzvah of bikur cholim is that we do not recite a brocha prior to performing it. Why not?

There are many approaches to answer this question. I will here share some approaches mentioned by the early commentaries.

Patient may not want

1. One recites a brocha only prior to fulfilling a mitzvah which one knows is within his ability to perform. The patient may not want someone to take care of matters for him, or may not want to be visited. If indeed, he does not want visitors, someone who visits him does not fulfill any mitzvah (Shu”t Harashba #18).

Let me explain this approach in a bit more detail. There is a mitzvah that the ill be treated medically and properly. This is included under the mitzvah of the Torah of venishmarta me’od lenafshoseichem, you should be very careful to take care of your lives (Devorim 4:15). One would perhaps think that, therefore, I should recite a brocha on visiting the sick, since my goal is to help cure the ill person, and he is required to seek a cure for his illness. However, this is not sufficient reason to recite a brocha, since the patient is under no obligation to accept my offer to help. He may seek his relief elsewhere.

Not uniquely Jewish

2. Some authorities explain why we do not recite a brocha because the text that we say for birchos hamitzvos is: Asher kideshanu bemitzvosav, that He sanctified us with His mitzvos. They contend that we recite a brocha only when a mitzvah is uniquely Jewish (see Rokei’ach, quoted in Encyclopedia Talmudis,Volume IV, column 525). However, non-Jews also take care of the ill, so this mitzvah does not reflect anything special about the relationship of Hashem to the Jewish people.

This answer is reinforced by the fact that when fulfilling a mitzvah that is uniquely theirs, the kohanim recite a brocha that begins with the words Asher kideshanu bikedushaso shel Aharon, that He sanctified us with the sanctity of Aharon. This demonstrates that the text of brochos for mitzvos is because of the unique ability we have to perform specific commandments that we, as Jewish people or part of the Jewish people, can perform.

3. Prefer not

Yet another reason cited why we do not recite a brocha on bikur cholim is because reciting a brocha prior to observing this mitzvah sounds like we want the situation to exist (Raavad, quoted by Yalkut Yosef, page 24). We certainly would prefer that there be no ill people who require medical attention. This reason also explains why we do not recite a brocha on mitzvos such as nichum aveilim, consoling the mourners,and tearing keriyah upon hearing of the passing of a loved one.

4. Not time bound

Some rishonim note that all mitzvos upon which we recite brochos are those bound by time – meaning that there are times when we are obligated to observe the mitzvah and times when no obligation exists (Or Zarua, Birchas Hamotzi #140). Obviously, the mitzvah of bikur cholim can be fulfilled at any time.

How to visit

The Gemara states that the shechinah rests above the head of a sick person (Shabbos 12b; Nedarim 40a). For this reason, it states that someone who visits a sick person should not sit on a bed, a stool or a chair, but should wrap himself in his talis and sit on the floor. (The Gemara is referring to the time in history when a talis was the standard outer garment that a man wore. It does not mean to imply that one should put on a talis in order to fulfill the mitzvah of visiting the ill.) Alternatively, he can remain standing during his visit.

However, the Rema (Yoreh Deah 335:3) rules that when the Gemara prohibits sitting on a bed, a stool or a chair when visiting someone ill, it was referring to a situation where the patient is lying on the floor – in such a situation, one should not sit in a position higher than the shechinah. When the ill person is in a bed, one can sit on a chair that is no higher than the bed (see Yalkut Yosef, pg 28, quoting Rav Eliezer Yehudah Valdenberg).

Visiting alone

At this point, let us address the last of our opening questions: “I was told not to visit a sick person by myself. Is there any halachic basis for this practice?”

Before answering this question, I will provide a bit of historical background. Most of the earlier halachic compendia we have date to the time of the rishonim, about 700-1000 years ago. However, one of the major halachic works dates back earlier, to the era of the geonim, who were the roshei yeshiva of the yeshivos in Bavel (Mesopotomia, in today’s Iraq) and the poskim of all of klal Yisroel for a period of approximately 400 years prior to the times of the rishonim.

One of the geonim, Rav Acha’i, authored a halachic work, called the She’iltos, probably the earliest post-Talmudic halachic compendium. In one of his essays there, he discusses the mitzvah of bikur cholim as follows:

“The Jewish people are required to inquire about the wellbeing of the ill, as Rav Chanina said, ‘How are we to understand the words of the Torah: “You should follow Hashem, your G-d.” How is it possible for a human being to follow the Holy One, blessed is He, when the verse declares that Hashem, your G-d, is a consuming fire?’”

Rav Acha’i continues: “Therefore, one is obligated to go and inquire about the needs of the ill. And when one goes, one should not go alone, but with someone else.”

Thus, there is a halachic source for the practice not to visit the ill alone.

Notwithstanding this ruling of the She’iltos, normative halachic practice does not follow the opinion of Rav Acha’i.

The Netziv, a Hebrew acronym of Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, was the Rosh Yeshiva of the Volozhin Yeshiva in the late nineteenth century, at the time that it was the preeminent yeshiva in the world. He authored several monumental works, including highly original commentaries on the Torah, and on several halachic midrashim: the Sifrei, the Mechilta, and the Sifra. He also wrote what has become the standard commentary on the She’iltos of Rav Acha’i. There the Netziv writes that he is unaware of the source for the She’iltos ruling that one should not visit the ill by himself, and he is unaware of any other halachic authority who mentions this.

Among late compendia on the laws of bikur cholim, I found this question discussed in the Yalkut Yosef, written by the current Sefardic chief rabbi of Israel, Rav Yitzchak Yosef. Rav Yosef concludes that, since no other halachic authorities, including the Shulchan Aruch, mention a halacha that one should not go alone to visit the ill, one should observe it only when it will not prevent someone from fulfilling the mitzvah. In other words, if it will be inconvenient to visit the ill person with someone else, or the ill person would prefer to be visited by one individual at a time, or the only other person available may make the ill person uncomfortable, one should certainly not take along another person when visiting the sick.

Conclusion

People who fulfill the mitzvah of bikur cholim are promised tremendous reward in Olam Haba, in addition to many rewards in this world (Shabbos 127a). In addition to all the obvious reasons for the mitzvah of bikur cholim, the Kli Yakar, in his commentary to this week’s parsha (Bamidbar 16:29), offers an additional reason for fulfilling bikur cholim – to benefit the visitor. This influences the visitor to think of the importance of doing teshuvah. And this provides extra merit for the sick person, since he caused someone else to do teshuvah, even if it was unintentional. May Hashem senda speedy recovery to all the ill!

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