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?
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.
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).
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.)
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.