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A Short Guide for Buying Tefillin & Mezuzos

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1. When someone is interested in purchasing tefillin that are particularly "hehudar" it is best that he order the parshios directly from a certified sofer who is known for both his high level of expertise and his exceptional fear of Heaven. After the parshios are written and checked, one takes them to a reputable, G-d fearing Jew who sells "batim." Throughout the ages, everywhere that Jews have lived, this has been the custom.

2. One must realize from the outset, however, that in our generation, when someone wants parshios that are truly "mehudar," it is no simple matter to find a sofer who possesses both the needed level of fear of Heaven and the needed level of expertise. Similarly, in many of the factories where the "batim" are produced, it is done too quickly, mainly because insufficient time is set aside for drying between the different stages of production.

3. When a person is about to make an important purchase which requires him to spend a considerable amount of money, such as when he is preparing to buy a home or an automobile, he does not rely just on what he hears from the sellers of these items. Rather, he researches the matter from all sides, carefully and methodically, to the best of his ability. It is no different when a man buys tefillin. He must research the matter thoroughly, consulting the experts -- those who have knowledge of all the issues, experience in the field as well as familiarity with the market. Even if a reputed expert gives him a recommendation or states his opinion, he should seek out an additional expert to hear his view, too.

4. Nevertheless, more often than not, buyers of tefillin rely exclusively upon the words of the sellers. They do not undertake the deep research that is necessary, usually because they are unaware of the issues involved and are unable to ask the questions that must be asked. Sometimes, though, they know the issues and are prepared to ask the seller the appropriate questions, but it is uncomfortable for them to do so, because they fear that if they ask too many questions, it will insult the seller, for it will appear as if they do not trust him. Sometimes, the seller himself is unaware of all of the issues involved, and other times, some of the important details do not concern him as much as they should.

5. If one relies upon the seller, there are fewer problems if the seller's store has a good "hechsher," but still, it easily might happen that inadequate attention was paid to all of the "hidurim" that the buyer would like. Sometimes the quality of the merchandise leaves much to be desired, while the price, due to the "hechsher," is very high. Therefore, in every case, buyers are advised to beware and research the matter thoroughly, to the best of their ability, making sure that all of the necessary questions are asked, and all the important details are covered.

Helpful Pieces of Advice

Parshios

- Before buying parshios from a store, ask the seller's permission to take them to a reputable sofer, or to a checker, or to a "mechon" (institute) devoted to sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzos, in order to obtain an outside opinion about the quality of the parshios and their worth.
- One should check into the fear of Heaven of the sofer (for example, speak to the Rav of the beis ha-knesses where the sofer prays).
- One should have the parshios checked twice, by two skilled checkers.
- One should check into the kashrus of the parchments, too.
- One should make sure that the parshios were written on parchments that are thin and top quality.
- It is worthwhile to seek the "hidur" that the sofer wrote the parshios while "fasting" from speaking.
- Regarding the Sephardic way of writing, and so, too, the way of the Arizal, there is "hidur" in having the seven Names of HaShem written in the manner of "chiluk osios."
- As noted (Chapter 7, Halacha 4), there is no special "hidur" in parchments that were worked and processed by hand – by manual power only (Mishnah Berurah 32:30; Chazon Ish, Tefillin 6:10), although some are stringent about this matter (Mikdosh M'aht, in accordance to the opinion of Gidulei HaKodesh 3:4).

"Batim" of Tefillin

- One should search for high quality "batim" that have a reliable "hechsher."
- Regarding the tefillin of the head, one should ask for "batim perudos" – i.e. the separations between the four "batim" reach to the stitch on the upper surface of the base of the tefillin, and there is no glue holding the "batim" together (See above, Chapter 5. Halacha 1).
- One should also ask that the "batim" of the tefillin of the head be "mikuvanot" (Chapter 5, Halacha 8). That is, the stitching is such that when one looks at the tefillin from the outside, it is obvious that the four "batim" are separate compartments. "Gid" is clearly apparent on upper side of the tefillin base, directly across from the actual required separations, making it patently clear that the separations exist.
- One should ask for head tefillin whose slits between the "batim" are perfectly straight, and the width of all four of the "batim" is exactly the same.
- Ask the seller to provide the parshios, the "batim" and the straps separately, individually. Afterwards, bring all of the components to a "machnis" - an expert in inserting the parshios and in assembling the tefillin. This is best, so one can ask him for his opinion about the "batim." (Check with those in-the-know regarding who is an expert "machnis.")
- It is wise for the buyer to ask the seller give him the "batim" before they are painted, and to explain that, as such, the "machnis" will find it much easier to check them. The request itself, along with the buyer's explanation of it, will cause the seller to be more careful to sell the buyer "batim" of the highest quality.
- It is advisable to be present when the parshios are placed inside the "batim," for this will cause the "machnis" to be particularly careful to not make any mistakes.
- It is advisable to ask the "machnis" not to glue the "titura" together after closing it, in deference to the stringency of the Chazon Ish (See Chapter 5, Halacha 5).
- As noted, in terms of length and width, the tefillin must be perfectly square. It is unnecessary to be stringent and require that, to accomplish this, the final "shaving" be done by means of man-power i.e. a foot pedal (See Chapter 5, Halacha 9). It is perfectly fine if the final shaving is done with a device that is powered by electricity, because even then, man-power is used, for during the shaving, a person must use his hand to firmly hold onto the box (Zichron Eliyahu pg. 393).
- As noted (Chapter 5, Halacha 10) when making tefillin, some attach a thin piece of animal skin to the whole underside of the upper "titura," by cutting a square hole in it so that the parchments still can be placed into the box. The added piece of skin serves a constructive purpose (see there) and it is not considered "hidur" if the tefillin are made of one piece of leather, without this additional piece of skin (Zichron Eliyahu pg. 393 [70:22]).
- Similarly, there is no reason to be particular that boxes of the arm tefillin and the head tefillin be exactly the same shape and size.
- One should ask the seller for a written warrantee on the "batim," and it should state explicitly that if the "batim" of the head tefillin begin to come apart (i.e. a space opens up between them) the seller is responsible. This is a common problem with "batim" of low quality, although sellers sometimes contend that it results from the buyer's failure to protect the "batim" from heat and perspiration.
- Check the underside of both tefillin, to make sure that there is no paint there that easily can be scraped off, for such constitutes a chatzitza (See Chapter 1, Halacha 24).

Straps

- One should seek out straps whose leather is high quality and was worked by hand. The straps should have a reliable "hechsher."
- The blackness of straps that are black on both sides is more long-lasting, compared to that of straps that are black only on one side.
- One should ask that the knot of the tefillin of the arm be tied to the box with a piece of "gid" or other type of thread, so that the knot always touches the box.
- The one who ties the knot of the tefillin of the arm should be asked to make its loop small.
- The buyer should try on the head tefillin to make sure that the knot is positioned in the proper place.

What are the most common problems with the "batim"?

- If the "batim" were made quickly, by means of "short-cuts," with insufficient time being set aside for drying between the different stages of production, the four "batim" of the head tefillin often "open up" – i.e. they visibly separate from one another, or the "titura" becomes rounded.
- Often, although the seller maintains that the "batim" of the head tefillin are "perudim" all the way down to the base, actually, they are partially glued together, where the slits near the base.

Which manufacturers make good "batim"?

This question is not easy to answer. Confusion about the matter is great. Most buyers know very little about how "batim" should be made, and price certainly is not a reliable indicator of quality. Sometimes it happens that even a reputable manufacturer slips up. Although the workers take great pains and pay close attention to all the "hidurim," the end product is of poor quality. Other times, even a manufacturer that has been making "batim" for years and has a very good name intentionally lowers its standards. Sometimes it is just the opposite. Manufacturers who were virtually unknown or did not possess good names become the best in the field. Therefore, it is unwise to make one's choice just on the basis of a manufacturer's good name.

If so, how does a person choose wisely?

A private individual: See above, that before the actual purchase, it is best that the buyer ask the seller give him the "batim" before they are painted. The buyer explains that he wants to take the "batim" to an expert who will check them, and he points out that checking is easier if the "batim" are not yet painted. The request itself, along with the reason that the buyer provides for it, will cause the seller to be particularly careful to provide the buyer with "batim" that are high quality.

He who sells tefillin: If interested in buying from one manufacturer on a steady basis, one should choose by obtaining unpainted "batim" from several manufacturers and taking them to an expert to hear his opinion as to which are the best. (The preferred experts to consult are those whose main expertise is insertion of the parchments into the "batim," for usually, these are the people who possess the most thorough understanding of "batim.")

Choosing "batim" before they are painted

- One should ask to see "batim" that are actually for sale, and not rely upon a specific sample "bayit" that the manufacturer shows him.
- One should check that the "bayit" has well-defined corners, without any indentations -- especially the corners and edges of the "katzitza" of the head tefillin, its slits between the "batim," also along the edges of each "titura," and on the upper part of the "ma'avarta."
- On the head tefillin, make sure that all four "batim" are uniform in size and the slits between them are perfectly straight.
- Make sure that the folds of the "titura" are tightly compressed and concealed, and there are no cracks or holes that were filled with powdered leather (for the head tefillin, this is important to help safeguard that the four "batim" do not separate from one another later on). A similar check is required for the ma'avarta."
- There are indicators that a "bayit" was not dried properly:
* There is a strong smell of leather coming from the interior of the "titura" (easily perceptible before the "titura" is sewn closed).
* Along the slits where the stitches run one sees soft, noticeable shavings of leather.
- Checking the "perudos" (separation of the four "batim" all the way to the base):
* It is not enough if one sees (by checking with one's fingers) that the four are separated at the top, because even if they are glued together near the base, they can be separated above that, where no glue is present.
* The matter can be checked by inserting a thin knife-blade between the "batim" to see whether the blade descends all the way to the base.
* For this purpose one can obtain from us (free of charge) a small metal disk whose width is only one tenth of a millimeter.
* After one sees that the disk descended to the base every time, one takes the disk away and checks whether the "batim" re-assumed close, tight adherence to one another, and are not loose. (One checks this by squeezing the "katzitza" with one's hands several times, exerting pressure on its sides and letting loose repeatedly, watching to see that the slits between the "batim" do not open and close.)
- After a time, one gains experience and can determine how well a "bayit" was dried between the different stages of production, what is the quality of the leather, and if, in fact, the "batim" are "perudos."