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Choosing Tefillin

About Tefillin

Tefillin are two black leather cubes (boxes) that are worn by many Jewish men while at morning prayer. One of the cubes is called "Shel Rosh" and is placed on the forehead. The second is termed "Shel Yad", and is worn on the upper left arm. The cubes have long straps of leather attached to it which enable the man to wrap the tefillin on his head and arm. The straps of the Shel Yad are wound seven times down the arm and three times down the middle finger. Within the cubes are four sections of the Bible written on parchment paper. These sections declare the existence and unity of God and recall the liberation from Egypt. Once a man has had his Bar Mitzvah, he may wear the Tefillin during weekday prayers. Tefillin are not worn on the Sabbath (day of rest) nor on the Jewish holidays. The putting on of tefillin is like a ceremony in itself, for as the man puts on his tefillin, he recites a prayer. The use of tefillin stems from the Biblical commandment: "And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thy hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes" (Deut. 6:8). Today some women are reclaiming tefillin as part of their Jewish ritual.

Without a doubt tefillin are the most complex of the scribes activities, not in the writing but in the construction of the batim (housings) themselves which have to be perfectly square and take enormous efforts and craftsmanship.

They vary in quality, in the way they are made, and in their halakhic desirability. On the market today there are four types:

Peshutim (Simple Ones) - These are made using several pieces of parchment to form the inner walls of the head tefillin, glued within a slit square to divide it into the four required compartments. If the inserts are glued incorrectly then these batim are not kosher for use. The parshiyot inside commercially bought peshutim are generally of very poor quality, and often not valid for use.

Peshutim Mehudarim (Superior Simple Ones) - These make the box of the tefillin out of a single piece as required. They are typically made with 32 mm sides to the boxes, which are quite small. However, goat skin is used to form lighter weight batim, which when finished look almost identical to the more expensive cowhide type, but they are not as durable.

Dakkot (Thin Ones) - These are made by stretching a thin layer of parchment over a structural base similar to the peshutim. This outer parchment forms the entire box of the tefillin, including the inner as well as the outer walls and also the base, which is halachically desirable. Its thinness, though, means that the tefillin can become halachically invalid relatively easily if knocked or through normal wear and tear.

Gassot (Thick Ones) - These are made entirely out of a single piece of thick leather (usually with inserts to ensure they close flat). This requires the repeated use of several tons of pressure in industrial presses as part of a complicated but delicate production plan. The resulting batim are so durable and thick that they can be renewed even if seriously damaged and they typically last a lifetime. Gassot are made with boxes varying in size from about 20 mm per side to over 40 mm, though sides of 31-36 mm are considered standard. The pictures on this page show Gassot being made from a single piece of skin.

The choicest cow-hide is used from the cheeks and the neck where it is the thickest. Thus only one pair of tefillin is produced for each head of cattle. After undergoing a softening process the leather is cut to the size needed and left to dry slowly in the open air for at least three months. The box shapes are then formed through the appliance of considerable pressure and gradually the shape we are familar with starts to appear in the skin.

Each titura (cube), averaging 35 square millimeters in size, is sanded, squared perfectly, painted jet black with paint made from only kasher ingredients and measured, as many as twelve times. A lacquer finish provides wear resistant protection and a fine, faultless appearance which must be completely square or they are invalid for use.

On the head tefillin two shins, one with four heads protude. Once the parchments are placed inside in the specified manner, involving wrapping them in pieces of parchment and tying them loosely with calf’s hair. The batim are sewn shut with giddin (sinew) from a kosher animal with one of the calf’s hairs visible outside.

Finally, the leather retsu’ot (straps) which are black on one side and left plain are pushed through the ma’avarta (channel) and knotted according to the Ashkenazi or Sephardi custom.

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Beit Ari vs. Beit Yosef scripts

One of the most honored professions in Jewish life is being a scribe or sofer. It has been the profession of many great men in Jewish history, chief among them the great Ezra, who succeeded in rebuilding the Second Commonwealth and Temple. The word sofer in Hebrew literally means "one who counts." Since a scribe in essence "counts" the holy letters of the Torah as he writes them, this is the word that came to describe this holy profession.

The scribe writes the Torah, the parchments inserted into the boxes of teffilin and the parchment inserted within the mezuzot affixed to the doorposts of Jewish homes and premises. Thus, a scribe is usually called a sofer stam - the word stam being the acronym for sefer torah, teffilin and mezuzot.

Scribes are also employed to write gittin - bills of divorce, which must be written individually, by hand, for each particular case. A scribe writes with a quill made from the feather of a fowl and uses ink specially prepared for the task. His work is exacting, time-consuming and painstaking. No mistakes are allowed and in today's technologically advanced world, there are special computer driven programs that check the work of the sofer for accuracy and correctness.

The parchment used for a sefer torah, tefillin and mezuzot is also specially prepared and is derived from the hide of a kosher animal. The hide undergoes a process of flattening, thinning and bleaching to turn it into usable white parchment. There have been many instances of deerskin being used to make the parchment and those sifrei torah have a brown-colored background for the black lettering of the words of the Torah.

The scribe writes in a squarish script called in the Talmud ktav ashuri, "Assyrian script." Tradition assigns this script back to Moshe and Sinai. There are very strict halachic rules regarding the formation of each letter of the Hebrew alphabet, although there are a number of variant traditions.

The most common script is called beit yosef since it is the form prescribed by Rabbi Yosef Caro in the Shulchan Aruch - the primary work of Jewish law. However, the great kabbalist Rabbi Yitzchak Luria Ashkenazi promoted a script that differs slightly from beit yosef script in nine letters of the alphabet. This script is called ktav ari - ari being the Hebrew acronym for Rabbi Yitzchak Luria.

Most Ashkenazi, non-hassidic Jews, as well as most Sephardi Jews, use the beit yosef script, while most hassidic and kabalistically-oriented Jewish communities use the ktav ari script. There is a third variation of ktav ashuri, called ktav vellish. This script was in use in medieval central Europe, especially Bohemia and also in certain Yemenite and Near Eastern communities. It does not enjoy wide popularity today.

In addition to all of the above, the scribe must attach "crowns" - little exclamation point-like lines - to the tops of seven letters of the Hebrew alphabet when writing a sefer torah. Being a scribe requires patience, good writing and artistic skills and immense powers of concentration. It is not a task for the faint of heart or weak of hand.

No matter what variation of script is used, the scribe himself leaves his individualistic imprint on the parchment. No two scribes write exactly the same and people interested in purchasing a Torah or tefillin or mezuzot, naturally, search for a scribe whose calligraphy appeals to them.

Until the latter part of the 20th century, most scribes wrote in a bold and thick hand, so that the white background of the parchment was almost unnoticeable. However, over the past few decades, following the lead of scribes in Israel, the writing of the letters has taken on a much lighter, finer tone.




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