Kosher and Mehudar in STa"M
Explaining the wide range of prices found in
Scrolls, Tefillin and Mezuzot
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Reading these lines on our web site, you're using one of the most advanced forms of communication the world has yet known. It's fast, it's virtual and it's changing constantly. But in HaSOFER's realm of STa"M, Scrolls, Tefillin, and Mezuzot are written by hand utilizing the same techniques, materials and tools that have been used for over 3,000 years.
The mitzvot of making and using tefillin and mezuzot have their base in the Torah. The many detailed laws concerning how they are made and how to perform these mitzvot have been transmitted to us as halacha l'Moshe miSinai, our Oral Tradition as given to Moses at Mount Sinai. These laws set the standards of kashrut for STa"M. They have been detailed by our sages over the generations and are codified in the Shulchan Aruch, Code of Jewish law.
There's a big difference in price between the top-of-the-line mehudar, beautiful or enhanced, STa"M items and those that are only kosher l'hatchila l'bracha, just meeting basic standards of kashrut. What is the basis for the different price points? After a brief overview of these important mitzvot, we'll be able to give you the answer.
A few details from the laws of mezuzah and tefillin
The mezuzah klaf, mezuzah scroll, contains the first two paragraphs of kriat shema - shema yisrael (Devarim 6:4-10) and vehaya im shamoa (Devarim 11:13-21). These two paragraphs must be written with a margin of blank space on the top, bottom and right sides of the klaf, while on the left side no margin is required. The mezuzah is written in exactly twenty-two lines, with the last line containing only the last two words. In the first line, the words shema and echad are written with the letters ayin and daled enlarged, forming the Hebrew word eid, witness: the mezuzah is witness to G-d's dominion over the entire world, His sanctification of the Jewish people with mitzvot and, concomitantly, our desire to build our homes and conduct our lives in accordance with His commandments as given to us in the Torah. On the outside of the mezuzah parchment and visible when it is rolled properly, are the Hebrew letters shin, daled and yud. These letters spell one of G-d's names and also constitute the acronym Shomer Daltot Yisrael, Guardian of the Doors of Israel: the mezuzot on our doors give witness to our trusting in G-d and His protecting us.
Tefillin are comprised of the shel yad, "for the hand," and the shel rosh, "for the head." Each of these has three parts: the parshiyot, parchment scrolls on which the text is written with special ink; the batim, leather housings containing the parshiyot; and the retzuot, leather straps for binding the tefillin to our arm and head. Each of these three components has its own unique requirements, all of which are halacha l'Moshe miSinai. If any of the requirements of any of the components are not completely met, the tefillin are not kosher.
Both the shel yad and the shel rosh of the tefillin contain parchments with the same four portions of the Torah written on them: kadesh li kol bechor (Shemot 13:1-10), vehaya ki yeviacha (Shemot 13:11-16), shema yisrael (Devarim 6:4-10) and vehaya im shamoa (Devarim 11:13-21). For the shel rosh, the texts are written on four separate pieces of parchment, each four lines tall. For the shel yad, all four segments of text are written on a single piece of parchment, in four separate sections, each seven lines tall.
The tefillin batim, both the upper bayit (singular of batim) and the lower titura, base section must be perfectly square in shape. The shel rosh must have the Hebrew letter shin on both its right and left sides. The shin on the right side has the 3 arms we are used to seeing; however the shin on the left side is unique, made with 4 arms. The parchments must be rolled, tied with specially prepared hairs taken from the tail of a calf, wrapped in an additional piece of blank parchment, tied a second time with more calf's tail hairs, placed in the batim according to a specific orientation and the bayit then sewn closed with specially prepared giddin, sinews made from the tendons of a kosher animal, with the stitching also forming a perfect square. The straps must be perfectly black and tied so that the knot on the shel rosh forms the Hebrew letter daled and the knot on the shel yad forms the Hebrew letter yud.
Laws concerning the form of the letters and the writing
The Midrash teaches us that the twenty-seven letters of the Hebrew alphabet, the twenty-two letters plus the five "final" letters used only at the end of words, were shown to the entire Jewish nation at Mount Sinai at the time of the giving of the Torah. What the People of Israel saw at that revelation serves as the standard for the structure of the letters written in all STa"M, Scrolls, Tefillin and Mezuzot, to this day.
Tefillin and mezuzot have an additional requirement which does not apply to the other holy scrolls: they must be written kesidran, in the same order that they appear in the Torah. This means that each respective parchment must be written in the sequence it appears in the Torah, and every word and letter within each section must also be written in the proper sequence. If the sofer omits a letter or writes one incorrectly, he must correct it immediately, before he moves on to the next letter. He is not permitted to correct it at a later time as doing so amounts to writing the text out of order. This applies even if a letter becomes invalid after having originally been written properly, such as can happen due to wear and tear or deterioration due to environmental factors. Additionally, no two letters can touch, even in the slightest amount, nor can there be the smallest break or crack in any letter, even at those points where the separate pen strokes that create the letters connect.
Before the sofer begins to write, he must prepare himself for his holy work. He should purify himself by immersing in a mikve, ritual bath, in accordance with the ordinance of Ezra Hasofer. As he starts to write, he focuses his concentration on the mitzvah of writing by stating aloud his intent concerning the mitzvah he is about to perform. For example, if he is writing a mezuzah, he states, "Leshem kedushat mezuzah," "I hereby affirm that I am concentrating on the holiness of mezuzah." In a similar fashion, prior to writing each occurrence of any of G-d's names he states aloud that he is concentrating on writing His holy name with the proper sanctity.
Personal integrity required of the sofer
The sofer must be a master of literally thousands of detailed laws as he forms by hand each letter of every mezuzah, tefillin parshah (singular of parshiot) and scroll he writes. Compliance with many of the laws of STa"M is hidden from everyone except the sofer himself. Even when the tefillin or mezuzot are opened and examined these types of errors are undetectable and uncorrectable. For example, when writing tefillin or mezuzot, if a single letter is written or corrected out of sequence the tefillin or mezuzah is not kosher. No one can ever know that such a mistake has occurred except for the sofer: "it is between himself and G-d alone." It's a tremendous financial burden for the sofer to discard an item made non-kosher by such a mistake, but this is what he does.
Even if the mistake made by the sofer doesn't cause the tefillin or mezuzah to be non-kosher, that error can have a significant negative affect on the user on a spiritual level. For example, it is preferable for the letter lamed to have two taggim, small crowns, on it, yet their absence doesn't invalidate the letter. The Zohar, however, teaches us that the right tag (singular of taggim) represents G-d's attribute of mercy while the left tag represents His attribute of justice. The right tag has to be taller than the left one, symbolizing G-d's Mercy rising above His Justice. If the situation is reversed and the left tag is taller than the right one, then Divine Justice is represented as being dominant over Divine Mercy, a situation worse than having no taggim at all! "Who is willing to go before G-d and face His Judgment unless it is tempered by His Divine Mercy?"
HaSOFER's founder and owner, Rabbi Moshe Flumenbaum was once honored to examine the tefillin that had belonged to the saintly Chofetz Chaim, zt"l. In the course of the examination a question arose that he discussed with Rav Herschel Zaks, zt"l, the Chofetz Chaim's grandson. Rav Herschel quoted his father Rav Mendel Zaks as having been told by his father-in-law the Chofetz Chaim: "the most important element of tefillin is neither the professionalism nor the style of the writing, but rather the level of yirat shamayim, awe of G-d, of the individuals writing the text and making the tefillin batim; which no one, not the consumer, the examiner, nor even the most learned rabbi can see."
Minimally kosher or mehudar? It's your choice!
Jewish law recognizes 4 levels of kashrut. An item that meets the minimum standards of halacha is called kosher l'hatchila l'bracha, kosher or fitting for a person to recite the appropriate blessing and use it to perform a mitzvah. If the item doesn't meet even these standards due to its containing halachically-condoned errors or poor quality it may be considered kosher b'diavad, minimally kosher according to halacha: permissible for use but only when no item of higher quality is available. Pasul refers to an item which doesn't meet even the lowest of standards and which is not suitable for use for a mitzvah.
The highest level of kashrut is mehudar, beautiful or enhanced. The Torah teaches us that in addition to fulfilling the mitzvot we must also beautify them to the best of our abilities. This concept applies equally to external aspects of the mitzvot that we can see as well as to hidden or unknowable ones. The technical expertise and quality of the sofer's craftsmanship as seen in his writing and the perfect square of the tefillin batim are visible to the human eye. But more important are his yirat shamayim, personal integrity, and the breadth and depth of his knowledge of the laws of STa"M, as emphasized by the Chofetz Chaim's words quoted above. Going one step further, the Talmud in tractate Succah teaches us that even the kulmus, the sofer's feather, should be beautiful. Some sofrim store their kulmus in a silver stand for this reason.
It is crucial to know the source of your tefillin and mezuzot, who wrote and examined them, and who put them together. The sofer, examiner, and batim maker must all be G-d fearing individuals, professionally trained and properly certified by recognized Rabbinical authorities.
HaSOFER maintains a large stock of new Tefillin, Mezuzot and Megillot ranging from kosher l'hatchila l'bracha through very high levels of mehudar. The different levels of hiddur, beauty, are determined according to a complex rating system defined in the numerous volumes of Rabbinic responsa. The range of prices available gives you the opportunity to purchase an item of the highest level of hiddur while staying within your budget. For your convenience, we indicate the increasing levels of hiddur of our STa"M according to the following system:
Mehudar 2+, etc.
Minimally kosher or mehudar? The decision is yours, but HaSOFER wants that decision to be based on knowledge of what you're buying and what is right for your budget. Read the other articles in this STa"M in Halacha and Midrash section as well as the information found throughout our web site. For further clarification or to ask as us any question concerning STa”M email us at AskTheSofer@HaSOFER.com.
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