A $1,500 pair of tefillin can be rendered passul if the giddim holding them together aren't kosherm

This article originally appeared as: "The Cost of a Little Bit of Ignorance" by Yehudah Marks
HAMODIA (Israel Edition) – 21 Kislev, 5769 – December 18, 2008

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Most people are unaware of how much work goes into the tefillin we wear: the careful preparation of the parchment, the meticulous writing of the parshiyos and the precise molding of the bayis.

All these must be in accordance with the many halachos involved. Neglecting just one “minor” halachah can render a pair of $1,500 tefillin invalid, and the brachos recited on them brachos levatalah, chas veshalom.

But even if your klaf, parshiyos, batim and retzuos are kosher, the story isn't over, warns Rabbi Moshe Flumenbaum, a rav who did shimush under Harav Moshe Halberstam, ztz"l, and formerly the educational director for Mishmeres STa”M.

The last step in tefillin production, before tying the retzuos, is putting the parshiyos into the batim and sewing the batim closed.

The "thread" used to sew tefillin batim, as well as sifrei Torah and megillos parchments, must be sinew or gid, as it is known in the tefillin world, from a kosher animal. This is a halachah leMoshe miSinai, and if the gid of a nonkosher animal is used, the tefillin are passul.

The main problem regarding the giddim is that there is little awareness among the public that anything could go wrong with the giddim. Since the giddim are only used in the final stage of the tefillin, most STa”M dealers and sofrim don't even know the halachos pertaining to the giddim, and therefore are not aware of the she'eilos that can arise.

Machine-Made Giddim

The preparation of the gid is complex, grueling and time-consuming. The gid is removed from the animal after shechitah, dried, pounded and cleaned using metal combs, until the finest fibers are obtained.

The fibers are then spun into threads, doubled and spun again into a two-ply spin, and tested for strength and durability.

The manufacture of the gid is all manual, an art that has been passed down from generation to generation and takes years to learn.

As the STa”M field grew, the need for giddim increased and has become a large market in itself, with competition driving manufacturers to seek ways to cut costs and time.

In their efforts to cut prices, the STa”M dealers decided that instead of manually spinning the sinew to make it into a thread, they would use a “Sammal machine,” which is powered by an electric sewing machine motor.

The machine is halachically problematic: According to various poskim, the gid must be spun lishma, with the intention of being used for tefillin or sifrei Torah, and lacking this kavanah the gid is passul.

Although there are poskim who disagree, it is certainly not lechatchilah to use giddim that are not spun lishmah.

(The rule is that if there are views in the Rishonim that it is passul, then even if we don't pasken like those Rishonim it is not mehudar, and if there are views in the poskim that it is passul, then even if we don't pasken like those poskim it is not lechatchilah but bedieved.)

The issue of lishmah with machines is an ongoing machlokes, but those who are makpid to eat hand-baked matzos on the night of Pesach because machine matzos lack the virtue of being leshmah, must for the same reason also be cautious not to use machine-made giddim.

Although matzah-baking machines and tzitzis-making machines were initiated over 100 years ago, sparking a fierce machlokes between the poskim in those days, the gid machine was only introduced eight years ago, sadly with little ado.

In fact, it was so quietly launched that a certain Rav gave his hechsher to giddim without even knowing that they were being processed by machine. After he was told of the problematic production of the giddim he retracted his hechsher, but thousands of packages of giddim had already been sold and sewn into tefillin batim and sifrei Torah, rendering them bedieved.

The only way to correct this would be to re-sew the tefillin or sifrei Torah with handmade giddim.

Another problem has arisen as well. Instead of doubling the gid and spinning it again, some dealers have decided to save time and money by taking one gid, folding it and gluing it together, thus giving it the appearance of a kosher gid.

According to many poskim, the spinning of the gid is me'akev, meaning that if it is not spun in the proper way, the gid is passul.

In addition, although cheaper in price, the resulting thread is not comparable in strength to that of the kosher gid, and when the thread is stretched in order to close the tefillin batim, it can tear. But the STa”M dealers overcome this problem by not pulling the thread too hard when sewing up the batim....

Pig Sinews Used to Sew Sifrei Torah!

While the problem of machine-made giddim may render tefillin and sifrei Torah bedieved, according to many poskim, there is an even more serious problem that make the tefillin and sifrei Torah totally passul: STa”M dealers discovered that it would be cheaper and easier to work with nonkosher sinews.

Pig, horse, or camel sinews cost less than half the price of kosher gid, and are up to three times the length, making handling the threads much easier.

Rabbi Flumenbaum relates the story of a STa”M dealer who found out that the giddim came from a nonkosher animal, and asked the Rav if they could be used.

“May I use giddim from a treife animal?” was his question, and the Rav's answer was, “Yes, you can.”

That was a clear enough answer for the person who asked, but he failed to realize that he hadn't defined his terms correctly: In halachah, there is a difference between a treife animal and a beheimah temeiah, an impure animal.

A treife is a cow or any other kosher animal that is found to be treif after the shechitah. The sinews of such an animal are kosher for tefillin and sifrei Torah since the giddim come from a pure animal, even if the animal itself may not be eaten for other reasons. But the sinews of an impure animal, like horses or pigs, may not be used for tefillin or sifrei Torah.

After receiving his misbegotten “yes,” the STa”M dealer sold many unfit giddim at half the price of kosher lemehadrin giddim, and the mistake was caught only much later by an expert who identified the source of the gid.

But what about the hundreds of tefillin and sifrei Torah that were sewn with these passul giddim? People don these tefillin every day thinking they are mehudar, with the best batim and parshiyos, yet they are passul according to all halachic views!

Non-Jewish Labor

Another way of cutting the price of the giddim is by employing non-Jewish laborers, who are passul – according to many poskim – for working in giddim.

And once the non-Jews discovered the new market, they started to produce the giddim themselves.

“I have had several cases of non-Jews entering my store and asking if I'm interested in buying “string the Jews use for the black boxes,” says Rabbi Flumenbaum.

The prices asked for gid without a hechsher are significantly lower than that of kosher gid, and many sofrim are unaware of the halachic issues involved in buying gid without a hechsher.

“Only a few weeks ago, somebody came to my store offering giddim for sale, claiming that they have the hechsher of a certain Rav. Lacking a letter of certification, I called the Rav, who declared that he has never given a hechsher for giddim....”

What to Ask For

Just as consumers are aware that they must ask to see the hechsher when buying parshiyos, batim and retzuos, they must similarly ask about the kashrus of the giddim that are being used to sew the tefillin.

Various kashrus committees have given hechsherim on the manufacture of giddim, supervising their production from beginning to end.

But even seeing a hechsher isn't enough; you much check what the hechsher covers. Often, there is a hechsher on the batim being sold, but that does not mean that the batim have been painted and sewed halachically.

The buyer must remember that if non-kosher thread is used to sew the tefillin or sefer Torah, they are passul, even if the best sofer wrote the parshiyos and the most mehudar batim are purchased.

“People seem to have gotten their priorities wrong,” laments Rabbi Flumenbaum. “They ask for batim that are mikshah achas and are willing to pay $200 more for this chumrah that has been around for a mere 40 years and which Harav Elyashiv says is not worth the money that it is sold for. Yet when it comes to paying just a few dollars more for kosher giddim they forget about their chumrahs and hiddurim and make do with giddim without a hechsher, which may chas veshalom render the tefillin passul.”

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