If you are buying tefillin for the first time, or are buying tefillin for a bar mitzvah boy, some aspects of tefillin are probably a mystery to you. Some aspects remain a mystery to all of us – as indeed it was meant to be – but certainly basic consumer information for the prospective tefillin buyer should be readily available.
On common question is what are the differences between Sephardic tefillin and Ashkenazi tefillin. There are basically three distinctions: the Shin, the writing of the parchments and the way the Shel Yad straps are tied.
The first distinction – and the only one not visible to the eye – is the writing on the parchments. The writing style used by the sofer (ritual scribe) differs somewhat, depending on the custom. Most Ashkenazi use a writing style known as Beit Yosef, while Sephardic Jews use a writing style knows as Vellish.
The second difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardic tefillin is the Shin, which is embossed on both sides of the Shel Rosh (the part worn on the top of the forehead). The form of the Shin differs somewhat, in accordance with various customs. On the Shel Rosh of Ashkenazi tefillin the Shin has three branches, and a pointy triangular base. In contrast, on the Shel Rosh of Sephardic tefillin the Shin has four branches and a more square base.
Finally, the way the strap on the Shel Yad is tied also differs, because Ashkenazim and Sephardim wrap the strap around the arm differently.
What about the price? Typically the price is the same, but on the upper end of the spectrum sometimes a dealer will charge a bit more for Ashkenazi tefillin because the writing of the parchments is a bit more time-consuming, since the Beit Yosef script has many added markings (called tagim). Beware of brand new Tefillin Peshutim Mehudarim or “Bar Mitzvah Tefillin” (which are really the same) on Amazon or Judaica websites priced very low ($200-$230 or even less). It’s almost impossible to make decent reliably kosher tefillin in that price range.