One should definitely be wary of very inexpensive tefillin. Even if you want to really on many leniencies, it’s hard to make tefillin that meet minimal halachic requirements without compromising on the basics. Here’s a question we received from a prospective tefillin peshutim buyer.
Shalom, I am looking for a Tefillin for my Bar Mitzvah boy (Lech Lecha in October). For your Tefillin Peshutim Mehudarim it cost $230 + shipping to Europe. At an Israeli vendor their Tefillin Peshutim Mehudarim cost today $194 incl. shipping to Europe. Can you please comment? Todah, Randall
We don’t sell any tefillin at that price level (and don’t plan to). If you want to go ahead and buy tefillin priced around $200, be sure to ask some questions. The following is a list of questions you might want to ask:
1) Ask if the parchments (klaf) used for writing the scrolls (parshiyot) is mashuach, because that is inferior quality and should be avoided. Mashuach means a coating was applied to the parchment to enable the sofer (scribe) to write faster. The problem is that this coating tends to crack, which could break up a letter thereby rendering the tefillin invalid. I once asked a seasoned veteran in the Israeli tefillin industry about a certain online seller who sold very inexpensive tefillin. He told me the dealer in question sells tefillin provider from South Tel Aviv (which is full of seedy neighborhoods) and that most of the tefillin they sell has mashuach parchments.
2) Ask for information about who supplies their tefillin. If they say it’s someone Orthodox and it comes with a kashrut certificate, that’s not good enough. That means very little. Get a name and see if you can find out anything about him.
3) If you are buying in a brick-and-mortar shop, ask whether you could take mezuzah or tefillin scrolls to your STaM checker.
4) Ask whether the sofer and magiah have received official certification.
5) Ask who he brings his STaM questions to.
6) Test his knowledge by asking him one or two common halachah questions related to STaM.
It’s not easy to maintain the proper level of fear of Heaven to produce reliably kosher mezuzahs and tefillin. I was once speaking with a tallis salesman who dabbled in writing mezuzah scrolls in his spare time. While I was there, he took out a pair of scissors and cut into a mezuzah scroll, rendering it unusable. “I put a lot of time into writing that klaf,” he explained. “I figured I should cut it before the yetzer harah starts coming my way to persuade me that maybe I should show it to another rav, etc.”
He then showed me the problem. There was a ד that was a bit too rounded at the top, so that it resembled a ר. It was a close call, so he had to take it to a qualified rabbi, who told him it was too round to be considered kosher.