Recently I receive an interesting question from a prospective tefillin buyer looking for top quality, expensive tefillin:
For the ribua regel, does it make a noticeable difference having someone do that in terms of how precise the shaping of them is? I am trying to balance price with quality. At this point I have to rule out miksheh purely because of money. I would be able to afford ribua regel in about 6 weeks. Would you suggest I wait to buy until then?
With ribua regel, you’re not paying for better quality, you’re paying for a halachic hiddur. There are certain mitzvahs that require that you prepare the object with specific intent (e.g. see Kosher Tzitzit Strings: A Matter of Intent). In our generation the question has come up whether a machine can have intent to do a mitzvah. Let me clarify: of course a machine cannot have intent, but perhaps when the person operating the machine presses the button, his intent counts for what the machine then carries out. This is the question behind machine matzahs or hand matzahs, machine-spun tzitzit strings or hand-spun tzitzit strings, regular tefillin gassot battim or ribua regel. The question varies slightly according to certain small differences in these examples, but for the most part it’s the same question.
When it comes to getting the job done, i.e. making the matzahs, making the tzitzit strings, making the tefillin boxes, it makes a world of difference. In the case of tefillin, the tefillin maker has a big mishapen lump of leather that he has to trim down to a perfectly square box. To shave away leather he uses a cutting tool that works something like a spinning drill bit. With regular gassot, the machine is electric. With ribua regel the cutting tool is driven by leg power. Not only does the tefillin craftsman work up a sweat, but it also takes him longer to do the work.
If I’m not mistaken HaRav Eliashiv zt”l ruled that regular gassot are fine, but yours is definitely a question to ask a qualified rav.