It’s quite common for people to dig out a set of tefillin abandoned in a closet for years, have it checked and get back a report that the tefillin are not kosher. Recently a customer who bought a tallit from me consulted me on his tefillin problem:
Shalom. Well, I just heard back from the Chabad rabbi and I was told that the tefillin I had checked are not kosher…I don’t know why, the rabbi said he would have the tefillin shipped back and would have the reason explained so that he could go over it with me. Seems I need to buy a pair of new tefillin…I’m thinking of going with Gassot Tefillin, Ashkenazi, Mehudar 2, Avodat Yad black-black straps. I’m not sure I understand the difference between a square knot and a dalet knot. What I really need to understand is the difference between the different Mehudar (2 vs. 3), and the difference between Gassot and Gassot Mehudarot. Sorry to fill up your inbox with questions.
I sent him a long-winded answer which I later realized might be useful to my tallit and tefillin blog readers, so I’m posting it here:
How long will it be until your tefillin reach you? It might be worthwhile to wait for the report. If your present tefillin are gassot, they might tell you the battim are fantastic, but the parshiyot inside are pasul.
The difference between Mehudar 2 and Mehudar 3 is the elegance of the writing. Writing tefillin parchments is not easy. With inexpensive but kosher parchments there could be places where there were issues with the writing, but according to halacha there was room to be lenient.
Mehudar means you don’t have to rely on leniences. Mehudar 2 and 3 mean no leniencies and the writing is especially beautiful. Some sofrim simply have more attractive writing (which does not always depend on experience) and can command higher prices for their work.
The Torah says we should enhance our mitzvah observance by using beautiful articles for our mitzvah observance. So we should buy a nice tallit and replace it before it gets raggedy, keep our tzitzit looking nice, wear quality tefillin with a good paint job, replace the tefillin straps when they get worn and have a mezuzah and tefillin and sefer Torah with attractive writing.
I once came across a Rishon — Rabbenu Manuach, who has a commentary on the Rambam — who held that with mezuzah scrolls we should have beautiful ktav (writing), because sometimes people will take it out of the case and read it, whereas tefillin almost never get opened up so the injunction to beautify the mitzvah (zeh Keli v’anveihu) does not apply, but I don’t think anyone really holds by that opinion.