Nov 152010

What’s inside the boxes?
The box of the head tefillin (tefillin shel rosh) has four separated compartments, each with a specially prepared parchment or vellum (known as klaf) on which a different passage from the Torah is written? The arm tefillin (tefillin shel yad) has one single compartment containing a parchment with verses.

How are the verses on the tefillin parchment written?
The texts must be written on properly prepared parchment or vellum known as klaf. The style of the lettering varies among Jews of different backgrounds (e.g. Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Chabad), but the halachic requirements are almost identical.
The parchments inside a set of tefillin must be written by a qualified sofer, or ritual scribe. A sofer should be religiously observant, have exemplary character and be knowledgeable about the laws of sofrut. After learning the halachic intricacies of sofrut the sofer-in-training generally does an apprenticeship (shimush) under an expert scribe. By the time a sofer writes his first set of tefillin he has typically spent 2-3 years learning the trade.

How much should a pair of kosher tefillin cost?
If you find tefillin for $200 beware!  For “bar mitzvah tefillin” or a first set of inexpensive tefillin, expect to pay at least $200 if you want to be certain they are really kosher. Inexpensive types of tefillin are referred to as tefillin peshutim, tefillin peshutim mehudarim and tefillin dakkot. Tefillin with very well-written parchments, well-crafted boxes, thick leather and quality straps generally cost anywhere from $500 to $1,000, and top quality tefillin with all the strictest halachic features and frills can run upwards of $1,200.

What are “tefillin peshutim?”
Tefillin peshutim employ a simple design. The head tefillin (“tefillin shel rosh“) is made using several pieces of parchment to form the inner walls and glued within a slit square to divide it into the four required compartments.

What are “tefillin peshutim mehudarim?”
Tefillin peshutim mehudarim can be roughly translated as “superior simple design.” The boxes are made out of a single piece of leather as required. When finished, tefillin peshutim mehudarim look almost identical to the more expensive cowhide type, but are less durable.

What are “tefillin dakkot?”
Dak” means thin in Hebrew. Tefillin dakkot are made by stretching a thin layer of parchment over a structural base similar to the peshutim. This outer parchment forms the entire box of the tefillin, which is halachically preferable. Because of its thin design the tefillin can become halachically invalid relatively easily. Today tefillin dakkot can be hard to find. But keep in mind that until 100 years ago all tefillin were tefillin dakkot.

What are “tefillin gassot?”
“Gas” means “coarse” or “thick.” Tefillin gassot are made entirely out of a single piece of thick leather, from the cheeks and the neck of the cow, where the hide is thickest. Working such thick leather into a finely finished product requires the repeated use of several tons of pressure in industrial presses as part of a complicated, but delicate production process. The resulting battim (boxes) are so durable and thick they typically last a lifetime.

What are bar mitzva tefillin?
Some tefillin dealers refer to their least expensive type of tefillin as “bar mitzva tefillin.” Typically they are tefillin peshutim (see above). About a month before their bar mitzvah (customs vary) the father or a rabbi or mentor teaches the young man how to lay tefillin correctly and with reverence.

What sizes do tefillin come in?
Standard tefillin boxes measure 31-35 mm. Very large tefillin boxes, typically worn by Lubavitcher chassidim, are 40 mm or more. The smallest size, often worn by Sephardim who wear both Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam tefillin at the same time, are typically 22 mm and are actually more expensive than the standard size.

How are tefillin straps made?
The straps must also be made of leather from the skin of a kosher animal and be painted black on the upper side. The tefillin straps pass through a passageway at the back of the lower base (the ma’avarta) and are tied into special knots that form the letters dalet and yud.

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