The newspaper Hamodia had a nice ‘advertorial’ on Starik battim. I would like to offer the article, and some of my own comments as well. My comments will be in italics:
Baruch Hashem, we live in an age where mitzvos can be done b’hiddur, in an ideal and aesthetic fashion. So many she’eilos of earlier generations are almost unheard of today due to improved circumstances, equipment and technology. Prime examples of this are hiddurim in kashrus as it relates to food production, and with regard to the production of tefillin. However, while a shopper in a grocery store knows that a mehudar hechsher justifies a higher price, when it comes to buying tefillin, he faces a dilemma: the Rabbanim place the same hechsher on two pairs of tefillin, but one pair costs $350 and the other costs $550 (they are talking about the battim without the parshios, as gassos sets start at $550) ! And then he learns that neither pair has the hechsher of Harav Avraham Tzvi Halevi Wosner, Rav Haposek of Mishmeres Stam.
To solve this mystery, Hamodia met with the well-known Jerusalem batim macher Reb Meir Starik, the only batim macher who has the halachic supervision and hechsher of Rav Wosner.
How can the same hechsher be affixed on a $350 and a $550 set of battim?
The Hechsher is only a verification that the tefillin are not passul, that the hide of a kosher animal was used and the ibud was done lishmah, (i.e. those processing the hide said aloud before beginning that their work will be done with the intention of producing the holy object of tefillin), that the four lines visible on the tefillin shel rosh are in the right place, that the ribuah (square shape) was made properly – in short, that the black coat of paint doesn’t cover up all sorts of shortcuts that modern technology enables a batim macher to make. Quality is not reflected in that hechsher at all.
Can you give an example of a shortcut that can be taken that would still allow someone to call a pair of tefillin kosher?
Inexpensive tefillin battim were most likely made from an animal that was skinned two months ago. The hide was dried rapidly and artifically, and when the time came to form the battim that would hold the parchments, exceptional pressure and heat were used. Glue was applied between the sections of the shel rosh to ensure that the tefillin would hold its form, and to give the battim a perfect square shape. Technology allows exceptional heat to be used that seals up all of the visible blemishes.
How does Starik dry its battim?
First of all, before drying them, we make sure to buy hides of animals that are as thick, soft and as oil-free as possible, and for that you have to know the market. The oilier the hide, the harder it is to work with. In the first stages of work our tefillin go through two years, meaning two whole summers during which time they can dry.
One of the hardest parts of tefillin production is this early step of preparing the hides in a lime solution. It looks as easy as putting hides into a barrel of fluid, but it demands experience and is in fact the most important factor in determining the future of the battim.
In what way is a hide that was dried over a two-year period superior? After all, you said that hides can be dried quickly using modern technology.
Any craftsman can feel the difference between battim that were dried properly and battim that were dried using modern technology. Fully separate sections in the shel rosh (perudos) and the battim holding their square shape (ribuah) for longer periods of time are both halachic hiddurim that are the result of quality workmanship.
Battim that were dried completely can retain their form without any need for glue, meaning you can do the famous “razor blade test” in which you insert a blade between any of the four sections of the shel rosh and the blade will go in. Other battim nominally pass this test, but because they are not yet one hundred percent dry, it often happens that a year or so later cracks begin to develop.
By the way, the razor blade test became an issue a few years ago when it came to light that people had purchased tefillin that were not only not mehudar, but were even passul!
Stay tuned, more coming from this article soon!