How can it be that someone walks into a Judaica store, purchases a mezuzah for $30 or a set of tefillin for $250, and after a few years when he gets them checked, the sofer tells him that they were never kosher? Not only does this happen, but it is common. This article will explain how this is possible and what you should do to insure that the tefillin and mezuzos which you purchase are kosher. The world of safrus has three groups. The first group consists of responsible soferim producing and selling various quality levels of kosher tefillin and mezuzos. Soferim in this group have extensively studied the complex halachos of hilchos STaM, been tested, and received smicha. The second group consists of people involved in the production of inferior tefillin and mezuzos that are relying on various leniencies in order to be considered kosher. It is unlikely that individuals in this category have an in depth understanding of the halachos and they were probably not tested for smicha. The third group consists of people who are not soferim and yet they are involved in the production and sales of inferior tefillin and mezuzos. It is possible and has even been documented that people who are not even Jewish participate in this deception. Everything they write is invalid. Even if they write something which appears to be kosher, it is in fact not kosher (many poskim invalidate tefillin, and mezuzos that were properly written but the writer did not have smicha. How much more so would they invalidate tefillin and mezuzos that are filled with improperly written letters? Even if there is a basis to be lenient in a well written mezuzah that has a letter that is problematic but not posel, they would never be lenient when it is clear that the writer was not concerned with properly writing the tefillin or mezuzah. I often see mezuzos that are in this category and yet I can’t find a clearly problematic letter that I can show my customer and say, “Mrs Customer, this mezuza is invalid because this letter is posel and there is no halachic authority who will permit it to be used.” Nonetheless, I know (and every competent, certified sofer will wholeheartedly agree) that it is posel (invalid and unusable). Halacha is not built on collecting random lenient opinions in order to achieve a particular outcome. It is the job of the sofer, along with competent rabbanim to know what is normative halacha, and when circumstances allow for minor deviations. The goal of this article is to clarify some important issues relating to inferior tefillin and mezuzos, both those of low quality and those that are completely posel. Most specifically, it is to make clear that even in the absence of a clearly posel letter, customers should be open to replacing tefillin and mezuzos that qualified soferim know were not written according to Jewish law and custom.
Completely Posel Tefillin And Mezuzos
Somebody brought me a set of tefillin this week that he purchased at a judaica store. These parshios are among the worst I have ever seen.
You don’t need to have any special education in safrus to know that these parshios are pretty bad. As always, the person who brought them to me wanted to know why somebody would sell something like this. A valid question, and one which I frequently struggle to answer in a way in which I can at least in part judge the seller favorably (although I don’t extend this favorable judgment to the suppliers of the Judaic stores as easily). I explained to him that I suspect that the person who sold him the parshios knows exactly what to say in order to avoid taking responsibility for their kashrus. The Judaica store owner just doesn’t know how to ask proper questions about tefillin and mezuzos, and the dealer is skillfully avoiding the topic. Of course, most of the time the dealer is taking advantage of the ignorance of the store owner. In this case, the customer went back to the store owner received a refund. The store keeper was disturbed that this had happened. Notably, people who sell completely unacceptable tefillin and mezuzos (like the ones in the above picture) never offer me their merchandise. In fact, not in over twenty years of being a sofer has anyone offered to sell me anything this bad. Clearly they are aware of what they are doing and they seek easy prey (read Judaic store owners, not soferim). Believe me, it’s not like I wouldn’t like to buy simple kosher tefillin for $150 and offer my customers some inexpensive kosher options.
Perhaps what the store keeper needs to know is that while he may lose some customers when he tells them the prices of kosher tefillin and mezuzos, he will also gain other customers. Some customers who truly think a mezuzah should cost $35 and won’t pay a penny more may walk out the door – it happens to me also from time to time. Others will understand that they weren’t aware of the current prices and will be happy to pay what is necessary to acquire kosher STaM. And while some customers may choose not to buy, other new customers will appear in the store as they realize that the store is serious about insuring that only high quality stam is sold there. I must qualify that just because a store is a ‘judaica’ store does not mean that they don’t have a good system in place to sell kosher tefillin and mezuzos. It’s just more likely that they don’t.
Inferior mezuzos story:
Recently I was checking mezuzos at a home in Bergen County. The customer had eight mezuzos of which one of them is in the above picture. A few points are in order. First, they all had the little sticker which you can see in the picture. This sticker says, “Checked By An Expert Sofer and found Kosher In The Holy City Of Jerusalem, Not Written On Coated Parchment”. Take a look two lines up from the sticker at the word בכם. In particular, look at the last letter, which is supposed to be a final mem, ם, but which is so distorted that it takes on the form of a samech ס. Since tefillin and mezuzos must be written in order, כסדרן, it is forbidden to change the samech into a mem. That makes this mezuzah, with its sticker of certification attesting as to it’s kashrus, completely posel. It also makes a joke out of the part of the sticker which says, “Not written on coated parchment”. Coated parchment is a type of parchment which is coated with a substance which makes it easier to write on but lends itself to a host of problems. Firstly, there is a discussion in the halacha as to whether coated parchment is kosher at all, and as a result, it is accepted across the board not to use it. Secondly, the letters on coated parchment tend to get small cracks in them making the tefillin and mezuzos not kosher. So saying, “Not written on coated parchment”, is kind of like saying, “Your poison ivy crop is organically certified.”
Kosher Tefillin and Mezuzos That Are Written Below Acceptable Standards:
Tefillin and mezuzos in this category are extremely common. It can be challenging to explain to people why tefillin and mezuzos that are not completely posel should nevertheless not be used. The first question that comes up is, “Well, if it’s kosher, it’s kosher, right?” The second question is “I got them from a Jewish book store, how could they not be kosher?” Sometimes they tell me that they must be kosher because they got them from Jerusalem, as if everything that happens in Jerusalem is according to halacha. Many people assume that long beards, long coats, and Yiddish, insure kosher tefillin and mezuzos.