A Conversation with
Rabbi Hayim Arking
of Ohr Halacha
“So where did you purchase your tefillin?”
“From a rabbi in Israel.”
This is how the conversation often begins with somebody brings his tefillin to a sofer(professional scribe) to be checked.
But then comes the next question: “Who was the rabbi?”
And this can make all the difference.
This conversation was heard numerous times this past summer in synagogues throughout Deal, where experienced sofrim
came to examine hundreds of pairs of tefillin after Shaharit onSunday mornings.
Many tefillin-owners were taken by surprise upon discovering how long it would take the sofer to examine their tefillin – an entire week. They learned that opening tefillin is not a simple matter like opening a Sefer Torah – or a mezuzah, for that matter. The parchment is kept securely inside, hermetically sealed, and they are inspected meticulously, one letter at a time.
What Needs to be Checked?
Actually, the process of inspection begins before the sofer unstitches the bayit – the encasement, within which the parchment is kept. The sofer first examines the bayit’s exterior, taking note of: 1) its precise shape and size; 2) its color, and the color of the straps; 3) the width of the straps, particularly at pressure points, where they could become stretched; 5) the shape of the stitching, which must be precisely square; 6) the protrusion of hairs from the shel rosh (box worn on the head;
7) the seal and the paint.
The bayit is made from one piece of leather or sometimes several pieces of leather that are glued together with a special glue and then stitched with gidim – sinews. Years ago, many batim (plural of bayit) were made from thin animal hides, making the tefillin more vulnerable to moisture. Nowadays, baruch Hashem, batim made from high-quality thick hide are available for a reasonable cost. Therefore, a person with tefillin made from thick batim can rest assured that his tefillin were prepared by a reputable sofer, and as long as there is no cracking or warping in the exterior, frequent checking is not recommended. Mezuzot, however – especially those affixed outdoors, which are exposed to the elements – need to be checked twice every seven years.
Keeping it Square
As mentioned earlier, the bayit must be perfectly square. Many people have a protective covering on the arm tefillin to keep its corners sharp and square. The head tefillin, however, must remain exposed when it is worn, and may not be covered, and it could thus get chipped and lose its square shape. Additionally, the formation of the shel rosh is more complex, furthering compounding the challenge of ensuring that it remains square. When looking at the head tefillin we see three lines, dividing the box into three sections. These lines were (hopefully) not just scratched in by a sharp instrument, but actually represent four separate individual compartments compressed together. In higher quality tefillin, the compartments are held tightly together without any glue. If they begin separating, this will alter the size and dimensions of the tefillin, rendering it invalid for use.
Each compartment must be square, as must the stitching around it. Gel or moisture (from wet hair) penetrating the bottom of the batim can change the dimensions of the stitching, and it will not remain square.
Another interesting aspect of checking tefillin is its size.
A person could have beautiful, high-quality tefillin but fail to fulfill the mitzvah because he wears it on his forehead instead of perched atop his head, where it is to sit. The head tefillinmust be worn above the hairline (or where it used to be!) with the knot in the back upon the occipital (the bone at the bottom of the skull). Rabbi Mordechai Nahem explains that this bone in the back of our head is parallel to the front of our face between our eyes.
People who have grown accustomed to wearing the shel rosh in the wrong place – on the forehead – will likely find it uncomfortable to wear it properly, on the top of the head, as it will feel out of place, but it is important that they make the adjustment so that they can fulfill the mitzvah.
The Miswritten Nun
Rabbi Hayim Arking, one of the sofers of Ohr Halacha, relates that one community member, Mr. Abe Tobias of West Deal, brought his mezuzot to be checked one morning, and he found a letter nun that was top heavy – meaning, the top of the letter was too wide, and the bottom of the letter was too narrow. Although technically speaking this did not invalidate the mezuzah, this mistake needed to be corrected.
The next day, Mr. Tobias called Rabbi Arking and told him that Rabbi Edmund Nahum had suggested having his mezuzot checked because one of the Tobias children had fallen at school and required stitches, and this happened again a second time at home. Rabbi Nahum explained (based on Masechet Berachot 4b) that the letter nun (that was only questionably kosher) refers to nefilah – falling!
Mezuzotthat are properly written and maintained bring us immeasurable holiness and protection. Praying with tefillin that are properly written and maintained, and properly worn, helps the prayer ascend straight to the heavens.
In the merit of these special mitzvot, may we all be blessed with a special connection to Hashem and be worthy of His
The Ohr Halacha institute recently launched a new initiative in Deal for bar mitzvah boys – or boys of any age, for that matter – who would like to take part in preparing their tefillin. For more information about this or other projects, please contact the organization’s safrut division at 732-359-3038.
Pnina Souid is a freelance writer servicing the community, and can be reached at