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Tefillin and Mezuzahs: The Art of the Scribe

October 23, 2013 10:16 am 1 comment

Torah scroll. Photo: Wiki Commons.

I am a proud father of nine children, six girls and three boys. Although our family has been graced with many bat mitzvahs, we have had only one bar mitzvah so far, and that was seven years ago. So you can imagine how excited we are to celebrate Yosef’s bar mitzvah, G-d willing, in January. We’re even more excited that it will take place in the Holy Land in Israel at the Western Wall. In honor of his bar mitzvah and following in the steps of his ancestors, he will shortly begin donning his tefillin every morning.

In 2008, I traveled to Washington, D.C., upon the invitation of our late Senator, Frank Lautenberg, to attend Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration. When I arrived at Kennedy Airport from another city, I met a young medical student who was also attending the inauguration and asked to share a cab with me to La Guardia, where we were to fly out from. We got to the gate with time to spare.

It was morning and I still needed to put on tefillin, but when I began to wrap them, the young man told me that he was also Jewish but had never seen the ritual I was performing. He wanted to know what it was.

I only had a moment to explain, so I said this: As a relationship counselor, often mediating between husbands and wives or parents and children, I’ve discovered that relationships sour when there is a disconnect between mind and heart. The mind, the human guidance system, uses values to discern right from wrong, informs one’s morality, and transmits the message to our emotions. The heart, the seat of those emotions, animates the body and motivates our actions. The two, mind and heart, are meant to be in constant communication. If they do not act in concert with each other, what follows is human dysfunction.
Either, a functioning moral person without the motivation to get much done in life, or an energetic person with no moral compass.

The reason a Jew wears tefillin, I told him, is to achieve the integration of the two through a daily meditation via the tefillin shel rosh, which are put on the mind, and the tefillin shel yad, which are affixed near the heart.

Just as the tefillin marks its territory on our mind and heart, the mezuzah demarcates and identifies a Jewish home. Professor Jonathan Webber, one of the world’s leading experts on Auschwitz and a dear friend of mine from Oxford University, shows movingly in his book “Traces of Memory” the areas in Poland that once hosted bustling Jewish communities before World War II but are today yudenrein.

But while the Jews were taken away to be murdered, their buildings remain behind with the mezuzah carvings reminding us of a once-flourishing culture that can never be fully eradicated, even by the Nazi monsters.

I traveled with Jonathan to Galicia in Poland and personally saw the chasm left by the mezuzahs, signifying, in their emptiness, a land that was made bereft of Jews. More than any other identifying marker, the mezuzah is the very anchor of Jewish property.

The biggest setback in today’s market for tefillin and mezuzahs, however, is that many people care only to observe the spirit of the law while ignoring its letter. This is often because of a resistance to spending the requisite money for mitzvah or, more charitably, unintended ignorance as to what constitutes the mitzvah. People want their son to have tefillin at his bar mitzvah, for instance, but aren’t interested in buying the best quality pair for him, so they often purchase sub-standard tefillin that are barely kosher.

So, too, thousands of people visit Israel every year and purchase ornately decorated mezuzah cases, but only spend meager amounts on the holy scroll that is inserted inside. This is a classic case of judging a book by its cover, and in the worst possible way. The ornate cover means absolutely nothing while the scroll inside is the very soul of the mitzvah. And we know what a body without a soul looks like.

Since my days as a rabbinical student, I’ve checked hundreds of mezuzahs for friends and strangers. Sometimes the scroll inside is a mere photocopy. At other times, it is missing completely. A gentlemen I once met in Australia even told me that he threw away the “Hebrew instructions” after he bought the mezuzah (OK, that’s a joke, but with a kernel of truth).

There are thousands of unqualified soferim in both America and Israel who sell items that, far from being first-rate, are not even kosher. There is hardly any oversight of the ancient profession of the Jewish scribe, leading to untold chaos in the marketplace. Just imagine going to the trouble of actually putting on tefillin every day, and having mezuzos on your doors, without even knowing that they are not kosher and are spiritually illegitimate.

And tefillin and mezuzos that are pumped out by scribes quickly and in their thousands to make the scribe more money are likely not even kosher because if the writing is even off even just a little, let alone illegible in its sloppiness like many I’ve seen, then the entire item is unkosher. In Jewish law, 99 percent kosher is 100 percent not kosher. It’s like having a computer code or even an e-mail address that’s missing just a single letter and throws the code off completely.

In the course of looking for the best tefillin for my son Yosef, I discovered Rabbi Yitzchok Raskin in Crown Heights, who had helped our shul in Englewood acquire its sefer torah. Rabbi Raskin impressed me immediately when he shared the following observation. When a person goes for open-heart surgery, they research the surgeon extensively in order to ascertain that he knows the most competent professional. By contrast, people travel by air all the time without doing any research about whether or not the pilot is responsible.

You just walk on the plane and expect it to easily cross the Atlantic. What gives? The difference between the two, Rabbi Raskin argued, is that the airline pilot travels with his passengers, putting his life in as much risk as theirs. Since he shares in the risk, he gains an added level of credibility. From a spiritual perspective, tefillin and mezuzahs need to follow the open-heart surgery model. The scribe is simply selling you a product. He is not putting them on with you, and his credibility should be ascertained before you walk out his door with your new mezuzah.

Rabbi Raskin developed a unique business model, bringing the most modern technology to bear upon the ancient art of the Jewish scribe, like employing computer checks of parchment scrolls. I was especially impressed by their “Mezuzah Guide App,” meant to afford people the ease of checking a mezuzah’s quality by snapping a photo of the mezuzah to be sent directly to the scribes at Machon Stam.

This is a quick, high-tech antidote to rampant mezuzah fraud. No longer can a store owner waive a parchment and claim that it’s kosher with no method for the consumer to verify his claim. Now, with a picture and an email, a consumer can discover the truth about his mezuzah.

The app was developed by Shmuel Aber, in memory of his daughter Sheina Bracha. The app is now available for free download for Apple, Android, and Blackberry.

A new Tefillin Guide was just released with detailed instructions for laying tefillin. The prayers can be read in seven languages, and people can use the Tefillin mirror, navigate with the Jerusalem compass, and read and watch tutorials, all with the design interface of Apple’s new operating system. You can also use the app to acquire a new pair of quality authentic tefillin through Machon Stam.

While speaking to Rabbi Raskin, I was impressed at his eagerness to bring professional market considerations, like quality and customer support, to the often-neglected art of safrus. The greater the professionalism when it comes to things of Jewish ritual observance, the higher the integrity and quality of the product.

Likewise, when you hand over tefillin to be checked, you need to know that punctuality will be respected. After all, you need your tefillin on your arm and heart, not sitting in someone’s store being checked. When we purchased our sefer Torah, Machon Stam was able to show us that top experts in the field had inspected it, both the quality of the parchment and every single one of hundreds of thousands of letters.

Rabbi Raskin’s work has considerably raised the bar of the ancient art of the scribe, ensuring high quality Torahs, tefillin, and mezuzas at competitive prices that do not compromise quality.

Of course, the most important of all qualities of the scribe is righteousness. Without fear of heaven and a commitment to piety, what the scribe produces is spiritually substandard and lacks holiness. And my interactions with Rabbi Raskin have shown me that he is a man of high integrity and absolute religious commitment.

It’s unfortunate that we who are observant Jews often perform mitzvos without much contemplation, and the profound effect of wearing tefillin or affixing a mezuzah is lost on us. Even less do we fully appreciate the skill and labor that goes into the writing of tefillin in the first place, and the indispensability of its meticulous preparation from the holy effects to follow.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is the winner of the London Times Preacher of the Year Award and the American Jewish Press Association’s Highest Award for Excellence in Commentary. He has recently published “The Fed-Up Man of Faith: Challenging God in the Face of Tragedy and Suffering.” Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley. Machon Stam can be reached at

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