Thursday, 14 November 2013

Questions Rabbis Get Asked - What Kind of Tefilin Should I Buy

The Knotty Question of Buying Tefilin


I love Tefilin.

I love the ritual of putting them on and I love the detail, the raised, strange 4 pronged ‘shin’, the specific way of tying this knot ....

But buying Tefilin isn’t easy. When I bought my first set of Tefilin I could have been sold anything by the frum looking Sofer with the big white beard and I would have handed over my Shekels knowing nothing of the choices and questions a person should have to mind when Tefilin shopping.


There are two questions to consider; Minhag and Hiddur

And there are three elements to a set of Tefilin; Batim - boxes, Klaf – parchment & Retzuot – straps.


Minhag – Custom

There are, broadly speaking, three different customs when it comes to Tefilin; Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Chassidic (Sephardi-ish, but reworked in the time of Isaac Luria). There are some technical differences in the style of the Batim and some differences in handwriting on the Klaf, but the most important difference is how the Retzuah around the arm works. Ashkenazim go one way round, Sephardim (and Chasidim) the other. The knot of the tefilin for the arm needs to be tied so the strap can go round the right way. There are also two different ways to tie the knot for the Tefilin for the head.


You want Tefilin dependent on your custom – Ashkenaz/Sephardi/Chassidic


On a related issue is the question of on which arm to wear the Tefilin. Right-handers wear Tefilin on the left arm, left-handers wear Tefilin on the right arm and, again, the knots need to be tied to make that possible.


You want either right handed or left handed Tefilin


There is a debate (obviously) about the order of the passages written on the Klaf. There are four passages and Rashi thought they should go in one order and his grandson, Rabbeinu Tam thought they should go in a different order. Everyone follows Rashi, but once, in an airport lounge, I davenned next to someone with Rabbeinu Tam Tefilin. They davenned virtually all the service ‘by’ Rashi, then took them off, put on the Rabbeinu Tam Tefilin and finished the service that way. I’ve also seen photos of people wearing double sets simultaneously. No-one in any community I have davenned in does any of this.


You want Rashi Tefilin, which your sofer will almost certainly assume.


Mehudar – Honouring – also Hiddur

The idea is that we should bring the best we have for God. A Kiddush cup is better than a kitchen mug, silver is better than tin etc. I have a love of beautiful ritual things, but there is a balance to be drawn. Too much ostentation can be just that (there is a wonderful Hebrew word – Yoharah – literally turning yourself into a mountain – idiomatically self-aggrandising, which is also not good). Hiddur can also get prohibitively expensive, especially when it comes to Tefilin. And part of the issue isn’t ever seen. There are Klafim, parchment, which are beautifully written with immaculate calligraphy, and there are Klafim which are obviously scribbled out. They are Kosher, but not Mehudar.


But the really significant issue around Hiddur is the Batim. Broadly speaking there are two kinds, Peshutim – simple and Gassot – fat. Gassot are made from a single piece of leather bent this way and that to create the various compartments and the form of the Bayit. It’s a time consuming process and requires a particular, and expensive, cut of leather. Peshutim are made from multiple pieces of leather and are easier (and cheaper) to manufacture.


I have Gassot Tefilin. I love them. I helped select the Klafim and stitched them together with the assistance of a scribe I know and trust. They are Mehudar, they were expensive, but I take huge pleasure in wearing them and believe, in some way I can never fully comprehend, that that counts before the God I stand before in prayer. There are other options which are equally kosher, and much cheaper.


Here are some links to the Federation of Jewish Mens Clubs, part of the American Conservative Movement. They are committed to providing Kosher, relatively inexpesive, tefilin


You can reach the Golders Green-based Sofer I recommend via


There are many on-line providers, but I would always recommend doing additional research, or checking with a Rabbi, before sending off money to a web-site to buy something as individual as Tefilin. One last point. Tefilin need to be used, left in a bag, untouched for weeks on end is a terrible waste.


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