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the tefillin
(phylacteries)

Mordechai Pinchas Sofer
Head tefillin

Tefillin consists of two leather boxes. Each box contains four passages of the Torah which mention the mitsvah of Tefillin (Exodus 13:1-10, Exodus 13:11-16, Deuteronomy 6:4-8, Deuteronomy 11:13-21). The headpiece, shel rosh, has four passages on four pieces of k’laf placed in four separate compartments. The hand piece, shel yad, has all the parshiyot (passages) written on one very long parchment in one compartment.

Left: shel rosh
Right: batim skin

Cow neck

Without a doubt tefillin are the most complex of the scribes activities, not in the writing but in the construction of the batim (housings) themselves which have to be perfectly square and take enormous efforts and craftsmanship..

They vary in quality, in the way they are made, and in their halakhic desirability. On the market today there are four types:

Peshutim (Simple Ones) - These are made using several pieces of parchment to form the inner walls of the head tefillin, glued within a slit square to divide it into the four required compartments. If the inserts are glued incorrectly then these batim are not kosher for use. The parshiyot inside commercially bought peshutim are generally of very poor quality, and often not valid for use.

Peshutim Mehudarim (Superior Simple Ones) - These make the box of the tefillin out of a single piece as required. They are typically made with 32 mm sides to the boxes, which are quite small. However, goat skin is used to form lighter weight batim, which when finished look almost identical to the more expensive cowhide type, but they are not as durable.

Dakkot (Thin Ones) - These are made by stretching a thin layer of parchment over a structural base similar to the peshutim. This outer parchment forms the entire box of the tefillin, including the inner as well as the outer walls and also the base, which is halachically desirable. Its extreme thinness, though, means that the tefillin can become halachically invalid relatively easily if knocked or through normal wear and tear.

Gassot (Thick Ones) - These are made entirely out of a single piece of thick leather (usually with inserts to ensure they close flat). This requires the repeated use of several tons of pressure in industrial presses as part of a complicated but delicate production plan. The resulting batim are so durable and thick that they can be renewed even if seriously damaged and they typically last a lifetime. Gassot are made with boxes varying in size from about 20 mm per side to over 40 mm, though sides of 31-36 mm are considered standard. The pictures on this page show Gassot being made from a single piece of skin.

Stage 1 of the shaping

The choicest cow-hide is used from the cheeks and the neck where it is the thickest. Thus only one pair of tefillin is produced for each head of cattle. After undergoing a softening process the leather is cut to the size needed and left to dry slowly in the open air for at least three months. The box shapes are then formed through the appliance of considerable pressure and gradually the shape we are familar with

starts to appear in the skin.

Stages 2 and 3

Each titura (cube), averaging 35 square millimeters in size, is sanded, squared perfectly, painted jet black with paint made from only kasher ingredients and measured, as many as twelve times. A lacquer finish provides wear resistant protection and a fine, faultless appearance which must be completely square or they are invalid for use.

On the head tefillin two shins, one with four heads protude. Once the parchments are placed inside in the specified manner, involving wrapping them in pieces of parchment and tying them loosely with calf’s hair. The batim are sewn shut with giddin (sinew) from a kosher animal with one of the calf’s hairs visible outside.

Finally, the leather retsu’ot (straps) which are black on one side and left plain are pushed through the ma’avarta (channel) and knotted according to the Ashkenazi or Sephardi custom.

There are masses of rules governing the construction of tefillin, far more than I could ever hope to cover in a a few pages of website. There are however several good books on the subject - see sources - which are fortunately in English and all the rules are laid out (again in English) in the Mishna Berurah.

Mordechai Pinchas

Photos on this page (except for stages 1,2 and 3) are from other websites.

Sanding and polishing
Forming the shin
Inserting the parshiyot

Find out more about what’s inside the tefillin and how they are put together in detail...

The base of the tefillin Ready for sewing

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