For an excellent and detailed description of the function and manufacture of tefillin, the reader is recommended to www.stam.net and Machon Ott. The Wikipedia entry is also extensive.

Stam.net also have a book, Tefillin and Mezuzos: A Pictorial Guide, by Yerachmiel Askotzky – “A sofer shows you how to choose, maintain and understand your
tefillin, mezuzah and Torah scrolls” – which I recommend. You can buy it here.

Buying tefillin

I write tefillin parchments. You may buy complete sets of tefillin at my Etsy store, or contact me directly if you just want parchments.

Tefillin are tricky to make, so they are not cheap. The housings are complicated, and the writing on the parchments inside is extremely small and subject to an awful lot of rules. Thus, if someone is offering very cheap tefillin, there is something wrong somewhere – either corners are being cut or someone is being exploited. Either way, not good.

Getting your tefillin checked

One is supposed to do this periodically. If you are in New York City, try Aharon Lichter, 212-254-1400, 473 FDR Drive on Grand St. My (female) source says he’s lovely. Your local Judaica place probably has a contact, regardless, or your local frum shul. You might need a prosthetic man; I hope you won’t. You can mail me your tefillin; this may not be expedient.

Buying tefillin from a soferet

Tefillin, like other sacred scrolls, are traditionally held to be invalid if written by women. If you are non-egalitarian, even if you are a woman, tefillin written by a woman cannot be kosher for you, no matter the circumstances. Therefore, even if you are the most feminist of feminist Orthodox women, you should not acquire tefillin written by a soferet. Sorry; them’s the breaks.

If you are very sure that you reside in the segment of the Jewish world which in principle extends eligibility to write tefillin to women, then you can consider getting tefillin from a soferet. If you do that, please remember not to lend your tefillin to non-egal Jews (men or women), because to them the tefillin will be pasul and it will be like feeding them non-kosher food – not a nice thing to do at all.

Borrowing tefillin

If you want to take on the mitzvah of tefillin but can’t afford them, or if you want to try it for a while in order to decide whether you want to invest in a pair of your own, it is possible to borrow a set. Further details here.

Practical info, once you have your tefillin

  • Tefillin need to be fitted properly. The strap of the head tefillin should be just the right length. The knot needs to be at the base of your skull, and the tefillah itself should fall above your hairline. If you’ve done it right, it will feel somewhat precarious. This is OK.
  • When you buy tefillin, borrow tefillin, or get a drastic haircut, you should check whether the knots need adjusting. (N.B. If you borrow tefillin and adjust the knots, it is good manners to adjust them back again before returning them, provided you are kosher to do it; see next section.)
  • Tefillin do not like changes in humidity or temperature. Putting them on top of a radiator is not a good idea. Neither is wearing them when you have wet hair, or when you are very sweaty. Also, ideally don’t carry them in a backpack with an unreliable water bottle.

Tying tefillin knots

Rabbi Dan Rosenberg has made a series of excellent videos showing how to tie tefillin knots. Before tying any tefillin knots for real, remember to say “leshem kedushat tefillin,” to make it absolutely clear to yourself that this is for real and not just practising or messing about. Intention and focus are important.

Tefillin aren’t kosher without the knots, so tying the knots is in the same category as making the housings or writing the parchments – it must be done by a suitable Jew. If you are non-egalitarian, you must have a man tie your knots, even if the only available man can’t do it as well as you would yourself.

Gratuitous sweetness:

Dear Rabbi Dan, This morning I tore the retzuah on my shel yad in New Orleans. I was able to repair them because of your video so I will have them for tomorrow morning in Dallas.


Women and tefillin

Tefillin are one of the mitzvot from which women are traditionally exempt. There is a lot of discussion as to whether women may wear tefillin, and somewhat less discussion as to whether they should wear tefillin. You will have to make up your own mind. I give my own perspective in an essay entitled Should All Barbies Wear Tefillin?. You can learn more by asking your various role-models what they think, or by googling “women and tefillin.”

Tefillin for women to wear are no different than men’s tefillin. They do not have to be made by women, or with the intent that they will be worn by women.

The traditional concept of tefillin does not encompass such a thing as “women’s tefillin” – there are murmurings in the Jewish world towards somehow developing such a thing, but so far none of them have resulted in tefillin I would consider kosher, and personally I don’t see the point of sacrificing kosher for femininity. Of course, some people would say that I already have, so I don’t get to be especially judgemental here.

Using your grandfather’s tefillin

They’ve been in your family for fifty years, they’ve not been checked in all that time, but you’re emotionally attached to them.

They really ought to be checked; time can work some severe ravages on tefillin, and ideally you want to be wearing kosher tefillin.

If they aren’t kosher any more, you may be able to get them repaired. The bizarre way consumer economics work, it is usually cheaper to replace than to repair, but obviously if you are especially attached to a particular set of tefillin, you would rather spend the extra money on repair.

Not all soferim can do this. Repair is hard, especially on grandfathers’ tefillin which are usually teeny tiny. So if a sofer tells you that they can’t be repaired and you should just buy new ones, get a second opinion – it’s quite possible that he can’t repair them but someone with more expertise can. Start by saying “I was told that these can’t be repaired, is that really true?” – psychology dictates that if you put it like that, he will make the effort to prove the other guy wrong!

Even if one part can’t be repaired, you might be able to repair other parts. Perhaps the parchments are still good, but the housings will have to be replaced, or whatever – tefillin have many components and some continuity ought to be possible. If the sofer’s primary interest is selling you a new set, of course they will tell you the whole lot should be replaced, but if they are a ben Torah, a decent person, they will work with you to keep as much of the old set as possible.

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