Vegetarian tefillin/ethical tefillin

The problem

Our sacred scrolls must be written on parchment, if they are to be kosher – fit for ritual use. Parchment can mean many things, but in this context it means animal skin.

Parchment for sifrei kodesh, sacred scrolls, has to come from a kosher species of animal, but the animal does not have to have been dispatched by ritual slaughter. The kosher meat industry has its ethical problems, but the non-kosher meat industry, arguably even more so. To be kosher meat, an animal has to be reasonbly healthy, but it can have been horribly maltreated and still be fit for use in our sacred scrolls.

Tefillin, mezuzot, Torahs – remind me that I am living a Jewish life, and a big part of a Jewish life is respect for all life. It troubles me that my sacred scrolls should be tainted with such suffering.

Why not find a substitute?

Saying “The meat industry is messed-up, therefore I will change the Torah and use parchment alternatives” is accepting the messed-up-ness of the meat industry. I would rather say “I will tackle the messed-up-ness of the meat industry rather than change the Torah because of it.”

A solution

Sofer of Tzfat has a solution; he uses hides from unborn calves, which were stillborn or whose mothers died. This is a good step, but speaking personally, it still seems to involve compliance with the meat industry, which is more or less the aspect I find problematic. The mothers could still have been maltreated and we’re left with the original problem.

A different solution – ethical tefillin

The idea of humane treatment of animals and kosher meat has taken root. There exist animals raised humanely by people who care, slaughtered carefully by people who care, sold to people who care. I would like tefillin and other scrolls to be made from the skins of these animals.


This is what needs to happen:

  • connect with parchment-maker to find someone to make the hides into parchment. Parchment-makers must be Jewish and skilled. Parchment-makers basically live in Israel, I do not know of any who are both Jewish and adequately skilled in the USA. This means a lot of phoning and Hebrew-speaking. Convincing parchment-makers to participate may be a challenge, but it
    must be possible.
  • Arrange with parchment-makers to receive humane hides and make parchment (also potentially tefillin housings) from them, keeping tabs on the humane hides so that they don’t get mixed in with the others. Discuss fees, quality control, spoilage, etc.
  • Connect with humane cow-raising places in US, make arrangements for collecting (buying) hides. Cows for kosher parchment don’t actually need shechita; most parchment is made from cows killed in regular American slaughterhouses.
  • Collect hides and ship to Israel (research most cost-effective way of doing this) – arrange permits for this
  • Arrange for parchment to be shipped back to the USA (import/export duties); distribute to scribes. (Work out how much parchment will have to cost to make the project financially viable, bearing in mind skins get damaged and there is some wastage.)

I personally do not have the time or the conversational Hebrew skills to make this happen. I have been looking for someone who would like to make it happen, for some time. Would you like to undertake it?

“Ethical kashrut” being fashionable at the moment, it seems likely to me that one could obtain a grant to pay someone to take on this not inconsiderable task. When I find someone who would like to be the project administrator, I will gladly help with grant-hunting.

So, there it is, the state of play vis-a-vis humane parchment. Do you want to come on board? Drop me an email if so.

Jen Taylor Friedman's Torah site