When Yakov, our older grandson, turns thirteen later this week, he will be considered an adult in for purposes of religious observance. Among other mitzvot, he will then be obligated to put on tefillin every day. Tefillin, the small black boxes tied to the head and arm by long black straps, are worn by religious men when saying the morning prayers. Because laying tefillin is a positive commandment performed at a specific time, women are exempt from it; their family duties take precedence.
Each of the tefillin contains the four passages from the Torah. These specific passages command Jews to bind God’s words to their arm and put them as a sign between their eyes. Each passage must be written by hand on parchment. The words must be written in order. If the sofer, the scribe, later notices he has made a mistake, he cannot go back and fix it—he must write the whole small scroll over from the beginning.
Rabbi Rav Menachem Goldberg, the sofer who made Yakov’s tefillin, explained all this to us when he came to Daniel and Aliza’s house one evening in May. Rav Menachem had already written the parchments and made the boxes to contain them. Now he was teaching us all about the tefillin as he assembled them. Daniel and Allen would do some of the work. Because only those obligated to perform the mitzvah can participate in fabricating tefillin, the rest of us could not help. Yakov and Moshe were too young; Aliza and I are women. Sara was disqualified on both counts.
We each received a small piece of parchment to feel and examine. One side was smooth and the other side was slightly fuzzy, like closely shaved velvet. Only the smooth side is written on.
“Tear it,” instructed Rav Menachem. Only Yakov and Moshe were successful.
The rabbi then unrolled the small piece of parchment designated for the arm tefillin. Because the four passages were written as four distinct paragraphs next to each other, this small scroll was about one inch in height and about fifteen inches long. He then pulled out of his plastic box four smaller scrolls, folded to about one inch square. Each of these scrolls contained one of the four passages. They would go into separate compartments in the head tefillin.
Every part of the tefillin comes from an animal source. What does the sofer write with? Sara eagerly volunteered the answer. “A feather!”
Rav Menachem pulled a long feather from his tool box. Its tip had been sharpened to a point. He also pulled out a slender piece of wood, whose stained black point had been similarly sharpened. “Moses,” he explained, “used a stick of wood to write the first tefillin. Today we also have ceramic pens to write with. The important thing is the tip—it can’t come to a point like a pen. It has to be wide. The width of the line changes, depending on its direction.”
He demonstrated by writing a few letters with the quill. Without changing his grip or twisting his arm, the wide point enabled him to write letters whose vertical lines were thinner than their horizontal lines. He handed the quill to Yakov to write with. As Yakov slowly wrote, we saw that writing with a quill pen is a skill that needs to be practiced to be done well.
Rav Menachem then placed the two black tefillin boxes on the table, open so we could see the single chamber in the arm tefillin and the small four slots in the head tefillin which would hold the parchments.
Next he pulled out two large misshapen off white pieces of what looked like plastic. “This is what the boxes are made from. Anybody know what it is?” he asked, rapping one of them on the table. It made a sound like something hitting wood.
“Wood?” I volunteered.
He shook his head. “No, every part of the tefillin comes from an animal source.”
“So there’s no such thing as vegetarian tefillin?” Aliza asked.
“No,” said Rav Menachem. He looked around the table. We all were stumped. “It’s skin, just like the parchment. But it comes from a different place on the animal. Parchment is made from thin skin. This is from the back of the neck or the cheek.” He rubbed the back of his neck up onto his skull as he spoke. “Each box is made from one piece of the leather, carefully folded.”
Now it was time to assemble the tefillin. The rabbi held the head box open so Daniel could insert the small folded parchments in their designated slots. They were a tight fit and didn’t slide in easily, but Daniel managed the job. Despite going in a bigger hole, the parchment for the arm also required a firm touch to insert.
Now it was time to sew the boxes closed. Rav Menachem held up a card around which was wrapped thin beige cord. “And this is…?” he asked.
Allen said “Gid” in Hebrew at the same time as I said “Tendon.” We were both right.
Rav Menachem picked up the head box and held the bottom and top together with a vise. He threaded a needle with the tendon and handed it to Daniel to sew. The holes in the edges of the box were predrilled, but nonetheless it was difficult to pull the needle through. Daniel had to use a small needle-nosed pliers to do the job.
“Perhaps Saba would like to help sew the tefillin?” Rav Menachem asked.
Allen nodded, took off his glasses to see the small holes better, and finished sewing the last side of the box.
But the job wasn’t done yet. To be kosher, the box must be closed completely, which meant sewing the edges again. This time the needle went through each hole in the opposite direction so that there was an unbroken line of stitches around the entire perimeter. The second time around was more difficult because the holes already had some tendon in them. Daniel and Allen needed to use the pliers to grip the needle on almost every stitch.
The process was repeated with the box for the arm.
The last step in making tefillin is attaching the straps that bind them to the arm and the head. The arm straps are easy. The wearer simply wraps them as tightly as he needs every day.
The strap for the head has to be measured to fit the wearer’s head. After threading the strap through the slot in the head tefillin, Rav Menachem placed it in the correct spot on Yakov’s head. He then carefully measured the strap and marked it. Placing it on the table, he explained the knot as he tied it. The knot has mystical significance, because, looked at in the right way, it shows the letters of the word “Shad-dai,” one of the names of God. When Moses begged to see God’s face on Mount Sinai, God replied that no one could see His face and live. But He granted Moses the sight of His back. This knot was what Moses saw when God passed by him.
What could be done at the house was completed. Rav Menachem carefully put Yakov’s tefillin in a plastic box, which he packed in his tool box along with all his supplies. He would take it all back to his workshop in northern Shomron to do the finishing work: sealing the edges, polishing the straps, checking that everything is perfect.
Two weeks ago Yakov wore his tefillin for the first time. By the time he is required to put them on daily, he will be able to put them on quickly and, more important, correctly.
These tefillin were constructed as described in the Gemara. Of course, the Gemara’s description, having been edited in 600 CE, may not have been exactly correct in all its details. When two thousand year-oldtefillin were found at Qumran, the Essene settlement near the Dead Sea, they attracted much interest and excitement. If the find was authenticated, they were the oldest ever tefillin found. Finally, the scholars thought, we will learn how tefillin are really supposed to be made. Imagine their surprise when, after thorough examination, the tefillin were found to be almost exactly the same way as tefillin have been constructed for centuries.
Just like the ones Yakov has recently started to put on to say the morning prayers.