5 Step Guide to Purchasing Tefillin

5 Step Guide to Purchasing Tefillin
Whether you seek tefillin for yourself or to give as a Bar Mitzvah gift, tefillin are a milestone purchase. A good quality pair of tefillin should last decades, while the best quality can last several generations. Consider the following points when looking at a pair of Tefillin to make sure you get the right purchase:

  1. Ashkenazi or Sephardi minhag

  2. Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam

  3. Whether the tefillin are made of thin or thick skinned animal

  4. Whether the tefillin are “Mehudar”

  5. Budget and price differences

1. Ashkenazi and Sephardi

There are three main differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardi tefillin.

  1. The style of writing. Most Ashkanazi use Beit Yosef and Sephardi use as Vellish.

  2. The Shin on both sides of the Shel Rosh (head tefillin) differs depending upon the minhag (customs). The Ashkanazi Shin has three branches and a pointy triangular base. The Sephardi Shin has four branches and has a more square base.

  3. The strap on the Shel Yad(Arm tefillin) is tied differently, as Ashkanazim and Sephardim wrap the straps around the arm differently.

2. Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam

Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam tefillin differ in regards to the order of the Biblical passages contained in the tefillin boxes.

The Rashi tefillin order is:

  1. Kadesh

  2. Vehayah ki y’viacha

  3. Shema

  4. Vehayah im Shamoa

In Rebbenu Tam the last two passages are switched:

  1. Kadesh

  2. Vehayah ki y’viacha

  3. Vehayah im Shamoa

  4. Shema

The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) sides with Rashi’s option. However the Shulchan Aruch also states that all G-d fearing individuals should have two pairs of tefillin and wear them both every day. According to Kabbalah it is important to wear both pairs, as each one represent a different divine flow of energy.

To see the differences visually:

Rashi tefillin

Rabbenu tam tefillin

3. Thick or Thin tefillin

Thin skinned

A thin skinned animal could be sheep, goat or deer. They are much easier to work with, required less skill, easier to shape and cut which result in cheaper cost. The disadvantage is that thin skinned tefillin can damage easier, are more difficult and sometimes even impossible to repair. There is also a halahic question as to whether one can glue it together in various pieces. tefillin made of thin skinned animal are of a lesser quality and also need to be checked more frequently.

Thick skinned

Thick skinned tefillin are made of bull leather, and they require special skill to work with. The proces of constructing thick skinned tefillin requires special knowledge and experience. Such tefillin are made of one piece, no gluing is required, the tefillin is more durable and in most cases repairable. The whole process takes up to a year and sometime longer. At the end you have a higher quality tefillin. The disadvantage to thick skinned tefllin is the cost.

4. Mehudar tefillin

A Sofer is a G-d fearing Jewish male who writes tefllin and mezuzzah scrolls. One must have very specialized knowledge and a great reputation as a pious and upright individual to become a Sofer. Tefliin scrolls are beautifully written, meaning the verses are symmetrical, porportioned and the letters are properly formed. There can be be no doubt as to which letter is which. None of the letters can touch one another from the time of writing. Letters and words must be properly spaced, without doubt as to which letter belongs to which word. The crowns on letters are crowns properly formed.

5. Budget and price differences

Low quality tefillin range from $300-$400.
Mehudar tefillin typically range from $800-$1500, but the highest end mehudar cost approximately $2000.

With proper care, quality tefillin written by a G-d fearing Sofer should last for generations.
If a pair of tefillin is priced significantly lower than pairs of similar quality, it might not be a great deal. Mehudar tefillin take their Sofer approximately a year to create, so these masterpieces will be priced accordingly.

Final Thoughts

Sages and Rabbis throughout the generations have always stressed the importance of acquiring the best tefillin one can afford. For tefillin, like mezuzahs, are a vessel through which the wearer (and his family) receive Divine protection.