I was recently informed that a new kind of Head Tfilah Bayit (exterior) is now available. Like previously known Tfilin, these are made of a single sturdy piece of leather, compressed, squared and precisely crafted by expert Tfilin makers. However, these Battim are unique because you can actually shine a light in between the compartments of the Head Tfilah and see that each compartment stands freely and does not touch the compartment next to it, although the space between the compartments is very narrow (about half a millimeter.) Regular Head Tfilin, even of the highest quality, have four compartments, but they are pressed together so that only shallow grooves are visible on the outside to show that each compartment is distinct. I am very interested in acquiring these new kinds of Tfilin. Yet I am also concerned. I have never seen anyone wear Tfilin like these before. If my father didn’t have Tfilin like this, and my rebbe didn’t have Tfilin like this, then perhaps these new kinds of Tfilin are not actually proper! What should I do!
Please help me make up my mind!
Mr. Anvehu Hiddurman
Responsa by Harav Hagaon Rav Moshe Yishai Shlita, based upon the book Zichron Eliyahu on Hilchot Tefillin. Translated, abridged and adapted into English by Harav Nosson Note Glick Shlita. This is just an excerpt of a much longer essay. For the original, detailed response click here.
Dear Mr. Hidddurman,
In the world of Tefillin making, the standards are always getting higher. The kinds of Tefillin that many of our ancestors wore would not be considered acceptable today. It is not that we are greater Tzaddikim. It is rather that technology advances, and standards that were impractical or even impossible for previous generations, are commonplace for us. The process for making the solid, durable Gassot Battim that are standard today was invented at the beginning of the previous century. This process was a substantial improvement. Battim made in this fashion were actually preferable to earlier kinds of Battim. Diligent Battim Makers have been perfecting their sacred craft ever since. A Jew is obligated to fulfill the Mitzvot in the most beautiful and halachically correct way possible. You always have to do the best you can. The best is defined by the range of possibilities available to you at your time in history.
This being said, the idea of having four free standing compartments in the Head Tefillah that do not touch each other is not new. It is a return to an old halachic standard that many Torah Giants of previous times adhered to. In fact the plain meaning of the Talmud in Masechet Menachot supports the notion that the compartments of the Head Tefillah are supposed to be separated enough from each other so that real spaces divine them, how ever narrow the spaces are. Tefillin of this standard were always difficult to create. Nevertheless, having four free standing compartments in the Head Tefillah is not some strange or eccentric practice.
When the Gassot method of creating Tefillin was invented, its major advantage was that the Tefillin so created were solid and durable enough to maintain a near perfectly square shape for a very long time. According to the Halachah, Tefillin must be square when viewed from the top down. Utilizing thick leather and extreme pressure makes it possible to attain sharp, precise corners along with smooth, straight edges. The Battim will remain sharp and perfectly square for years. If by any chance the compartments do spread apart, Gassot Head Tefillin can be easily fixed. However, the pressure required to fashion the Battim makes it impossible to maintain any kind of space between the compartments of the Head Tefillah. The compartments are physically distinct, but pressed together in such a way that no space exists. Until now, it was rightly assumed that the added precision and durability of the Bayit’s square shape was worth sacrificing the spaces between the compartments.
Now with the invention of free standing compartments, we gain the precision and durability of Gassot Tefillin, while remaining absolutely faithful to the language of the Gemara as understood by most early and later commentaries. The only place in the world where you can find true free-standing compartments is at Tfilin Halamish. There they know the secret of how to create these tfilin exteriors. There are imitators, but do not be taken it. They simply create their tfilin the regular way and then cut the grooves with a micro-thin saw. This is not what the sages of Talmud had in mind. The spaces between the compartments are integral to the tfilin and they should come into being along with the compartments themselves. Sawing the tfilin crates the spaces after the fact, which is inauthentic. It would be like erasing parts of a dried drop of ink to create a letter. A letter created by erasing is invalid, and so would be spaces created by sawing away parts of an already fashioned head tfilah. If you are going to have the spaces, they need to be done right, from the foundation up.