Purchasing STAM: Part 5

Batim & Retzu’os

This series of blog posts can be downloaded as a free ebook.1

For a brief overview of the complete series, including links to all the posts, see Purchasing STAM: Index & Summary.

The three main elements of a pair of tefilin are the parshi’os, the batim that house them and the retzu’os that hold the batim in place. Each of these items is manufactured by an individual or group that specializes in making just that item. There is a great deal of technical knowledge and skill, as well as hundreds of halachos, that go into the crafting of each part of the tefilin. Klaf was addressed in the previous post in this series. This post will deal with batim and retzu’os.2

Tefilin Shel RoshUnlike klaf, which is all made in a factory setting, some of the batim and retzu’os on the market are mass-produced in factories and some are hand-crafted by individuals. When the batim or retzu’os are made by an individual, determining (and enforcing) the quality and kashrus level is a relatively uncomplicated matter. Many of the craftsmen who make private batim and retzu’os have long-standing relationships and an open-door policy with poskim and other STAM professionals who have intimate knowledge of the particulars of their work processes and serve as an unofficial hechsher on the end product. A modest amount of research should be enough to verify that a given batim- or retzu’os-maker is knowledgeable of the relevant halachos and has the yiras shamayim to apply them even when there is a risk of great financial loss.

note: It would certainly be ideal for the private batim- and retzu’os-makers to have certification (like sofrim and magihim) or a hechsher (like klaf-makers), but at this point no such framework exists. Even so, from a kashrus perspective, good quality privately-made batim and retzu’os tend to be far better than the factory-made equivalent.

If the batim or retzu’os are mass-produced, the factory should have a hechsher (similar to klaf factories). Even with a hechsher, the factory environment presents many difficulties that are not relevant to the individual craftsman. A large-scale operation has much higher expenses to cover, which puts the factory owner under pressure to produce the largest quantity in the least amount of time. For this reason (among others), the factories rely on a variety of halachic leniencies in order to speed up production.

Even leaving aside the financial incentive, the sheer volume of modern mass-production has an adverse impact on quality control. Each worker in the assembly line tries to work as fast as he can to avoid bottlenecks in the workflow. In contrast, a private craftsman works on one item at a time. He gives it the attention it deserves and makes sure it meets the desired level of hidur before setting it down and moving on to the next one.

Another problem inherent in a factory setting is that many people are involved in the production. There is no practical way for the consumer to know if everyone on the line is equal in their halachic knowledge and yiras shamayim. You can then have a situation where almost all the work done in a given factory is done at a mehudar level, but one guy on the production line doesn’t take the same care as everyone else, so all the batim or retzu’os from this factory are only kosher bidi’eved (or even pasul).3

These are but a few of the many issues inherent in a factory setting. One last point worth mentioning is that kashrus supervision is very difficult in factories. In the STAM industry, even in factories that have kashrus certification, there are often production stages which have minimal supervision, and sometimes no supervision at all. Ultimately the buyer is relying on the factory owner and all of his employees to ensure that the end product meets the desired halachic standard.4

Besides the production environment where the batim and retzu’os are made, another variable that needs to be considered is the methods used; similar to klaf production, batim and retzu’os can be made entirely by hand, or mostly by machine. The private batim and retzu’os makers generally produce only handmade products, but many of the factories offer a choice of machine made or handmade.5 As with klaf, handmade retzu’os and batim have many additional hidurim over machine made and according to many poskim are halachically preferable.

In light of the above, it is very important for the buyer of STAM to research the sources of the materials used. Every craftsman and factory has their own set of standards. It is the buyer’s responsibility to be informed as to what those standards are and to buy STAM that fall within his “comfort zone” of Torah observance.

The next installment in this series will take a look at the middlemen who buy and sell STAM.

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  1. The blog posts have been revised to reflect edits and corrections made when preparing the ebook edition.

  2. For an introduction to batim and retzu’os, see STAM 101: Batim and STAM 101: Retzu’os.

  3. The issue of uneven production quality is relevant even in factories with a hechsher. Although the hechsher sets the halachic standard, the certifying agency can not check out all the workers to make sure they always meet that standard.

  4. In recent history there have been numerous incidents where batim and retzu’os factories altered some aspect of their production – either innocently or maliciously – without the knowledge of the kashrus supervisors. These changes sometimes go undetected for months or years and often have a significant impact on the kashrus-level of the final products.

  5. Even in factories that produce “handmade” batim and retzu’os, the products are often only considered “handmade” according to minority halachic opinions.