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Thought for the Day: Letters in תפילין -- Must be Formed In Order and Must be Formed by Writing

You may very well think that the hardest part of writing תפילין is the calligraphy.  For me, in fact, it certainly would be.  However, there is actually a fair amount of latitude in the actual formation of the letters.  (Relatively speaking, of course; let's not get crazy.)  Moreover, checking that the letters actually have the correct shape is within the normal bounds of decency is child's play.  (No, really; when there is a question if the letter is correct, we sometimes show it to a child who knows his alephbais but doesn't yet know how to learn for his opinion.)

In fact, though, two of the most important considerations for תפילין are completely undetectable on a finished pair: (1) letters must be written; (2) letters must be written in order.

Now, if you are thinking to yourself, "Ummm... sure.  Why would anyone do anything different?"  Then you are in very good company.  When I originally saw these halachos, I thought "must be written" meant as opposed to using a stamp/ink pad and "in order" maybe meant you couldn't print a whole parsha at once with something like offset printing.  Trivial.

How wrong I was... of course the above procedures are forbidden and that certainly is trivial to ensure.  However, the Shulchan Aruch goes on and on about this topic.  The Mishna Brura goes on and on in his explanations what he Shulchan Aruch really means.  The Biur Halacha goes on and on about all sorts of tricky exceptions and corner cases left unaddressed in the Mishna Brura.

First note that תפילין must written with a קולמוס/quill or reed pen.  The קולמוס is dipped into the ink, then applied to the parchment.  Sounds simple?  Try it... it's not like writing with a ballpoint pen.  Writing with a קולמוס is slow, the קולמוס frequently runs out of ink and needs to be refilled, oh... and the קולמוס sometimes drips.  Let's take those in order.

Because of the slowness, you try to be efficient in your strokes.  Suppose you are making a מ; that's basically a נ (or כ) followed by a ו.  You make the נ (or כ), then make your ו; and looking ahead planning your next letter.  As you start the new row, you notice that there is a small gap between the נ (or כ) and ו.  Well... you can't fix it by just filling in the gap, because then you will have written the מ out of order.  Sigh... so all the letters written after the ו need to erased.  Whoops!  Unless one of the words is a name of HaShem that can't be erased.  What do you do in that case?  Put it in גניזה, because that bit of parchment cannot be fixed.

Running out of ink unexpectedly puts you into that same boat.  Hmm... so you are careful to be sure the קולמוס is really loaded with ink.  So you go to make a ב.  The ink is plentiful, so it makes a beautiful, full bodied letter.  Whoops... a bit too full bodied; the ink that makes the back of the ב spreads a bit, widening and obliterating that little tail sticking out the back on the bottom right.  No problem, you'll just blot away the extra ink, or scrape it away if it is dry already.  Right?  Nope... that's not called writing.  Writing is putting ink to parchment and forming letters.  You removed ink to essentially reveal a letter.  The entire letter needs to be erased and start over.  Already wrote more letters before you noticed the spread?  See above.

One more?  You have just written a beautiful ד.  Go ahead, take a moment to admire your handiwork.  Uh oh... you were so busy admiring your work that you didn't notice the drop of ink falling out of the קולמוס... and that little drop made a little dot just at the left (virtual) corner of the ד!  What's the problem?  That ד just became a ה.  Just blot/scrape away the dot?  Sorry; see above.

There are 27 letters (including ending letters).  Many formed as combinations of other letters.  There are hundreds of permutations, some bad, some can be fixed, some should be fixed, some can't be fixed.  The devil is really in the details, and there are oodles and oodles of details.  None of which can be checked by looking at the finished product.  Either the scribe did his job honestly, or not.  Oh, wait... did I mentioned that this is all biblically mandated?  One letter written out of order or formed by scraping away the excess and the תפילין are completed and decidedly פסול/invalid.  Even if those are the only תפילין around... don't use them, they aren't תפילין.

It's a good idea to have a trustworthy sofer.


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