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Book Reviews

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The Jewish Observer
The Jewish Press
Yated Ne'eman

Reviewed by: Rabbi Lasbish Becker, an Associate Executive Director of Agudath Israel of America.

Chazal (Menachos, 43b) tell us that there are three mitzvos that particularly represent the great love Hakadosh Baruch Hu has for the Jewish people. "Tefillin on their heads and on their arms, tzitzis on the four corners of their garments, and a mezuza on their doorways. Concerning these mitzvos, David Hamelech said 'Seven times a day have praised You for Your righteous ordinances.'"

Rashi comments us that the seven mitzvos that David Hamelech alludes to are the two tefillin boxes, on the head and the arm, the four tzitzis fringes on the corner of the garment and the mezuza on the door. Just as on a cold day one wraps himself with a warm coat, so too can we be insulated by these mitzvos and protected through them from the blandishments of the yeitzer hara. The spiritual advantages of these mitzvos are immense, and, indeed, Chazal inform us that "Reb Elazar Ben Yaakov said that whoever has tefillin on his head and on his arm, tzitzis on his garment, mezuzos on his doors, is assured that he will not sin, as it is stated, 'And a three-ply cord is not easily severed.'"

There is, however, one important caveat to all of the above. The Gemora (Rosh Hashana 19) tells us of the "karkafta shelo manach tefillin," the head that was never crowned with tefillin. For tefillin, mezuzos and sifrei Torah to be effective, they must be kosher. To wear tefillin with the wrong number of parshios or that were made incorrectly, to affix to our doorpost a mezuza that was written incorrectly, or to don tzitzis that do not have the right number of strings is not at all a fulfillment of the mitzvah in question.

To remedy this situation (as least as far as tefillin and mezuza is concerned), an excellent new guide has been written by Rabbi Yerachmiel Askotsky of Eretz Yisroel entitled "Tefillin and Mezuzos A Pictorial Guide: a sopher tells you how to choose, maintain and understand your Tefillin, Mezuzos and Torah Scrolls." The author writes in his preface that the need for such a book was born of his first-hand experience of the dearth of consumer savvy regarding mitzvah-items. It was written in consultation with many sofrim, battim professionals, wholesalers, retailers and poskim. Rabbi Askotsky writes, "It is my hope that by raising consumer awareness, Rabbis community leaders, layman and bnei Torah alike will demand higher standards for STaM (Sifrei Torah, Tefillin and Mezuzos) and will impress upon family, friends, students and congregants to do the same. This pressure will arouse the sofrim, examiners and retailers to meet the demand effecting a higher standard in STaM."

The book contains three sections. The first is a consumers guide to STaM; the second is a compendium of the basic halachos; and the third is a practical guide to wearing and caring for mezuzos, tefillin and sifrei Torah. It is lavishly illustrated to better convey what the author is writing about, facilitating its use as a resource. The sefer is written in a large type with a format that is easy on the eyes.

The consumers guide section provides an understanding of how battim, retzuos, and parshios are constructed and explains the appearance of the battim, their sewing and shape. It also describes how the klaf is prepared for writing, and about the tagim, margins and other details. The second section, "The Requirements of a Mezuza," tells us all about the proper placement of a mezuza, what to do when moving, transferring, upgrading or reaffixing mezuzos, as well as the proper placement of tefillin and laws pertaining to the retzuos. The final section talks about the practicalities of buying STaM, having them checked, caring for tefillin, and tips about mezuza and sefer Torah maintenance.

The importance of regularly checking ones tefillin and mezuzos, the author notes, becomes apparent after seeing how easily something can go wrong. There are 304,805 letters in a sefer Torah, 3,188 in a pair of tefillin and 713 in a mezuza. If even one is missing or not written properly, the entire Torah, tefillin or mezuza is pasul. "Keeping this in mind will certainly ensure that we are careful to choose the proper sofer and have our STaM properly examined."

A series of very useful appendices are added to the book. Essays from Rabbi Pesach Winston and Rabbi Yochanan Zweig provide important insights into the philosophical implications of tefillin and mezuzos. Finally, there is a very useful section to help one keep a record of when his tefillin were purchased and when they need checking, as well as a guide to adjusting the knots on the head tefillin.

Reading this book, I gained a far deeper understanding of the halachos and reasons for many of the things we do on a daily basis when we put on our tefillin or affix a mezuza to our doors. As with everything in the Torah, the more we delve into the halachos and their meaning the greater our appreciation of commitment to proper fulfillment of the mitzvah.

Tefillin and Mezuzos is a highly useful guide for anyone who wishes to ensure that he will not be included in the category of karkafta shelo monach tefillin and lose the phenomenal shmira provided by the mezuza. It strikes me that this would be a wonderful bar mitzvah present, not one to just end up gathering dust on a book shelf, but one that will actually be read and studied by the bar mitzvah boy, not to mention his father and his grandfather.

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Reviewed by: Ahron ben Anshel

In 1984, officers at the Bank of Israel decided to have their mezuzos checked after a spate of serious accidents at the bank. Of the 470 mezuzos inspected, only two were found to be kosher. The mezuzos in question were of a very inexpensive type that came sealed in plastic, bearing the certification of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. As a result of the investigation, the Chief Rabbinate issued a statement declaring their endorsement of such mezuzos null and void, and warning the general public to beware of them.

This is one of the horror stories about the market realities of Tefillin and mezuzos recounted in Rabbi Yerachmiel Askotzky`s "Tefillin and Mezuzos: A Pictorial Guide". The author`s intent is not just to shock, but to impress on the reader that, as in any other marketplace, there are unscrupulous dealers, and that the watchword is "buyer beware."

Indeed, this new guidebook will provide the reader with all the information needed to avoid being swindled, to choose a quality Torah, megillah, mezuzah or pair of tefillin, and to protect his investment in this precious mitzva (in the case of Tefillin, eight Torah mitzvos every day).

The first, and primary, rule is: Do not look for bargains. The second rule: Do not choose a sofer or retailer by his external appearance. Seek out a G-d-fearing sofer with certification or a knowledgeable dealer of STAM. (STAM is the acronym for Torah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzos, and is also the name of the organization founded and directed by the book`s author.) And the geographical corollary: just because it comes from Israel doesn`t mean it is kosher. Most STAM originates in Israel, and unfortunately that is no guarantee.

But Rabbi Askotzky`s new work is much more than a consumer guide. It is a mini-encyclopedia of the halachos of STAM, their manufacture, mitzva application, care and maintenance. As such, it is replete with information, insight and expert advice.

Regarding tefillin, for example, we are informed that any loss of the squareness may affect the halachic status of the tefillin and therefore if the inner cover on the shel yad gets lost, one should replace it immediately lest the slight daily rubbing of one`s sleeve against the bayis damage its shape. Likewise, the author cautions against prolonged exposure to heat, sunlight or moisture. (Donning tefillin with damp hair is a notorious cause of warping.)

As in any aspect of Torah, the field abounds with misconceptions, and the author takes pains to correct them. For example, it is commonly thought that the word mezuzah refers to the case. Actually, the word is of Biblical origin and refers to the doorpost. Since the scroll is affixed to the doorpost, it took on the name mezuzah.

As to the placement of the mezuzah, some people think it is a lovely inspiration to have it lowered (in schools) to enable small children to reach up and kiss it. Nevertheless, the proper position is always in the lower part of the upper third of the doorpost. As Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky once said when shown one of these "kiddie mezuzos," "We don`t teach our children falsehood." Instead, he suggested a small stool next to the entrance.

The over 400 illustrations to this book constitute a priceless treasure. They let us see what the interior of batim look like, the meticulous formation (and technique for correction) of the letters, the precise location on the arm and head for the tefillin, as well as the various kinds of entranceways that do or do not require a mezuzah, and much more.

It says in Mishlei (10:6): brachos l`rosh tzaddik. That verse pertains to Yerachmiel Askotzky "A blessing on his head."

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Reviewed by: Yisrael Shaw

It is rare to find a book covering a complex topic comprised of so many intricate details yet written in a simple, straightforward, and enjoyable-to-read style.

Rabbi Yerachmiel Askotzky has produced such a book covering a subject that has relevance to our lives every day -- the subject of Tefillin and Mezuzos. In his book, Rabbi Askotzky shares with us a treasure trove of information, suggestions, and halachic issues. Besides the educational experience that the book provides for a subject so close to our hearts but often so far from our minds, enlightening us as to what really rests inside our Tefillin and our Mezuzos (and how it got there), the book serves two important, practical purposes.

First, it enables the reader to become an informed consumer. As the author demonstrates, there are many people who are not fulfilling these Mitzvos properly (or at all) due to unawareness about what to look for when buying Tefillin and Mezuzos. In addition, the book provides a clear introduction to the halachos of klaf, batim, and ksav, enabling us to be aware of the halachic opinions and hiddurim that we should request from the sofer or dealer.

Second, the book enables the reader to evaluate his present fulfillment of these Mitzvos. While reading the book, the reader might, or rather, will learn how to improve his fulfillment of these Mitzvos. For example, the book brought to my attention that there must be a piece of strap protruding from the end of the knot of the retzuah shel yad and it must protrude not more than the width of the retzuah. When I checked my Tefillin, I found that indeed the strap extended from the knot, but I noticed that a small bit of the black paint at the end of the strap had worn off, a result of being rubbed constantly while being worn. Following the book's clear guidelines, I was able to easily correct the problem. Indeed, Rabbi Askotzky (who is easy to reach for questions about Tefillin and Mezuzos) pointed out to me that likely over 90% of all Tefillin are either invalid or kosher b'dieved due to problems with the blackness of the retzuos, and they can be restored to the proper state by learning a few halachos.

One of the most important points the author emphasizes is the importance of relying only upon a reputable source when purchasing Tefillin and Mezuzos. The author also emphasizes the importance of being familiar with some of the basic laws (for example, is it preferable to buy Tefillin straps made by hand, or do machine-made straps constitute a full fulfillment of the Mitzvah?).

Tefillin and Mezuzos also presents a thorough review of very important Halachos, including proper Tefillin placement and the laws of the retzuos. A thirty-page section summarizes the most practical laws of Mezuzah. Many Halachos that apply in commonplace situations are discussed. For example, may tape be used to affix a Mezuzah? What does one do if a Mezuzah falls off on Shabbos? Does one recite a new brachah upon affixing a Mezuzah that fell down, or that was taken down to be examined? Does an elevator or walk-in closet need a Mezuzah? May one take Mezuzos with him upon moving? When one removes Mezuzos to have them examined, must he return them to their original doorways?

Throughout the book, hundreds of outstanding images and graphics -- of both the outside and inside of Tefillin and Mezuzos -- help the reader understand the essential details and appreciate them much more. Included in the end of the book are enlightening essays from leading Jewish educators on the deeper meanings behind the Mitzvos of Tefillin and Mezuzah.

Rabbi Askotzky's final chapter presents numerous practical tips for the proper care of Sifrei Torah, Tefillin, and Mezuzos, both halachically and aesthetically (such as how to prevent Tefillin from being damaged by sweat, and Mezuzos from being damaged by sun and rain). There are many suggestions to make the acquisition and checking processes go more smoothly, including four charts for keeping records of Tefillin and Mezuzah purchases and examinations. A pictorial diagram gives step-by-step instructions for how to adjust the knot of the head Tefillin.

The only criticism that one might have with the book is that it was not written sooner.

Tefillin and Mezuzos: A Pictorial Guide should be part of the English library of rabbi, educator, layman, and bar mitzvah boy.

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Reviewed by: Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff

From twenty years of experience in the rabbinate, I can attest that very few Rabbonim have significant experience in the shaylos involved in tefillin manufacture. Most tefillin are made in Israel, and when the American rav makes his occasional visit to Eretz Yisrael, spending significant time seeing the manufacture of tefillin batim is usually not high on his priority list. Even in Israel, many of those selling STAM, the acronym for Sifrei Torah, Tefillin and Mezuzahs, are simply not aware of the halachic details of what they are selling.

One example of my own recent experience is worth a thousand words. Someone purchased tefillin from a highly reliable sofer. The sofer asked him whether he wanted hand-made (avodas yad) or machine-made retzuos. When the sofer was asked what the difference was, he answered, "I dont really know, just that the handmade ones are more expensive. Ask your rabbi."

Since few of us are aware of the details involved in safrus and batim manufacture, we are completely dependent on the sofer or dealer. The goal of Rabbi Askotzkys book is to wean us from this total dependence. He provides a thorough introduction to the many halachos and hiddurim of the parchment, batim and the writing so we can consult an expert posek, enabling us to identify those halachic opinions and hiddurim we should request from the sofer or dealer.

The author presents a valuable treasure of information, suggestions and expositions of halachic issues to enable a buyer to choose his Tefillin and Mezuzos. This guide directs him to ask the questions necessary when acquiring StaM that will guarantee that he is purchasing quality kosher products which meet his desired halachic standards.

The material is presented in a highly readable and very interesting format, and is enhanced by hundreds of graphics and photos. They are highly useful in enabling the reader to visualize what is referred to. Divrei Torah from respected rabbonim further enhance the book.

Allow me to point out a few important halachic issues that the average concerned consumer may be unaware of. It is definitely preferable that ones parshiyos rest completely inside the ketzitzah (upper part of the bayis). Yet, unless one specifies this, it is highly likely that his parshiyos will partly be inside the titura, the lower part of the bayis.

Again, few people purchase retzuos that are hand-made, without realizing that the way most retzuos are manufactured today these retzuos are far from optimally kosher.

Tefillin and Mezuzos also presents a thorough review of very important halachos including proper tefillin placement, tefillin and mezuzah checking and the laws of retzuos. It also includes a thirty page section on the laws of mezuzah. Many common situations are presented such as: What does one do if a mezuzah falls off on shabbos? Does an elevator or walk in closet need a mezuzah? Is a brachah required upon upgrading a mezuzah? Can mezuzos be removed when changing residence?

Rabbi Askotzky closes with numerous practical tips for the proper care of STaM, both halachically and aesthetically and offers many suggestions to make the acquisition and checking processes go more smoothly. Huge numbers of tefillin are either passul or kosher bedieved in ways that can be prevented with proper attention and learning a few practical tips. The most common problem with tefillin is the blackness of our retzuos.

This reviewer would like to see future editions of this book include extensive footnotes. Many of the quotations state "some poskim" "most poskim" without a convenient way for the Rav to investigate who the disputing parties are or what the dispute is about.

In my opinion Rabbi Askotzkys Tefillin and Mezuzos should be part of every educators, laymens and bar mitzvah boys library.

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