Stam - Torah scrolls, megillah scrolls, tefillin and mezuzah scroll
sofer writing tefillin, dancing with Torah scrolls
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What is Tefillin?

What is Mezuzah?What is Megillah?

We are commanded in the Torah to bind tefillin on our arm and on our head. The source for the mitzvah is mentioned four times in the Torah:

"And it shall be for you a sign on your arm and a remembrance between your eyes so that the word of G-d be in your mouth for G-d took you out of Egypt with a strong arm." (Exodus 13:9)

"And it shall be a sign on your arm and tefillin between your eyes for G-d took you out of Egypt with a strong arm." (Exodus 13:16)

"Bind them as a sign upon your arm and they shall be tefillin between your eyes." (Deuteronomy 6:8)

"Bind them as a sign on your arms and they shall be tefillin between your eyes." (Deuteronomy 11:18)

The tefillin parchments Each time we put on tefillin we fulfill eight positive commandments- 4 for the arm tefillin and 4 for the head tefillin!

We our taught by oral tradition, as told by G-d to Moshe on Mount Sinai and to the subsequent scholars of each generation, the specific requirements for the mitzvah of tefillin. These laws have been inscribed in the Talmud and later halachic codifications.

Each of the paragraphs containing the above sentences are handwritten, according to strict halachic codes, by a traditional, G-d fearing scribe using special black ink and quill on specially prepared parchment. Click here for an introduction to some of the halachic codes associated with Torah scrolls, tefillin, mezuzahs and megillahs. Each of the four paragraphs are written twice, once for the arm tefillin and once for the head tefillin. The paragraphs for the arm tefillin are written on one long strip of parchment, in four columns, seven lines per column, in the order they are presented in the Torah. The paragraphs of the head tefillin are written on four separate strips of parchment, four lines per column. The four paragraphs and each letter within must be written in chronological order both in the arm and head tefillin. There are 3188 letters in tefillin and it takes the sofer approximately 10-15 hours to write. The completed parchments are carefully checked by a trained examiner, preferably two, for textual errors and incorrectly formed letters. In addition, it is highly recommended to have all tefillin parchments checked by computer for textual errors. Once verified as kosher the arm parchment is rolled and the head parchments are folded, in a specific manner and inserted in a specific order and position into the batim (leather housing). The batim are then sewn shut with specially prepared gid, sinew string, in a method prescribed by halachah. The tefillin are then fitted, in a specific manner as set out by halachah, with the specially prepared and painted, leather straps, retzuos. This entire process entails the handiwork, expertise and knowledge of a significant number of trained, knowledgeable and G-d fearing craftsman. Due to the fact that this is a holy endeavor it is the custom of most sofrim to immerse in the ritual bath, mikvah, each day before beginning to write in order to spiritually purify themselves. Additionally, the sofer must maintain pure thoughts and concentrate on and enunciate each letter as he writes it.

There are 3 main traditions of scripts. Each has a halachic basis.The 3 customs of writing for Torahs, tefillin, mezuzahs and megillahs

Bais Yosef: This is the script (for Torahs, tefillin, mezuzahs and megillahs, used by those of Ashkenazi decent, who are not Chassidic. The Bais Yosef, authored by Rabbi Yosef Caro, (1488-1575) is the famous commentary to the Tur, (1200's) one of the earliest halachic codifications. He is also the author of the famed Shulchan Aruch, the most authoritative halachic codification. This particular script has the earliest and most solid halachic foundation however, the style has changed (not always within the confines of [preferred] halachah) and has developed throughout the generations. The Bais Yosef style of today has developed into a more literal interpretation of the halachah and is universally accepted as a mehudar form of the Bais Yosef script.

Arizal: The Arizal style script is the same as Bais Yosef other than some minor changes in 6-7 letters. This style is named after Rabbi Yitzchak Luria Ashkenazi (1534-1572). He was a famed and great kabbalist, scholar and pious one. The changes to the Bais Yosef script that he instituted are based on kabbalah. It is the custom of most who are of Chassidic descent to use this script style

Vellish: This is the script style of Sephardic Jews. Interestingly, the Sephardic Jews, who carefully follow the halachic decisions of Rabbi Yosef Caro, himself a Sephardic Jew and bases most of his decisions on the great scholars of Sephardic Jewry, mainly Maimonidies (1135-1204) and the Rashba, (1235-1310) have a different tradition of script altogether.

The tefillin are worn daily during morning prayers. The tefillin are not worn on shabbos and festivals. The reason is because the Torah calls shabbos and festivals "signs" and so too the tefillin are called signs. While the sign of shabbos or the festival is active there is no need for the sign of the tefillin. In fact, the word tefillin comes from the word Pelilah, evidence. The tefillin serve as a sign demonstrating the presence of the shechinah, divine presence, upon the Jewish people as is stated, "And all the nations of the earth will see that the name of G-d is called upon you and they will be awed by you. (Deuteronomy 28:10) We are taught that this sentence refers to the head tefillin, which is visible to all.

The tefillin are worn on the weaker arm, so a right-handed person would wear them on his left arm.

In addition to Rashi tefillin many Sephardic and Chassidic Jews wear tefillin with the placement of the parshiyos, parchments, according to Rabbeinu Tam. The grandfather of Rabbeinu Tam, Rashi, says that the parshiyos are not only written in their chronological order but they are also placed in the same order from right to left. According to Rabbeinu Tam the first 2 parshiyos are placed in chronological order from right to left then the last 2 parshiyos are switched so the 3rd compartment in the head tefillin and the 3rd space on the strip of parchment of the arm tefillin contains the 4th parsha and the last compartment of the head tefillin and the last space on the strip of parchment of the arm tefillin contains the 3rd parsha. All agree that the parshiyos must be written in the same chronological order as they are found in the Torah. Rabbeinu Tam tefillin are generally worn towards the end of the morning services after removing the Rashi tefillin that every adult male Jew wears.

For a visual introduction to the parts of tefillin click here.

For a pictorial tour of the batim making process click here.

Why does STaM seemingly cost so much and why the wide variance in prices? Click here to find out!

What is Mezuzah?

The Bibical source of the mitzvah of mezuzah is found twice in Devarim, Deuteronomy, chapter 6, in the paragraph of Shema Yisroel (4-9) and Chapter 9, in the paragragh of Vehaya Im Shamoa (13-21). The Torah states in both paragraphs:

"And you shall write them on the entryways of your dwellings and your gates".

The Almighty taught Moshe on Mount Sinai the oral law, which expounds on his written law, the Torah. The oral law has been transmitted through Torah scholars of each generation, much of it having been transcribed in the Mishnah, Talmud and later commentaries. In order to fulfill the mitzvah of mezuzah, oral law teaches that the two paragraphs above must be written by a traditional, G-d fearing scribe, according to strict halachic codes, with special black ink and quill on one piece of specially prepared and scored parchment. The mezuzah contains 22 lines of 713 painstakingly written letters. The standard size of a mezuzah is 6 - 15cms. It is extremely difficult to write smaller and still be kosher. Some sofrim write larger mezuzahs ranging from 18-25cms. The mezuzah is carefully checked by an expert for textual errors and incorrectly formed letters then rolled and affixed to the post on the right side of entry.

The Torah clearly states that the mezuzah must be affixed to each door and gateway of one's home. PLURAL! Unfortunately many people mistakenly believe (or have been misled?) that the home only requires a mezuzah on the main entrance. In addition to the home, any Jewish owned business, school and institution and the synagogue may require mezuzahs on each doorway.

The mezuzah recalls the Almighty's commandment to the Jewish people, on the verge of departure from Egypt, to smear lamb's blood on the doorposts in order to identify their homes so that the Almighty would spare the inhabitants during the plague of the first born. The lamb represented one of the deities of the Egyptians nevertheless, the Jewish people brazenly slaughtered the lambs and smeared their blood on the entranceways of their homes in full view of their taskmasters. This public declaration proclaimed the Jewish people's subservience to the will of the Almighty and their recognition of His supreme authority. Similarly, the two paragraphs contained within the mezuzah include these fundamentals of faith. The mezuzah, affixed to each doorway of our homes, shuls, schools and businesses serve to constantly remind us that the Almighty is the one, unique creator and governor of the world, to keep our faith in him and to express our love and subservience to him by committing to living according to his commandments and standard of morals as taught to us in the Torah and expounded upon by our sages. Examining a mezuzah scroll

In addition, we are taught that the mezuzah provides us with protection like that of the lamb's blood. In fact, one of the names of the Almighty, written on the backside of each mezuzah, Sha-dai, can be read as an acronym for Shomer Dalsos Yisroel, the Guardian of the doors of Israel. We must fulfill each mitzvah because we have been commanded to by the Almighty and not for the promise of material gain. However, this should provide us with a further incentive to be careful in its fulfillment and to acquire quality, kosher mezuzos.

Click here for the three traditions of handwriting.

Why does STaM seemingly cost so much and why the wide variance in prices? Click here to find out!

What is Megillah?

Megillah means "scroll". Megillot or megillahs (plural) generally refers to the 5 megillahs, which are read from in the synagogue on holidays. Specifically, megillah is most identified with the megillah of Esther (megillat or megillas Esther), which is read on the Purim festival. In fact, when one mentions megillah or "the megillah", generically, he is undoubtedly referring to megillas Esther.

These are the 5 megillahs:

  1. Song of Songs (Shir ha-Shirim), read on the intermediate Sabbath of Pesach (Passover)
  2. Ruth, read on the festival of Shavuos (Weeks)
  3. Lamentations (Eichah), read on the night of the fast day of Tisha B'Av (the Ninth of Av) Some read it again in the morning.
  4. Ecclesiastes (Koheles), read on the intermediate Sabbath of Sukkos (Tabernacles)
  5. Esther, read on the festival of Purim - at night and again the following morning

Consult your rabbi for more information about these festivals and why each megillah was instituted to be read on the specific holiday.

Many synagogues read the megillot from printed books. The only megillah that must be read from a kosher, hand scribed parchment is the megillas Esther. It is also common and meritorious for each congregant to follow the megillah reading from his own hand scribed, parchment scroll. A common gift from the bride's family to their new son in law is a megillas Esther! It is also a common birthday and anniversary gift from a wife to her husband. It is common in Israel and somewhat in the Diaspora to read each of the 5 megillot from a hand scribed, kosher parchment.

A beginning sofer, scribe has to start somewhere. What better place to start than the megillat Esther. The reason for this is that it is the only scroll in The Torah, prophets and writings (Tanach), which doesn't contain any of the specially sanctified divine Names. As a result, the beginning sofer can write the megillah without having to worry about the special sanctification of the divine Names nor the potential problems that could arise if he were to make mistakes on sheets containing the divine Names or even in the Names themselves. Generally the beginning sofer will write 1-4 such megillas until he feels comfortable and satisfied with his writing and related skills then move on to mezuzahs. Understandably these megillahs may not be that aesthetically pleasing but have the advantage of being less expensive to purchase. Of course, experienced scribes also write Megillot Esther.

Megillot Esther are usually written with columns of 11, 14, 21, 28, or 42 lines. Megillot Esther are commonly written with the word "HaMelech" (The King) at the head of almost all the columns. Many people demand HaMelech megillahs but the source for this tradition is not known to the writer. There is also an old tradition of illuminating megillahs, specifically that of Megillat Esther. Many people have attractive crowns (in various styles and colors) made at the top of each column or at least over the words, HaMelech, while others have much more sophisticated illumination work done. (See the catalog for details.)

Click here for the three traditions of handwriting.

Why does STaM seemingly cost so much and why the wide variance in prices? Click here to find out!