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Mordechai Pinchas Sofer

Tefillin are without doubt the most complex contsructions of the scribe. This page will looks at the head tefillin (shel rosh) and arm tefillin (shel yad) in more detail, though can only scratch the surface.

The housings (batim) are cubes (also known as batim) on top of a base, (titura) that is slightly wider. On the side of the titura is an extra extension (ma’avarta) through which the straps (r’tsuot) pass.

The arm housing (bayit), shown left is a single cube inside which there is a single large empty space into which the long roll of the single parchment is placed. The cube should be a perfect square or the tefillin become pasul (invalid) and the squareness should be maintained. The titura breaks into two parts, the upper titura (which is the part that joins to the cube and similarly has an opening) and lower titura (which is the same size as the upper one but is solid and covers up the hole).

square bayit of the hand tefillin

Above: The squared cube of the hand tefillin, resting on the
 titura base.

rolled and tied hand parshiyot

The parchment is rolled towards its beginning.  Calf hairs (se’ar egel - usually the tail) are tied round it and twisted together.  A thin strip of parchment is wrapped top to bottom, more calf hairs are tied round and twisted.

base of the hand tefillin

The bottom of the hand tefillin showing the sewing
 and holes. The klaf can just be seen inside as this
titura is quite thin at the base.

inside the hand tefillin

Right: inside the hand tefillin, with a square space for the rolled parchment.

Sometimes an additional square piece of leather with the central hole is added to thicken the upper titura if it so requires. If the leather is thick enough alreday these are called mikshah (of one piece). The rolled single long parchment containing all four paryshiyot is then inserted into the bayit which is then sewn shut with giddin.

There are twelve holes spread around the titura (representing the 12 tribes of Israel).


On the upper side there are slits (above right) in the leather of the titura between each hole so that the thread which lies within the slits forms a perfect straight square. Some tefillin also have slits on the bottom of the tiura too.


At the back of the hand tefillin the part of the bayit that protudes is the ma’avarta derved from ma’avar (pass through) as the straps pass through the hollow channel that is formed. Quarter circle cuts are made into the ma’avarta so that the titura remains square and there is a slightly larger cut on the right side of the hand tefillin to allow for the knot of the hand strap which is near to the ma’avarta. The whole of the the bayit (excluding the very bottom) is then painted black with kasher paint. The strap is then threaded through the channel.

Much of what was written above regarding the hand tefllin applies to the head one. Howewer there are some very important differences. The main being that the head bayit is made into four separate sections, each of which contains one of the four parshiyot and these are joined together to form the cube.

Mishneh Torah mold diagram

This was originally done by applying wet parchment over a wooden mold (see diagram left from the Mishneh Torah) but now industrial presses are used.

grooves in the head tefillin

The grooves must remain discernable even when the batim are painted black (see above) to show that there are four separate compartments in the head tefillin.

three-headed shin

On two of the sides of the head tefillin there are two letter shins.  The three-headed shin is on the right side, but the left sports a strange four-headed shin.  These are impressed onto the leather with a mold or more traditionally picked out carefully with tweezers. 

four-headed shin
inside the head tefillin

Above: inside the head tefillin - the 4 compartments

Inside the parchments are placed into the 4 sections.  The norm is Rashi’s tefillin which from right (from the observer’s viewpoint) to left are:

Kadesh li
V’hayah ki y’viecha
V’hayah im shamo’a

Right: Rambam’s Mishneh Torah diagram.

Rambam's order diagram
folded and tied head parsha

Unlike the arm tefillin parchment, the four separate parshiyot of the head tefillin are folded over again and again to fit into the four housings. Keset Hasofer remarks that some of the more expert scribes used to use three thicknesses of parchment in order to fill the spaces equally despite the different lengths of the sextions. Others used to use the same parchments but extend the margins on the shorter sections. Calf hairs  are tied around the height of the parchment and twisted together. A thin strip of parchment covers this and then more hairs are twisted round.

Left: the head parchment folded up and tied

calf's hair poking out

Sewing the head tefillin is a bit more complex as the giddin is threaded through the channels between the four housings as well as round the titura.  As mentioned above the parshiyot are wrapped with calf’s hair and longer hairs are wound round the v’hayah im shamo’a passage so that th tips can be threaded through a hole between the third and fourth compartments (see right).  Without it the tefillin are pasul - and since this is easily damaged, one should check carefully for it’s continued presence on the tefillin.

The straps are made of leather form a kasher animal and must be black on the smoth side whilst the internal rough side is left ‘white’ . Straps for the arm should be long enough to be wound round 7 times and for the head to hang in the front down to upper legs (the halachic definition is not quite so delicate). However the key issue with the straps is the form of the knots (kesharim). The head knot (kesher) is formed into a dalet shape. There are two versions of this, one which is obviously a dalet, but another which is more common - which is a square knot, where the dalet shape is formed by the knots and straps together. The arm knot is in fact two knots - one has the form of the letter yud and one below this allows the loop to emerge so that is can be placed on the forearm. There are also two traditions as to how to tie this lower knot.

Togther with the raised shin(s) on the head tefillin the two knots thus spell out one of the names of God, that we have alreday seen on the reverse of the mezuzah - Shaddai - SHIN, DALET, YUD.


'square' dalet knot of shaddai shin of shaddai

As with the section on sefer torah, no web pages can do justice to such an extensive subject as teffillin and as mentioned there are a number of good books shown in the sources on tefillin which go into more detail. These also cover the various laws of how to put them on and remove them at the end of prayer. Tefillin, once sealed, and providing they have not come into contact with water theoretically never need examining. However like mezuzot it is recommended that they are checked twice every seven years, and as a minimum checking that the outsides remain perfectly square and black.

Mordechai Pinchas

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