The magazine of the photo-essay
December 2016 issue
The Making of Tefillin
by Dror Garti
A free, really high quality photo-essay magazine.  Fabulous! Stephen Fry. British actor, writer and film & documentary maker
Tefillin are two small black boxes attached to long black leather straps and are worn by observant Jews during weekday morning prayers. One box is placed on the left upper arm and its attached strap is wrapped around the arm, hand and fingers while the other box is placed above the forehead. The Torah commands that Tefillin should be worn to serve as a sign and remembrance that God liberated the children of Israel out of Egypt. The making of the Tefillin set is unique and involves many different stages and craftsmen. Some craftsmen are responsible for the making of the leather straps – processing and softening the leather, tanning it black and cutting it using special methods and tools in a spiral way to the end result. Other craftsmen are responsible for the preparation of the tiny scripts: processing a very thin leather, marking the guiding lines and eventually hand-writing the verses accurately with zero mistakes. Finally, there are the craftsmen who are responsible for making the boxes themselves by cutting the stiff pieces of the leather, shaping it to symmetrical cubes, coloring it black and inserting the tiny scripts, eventually sewing and sealing it closed. All those dealing with the Tefillin have to follow many harsh requirements, resulting from the Torah commandments. For example, every stage has to be completed using only the craftsmens’ natural bodily strength with no help from external energy sources such as engines. Every step is closely scrutinized by supervisors to avoid errors which will immediately disqualify the Tefillin set in the making and render it useless.
The Torah commands that the Tefillin set will be made from animal parts only. Today, all the parts that construct the Tefillin come from a cow. The cow’s leather used for the Tefillin straps is washed and processed for a few weeks in large metal barrels. Using electrical power is not allowed and thus the heavy barrel is rolled by the maker running on top of it.
After the washing and softening process of the leather is completed, it is placed on large metal grids. Using special pincers it is stretched in different directions and left out to dry and harden.
The Tefillin straps must be colored black, only on one side. The leather is cut into a large oval shape and then colored black by hand. The coloring process is done few times to make sure the color will not fade in the future and disqualify the Tefillin set.
It requires a unique craftsman to finish the work on the Tefillin straps. This craftsman’s job is to cut the straps out from the oval shaped leather. It is done in a spiral way from the outside in, maintaining an exact width of the straps, yet maximizing the utilization of the leather.
Like other parts, the Tefillin boxes are also made of leather. This leather has to be very stiff to form the box faces and is thus taken from the cow’s neck area. After the hardened leather arrives at the Tefillin workshop, someone uses a heavy guillotine to cut it into wide, long strips.
The few craftsmen who run the Tefillin workshop must use their own natural force and so they often improvise and alter industrial machines to comply with the strict Torah guidelines. In this case, the engine of the drill was replaced by a broken gym-bike, so the force powering the drill will be the craftsman legs only.
There are few different techniques used to make the Tefillin boxes. Some construct it by gluing together the leather faces, while others believe it is must be made from a single leather piece (“Miksha”) folded into the final shape. Creating it from a single piece of leather requires numerous iterations where the leather is wetted and then pressed to further form the final shape. Every iteration requires the leather to dry.
The Tefillin boxes, both the hand-set and head-set must be exactly the same and the faces completely symmetrical. During the process, the size is constantly measured using a caliber and if needed, filed gently to achieve the accuracy required.
The ‘Shalil’, is the soft thin leather which the scripts inside the Tefillin boxes are written on. It is made from young calves’ leather. It is gently slotted and marked with a pick, creating guiding lines which will later serve the Torah Writer writing the verses. After the guiding lines are marked the leather is cut into long thin strips.
After the writer is done writing the scripts, they are often sent to a special workshop where they are closely checked by specialists. Those who check the verses are allowed to make tiny fixes, mainly if they feel a specific letter is not clear and may be confused by another letter.
The scripts created by the writers are brought to a special workshop for close inspection. Since the scripts are very small the person inspecting each word and each letter will often use a magnifying glass to make sure there are no errors and no two adjacent letters have ink marks connecting them. If this is the case, the Tefillin set is disqualified.
Some institutions which inspect the Tefillin scripts use computers and a special software to do the first inspection. The scripts are scanned and the computer picks-up letters which need to be scrutinized. This however will not replace the manual check that must be done.
The completed scripts are rolled and folded flat to fit into the small chambers of the Tefillin box. The script is tied tightly using few hairs taken from the cow’s tail.
Once the scripts are securely put into their chambers in the Tefillin box, the base is closed shut and the craftsman stitches it using strong dried tendons which were taken from the cow’s leg.
Observant Jews place Tefillin every weekday during their morning prayers, be it at home, in the synagogue or even outside.
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