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You and Your Mezuzah

A Tale of Ignorance, Neglect and Hope

There is possibly no area in Jewish life with as glaring a gap between the ideal and the reality as the area of STaM, (an acronym for Sifrel Torah, Tefillin and Mezuzos).

The purpose of this overview is to explore this problem, to identify its causes, understand what led to its growth and point to workable solutions.

"No Grounds To Suspect Fraud!"

In September 1975 the Jewish Observer published an article entitled "The Point of the Yud," which revealecl shocking data about the current status of STaM.5 The subsequent issue contained a strongly-worded letter to the editor maintaining the implicit trust of laymen in the integrity of these religious artifacts, a trust which heretofore had never been questioned or undermined. Included in this letter was the strong query, "What do you want from the layman?"

The layman has never been led to believe that there was anything for him to do in this field. Why should he suspect the retailer - whom he knows to be a trustworthy person - of defrauding him with possul wares? Why should it occur to the layman to question the kashruth of these products? Are they not written by observant scribes for Jewish people who wish to fulfill the Mitzvah? Does it stand to reason that this field would be fraught with fraud? It is understood that the kashruth of food needs constant supervision, since most of the food produced and sold in the world is non-kosher, and it is the exceptional individual who seeks to purchase kosher food. But STaM...? Who but a Jew uses STaM and who but an observant Jew makes STaM? Thus, "What do you want from the layman?"

Isn't he right? Theoretically, yes. But when we compare that which actually does exist in the area of STaM with that which should exist, we find that our theoretical assumptions are not operative.

A properly written Mezuza Mezuzas improperly written, scribbled, printed as well as Hebrew passages sold as "Mezuzas"

The Product and Its Process (the letters and their writing)

The Ideal

In order for STaM to be kosher they must meet certain absolute standards which were transmitted to us by our Talmudic sages as given to our teacher Moses at Sinai (the very same source which serves as our reason for placing a Mezuzah on our doors or putting on Tefillin in the first place). These standards concern themselves primarily with the form of the letters and the procedure used in writing them.

  1. The Lettering - There are 27 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Formation of each letter and its parts are governed by a specific set of laws and regulations. Often the slightest change (unnoticeable to one who is unfamiliar with this field) may render the letter and, consequently, the entire Mezuzah, Tefillin or Sefer Torah unfit.

  2. The Writing Process - An entire literature of Halachos and rules govern the exact procedure used in writing these words,6 and the methodology of making corrections.7 This process is not subject to any retroactive inspection since it is not recognizable within the finished product.8 To be certain of the Halachic kashruth of STaM we are forced to rely on the integrity of the producer - the sofer (scribe).

The Reality

Every possible form of forgery and deception currently exists in this area. Before the establishment of the Vaad, the vast majority of Mezuzos available on the market did not even meet the minimal requirements of Halacha. A large number of the Mezuzos sold contained doodles in place of letters,9 not to mention the many Mezuzos which were printed (rather than written) on parchment or paper or contained substitute phrases for those actually required in the Mezuzos.

The Producer

The Ideal

In addition to personality traits, there are specific characteristics and behavior patterns required of the producer of sacramental works. 10

  1. Craftsmanship - The scribe must learn the technical aspects of creating the letters and practice the execution of each letter in accordance with the requirements laid down by Halacha (this is the easiest part).

  2. Scholarship - Since the Halachos of the letters and the process of their writing are many and complex, the scribe must attain full mastery of this section of the law. He must continuously study and review them, since ignorance of even one single Halacha may render all his writing unfit.
    If the scribe is ignorant of a law relating to the exact form of a letter, it will become apparent upon inspection of his writing. But if he is ignorant of the exact procedure to be used in forming the letters, all of the STaM which he writes are unfit. The saddest thought is that no one will ever know it.

  3. Reliability and Trustworthiness - There are many intricate details which may serve to render STaM unfit. No person other than the scribe is likely to be aware of these. Every scribe frequently finds himself in a situation where he must render unfit and remove from circulation a product on which he may have worked a full day or two. We must therefore be certain that the scribe is a man possessing the highest level of conscientiousness and integrity, to be assured that he will withstand such a test.

- The Reality

The facts in this area are simply frightening.

  1. Only a small fraction of working scribes are well-versed in the Halachos of STaM. 11

  2. An even smaller minority of scribes have passed examinations given by recognized rabbinical bodies or been certified as scribes.12

  3. A significant number of those who write STaM are not even religious.13

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Painstaking examination of a Mezuzah

The Inspection of the Product

The Ideal

A Mezuzah has 713 letters, the Tefillin 3,188.14 Every letter has a number of laws pertaining to its form.15 In order for a Mezuzah to be written in accordance with all of the laws, it must thus meet thousands of requirements.16 If even one of the 713 letters in a Mezuzah is missing or shaped incorrectly, the Mezuzah is rendered invalid, the Mitzvah is unfulfilled, and the b'racha recited over it is in vain. Even the best scribe is human and subject to error. While some errors may be corrected in accordance with Halachic decree, others cannot. STaM, even when written by the most expert of scribes, have many possibilities of being unfit. They therefore must be inspected before being purchased.

Painstaking examination of a Mezuzah.

Furthermore, STaM, like anything else subject to the ravages of time and elements, deteriorate. It behooves us then to inspect our STaM from time to time, either for the purpose of determining their fitness or for making preventative corrections. The Halacha sets the requirements for periodic inspection of the Mezuzah at every 3½ years.17

The Reality

  1. Most people who buy Mezuzos or Tefillin neglect to have them examined upon purchase.18

  2. Most people do not have their Mezuzos checked periodically as required.

  3. In most areas of the United States and Canada there are almost no scribes available for the inspection of STaM.

What are the causes of this intolerable conflict between the ideal and the reality? Although it is difficult to point to one single cause, it is possible to describe the causes and the processes at work behind the widespread deception. Before we do this, however, it is important to be acquainted with a number of givens in the marketplace of STaM.