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Caring for your Torahs, Tefillin and Mezuzahs

Sefer Torah (Torah Scroll) Maintenance Tips

Proper sefer Torah maintenance will considerably extend a Torah scroll's lifespan and will likely cost less in the long term. Do not wait until problems are found in the Torah scroll to bring in a sofer. Set up a maintenance program under the direction of a Torah scroll expert. The best way to nip problems in the bud is to have the one reading the Torah pay attention to the condition of the ink and the forms of the letters.

Letters in a sefer Torah which begin to fade and crumble should be fixed promptly. Once the entire area has been repaired, the sofer can use a protective spray in order to help prevent the sefer Torah from further fading and crumbling. The spray is likely to darken the klaf.

If a mistake or problem is found during leining (Torah reading), it should be repaired immediately or at least marked so that it can be easily located. If the mistake is found on Shabbos, the problem should be repaired or marked immediately upon the conclusion of Shabbos. One can use a bobby pin to mark a problematic letter or area on Shabbos so that it will be easy to locate after Shabbos.

Only one who is thoroughly familiar with the halachos of Stam may repair letters in a sefer Torah. One doing repairs should also know how to use a quill properly and how to make erasures without damaging the parchment.

Maintaining Regular Use
Sifrei Torah must be used or at least rolled on a regular basis to prevent ink from fading and cracking. This means that a Torah scroll should be read from regularly for the weekly reading or at least rolled to a different section on a regular basis. Using a Torah scroll exclusively for the reading of Rosh Chodesh, for example, will not suffice, even though it is used monthly. Here are a few suggested ideas:

  1. Use a different Torah scroll for each of the four weekly readings (Monday morning, Thursday morning, Shabbos morning, and Shabbos afternoon).
  2. Set up a rolling schedule for those Torah scrolls not used for the weekly readings so that they are rolled from beginning to end each year.
  3. Some shuls rotate Torah scrolls on a yearly basis. This is not the most recommended program, especially if the shul has a number of Torah scrolls in the rotation.

If the halachic level of the Torah scrolls vary, consult a rabbi if (and when) one should use the less halachically preferred Torah scrolls in a rotation program.

Proper Conditions for a Torah Scroll
Sifrei Torah should ideally be housed in an aron kodesh (ark) or at least a room in which a mild to cool temperature is maintained and the humidity is regulated to approximately 40%. Wood is an excellent insulator. There should also be openings for proper air flow. Many shuls house their sifrei Torah in a large safe due to insurance requirements or to prevent theft. In such a case, it is imperative that the recommended humidity level is maintained, that there be proper ventilation and anti humidity pellets are kept in the safe.

Proper Care of the Torah Scroll
Keep the parchment clean from foreign matter such as dust or dirt as it can affect the ink.

Care must be taken on Simchas Torah (when the yearly cycle of Torah reading is completed and celebrated) that the sifrei Torah do not become moist from sweat. Plastic can be placed between the mantle and the klaf.

The Torah reader should not put the yad (pointer) on the klaf itself. Instead he should hold the pointer slightly above the sefer Torah to prevent it from scratching the letters. One called to the Torah should not touch his tallis or the gartel (belt of the Torah) to the actual writing but to the margin at the beginning of the line.

A gartel, belt, that closes with plastic clasps or Velcro is preferred to metal clasps, which can dig into the parchment.

In order to prevent the stitches between each yeriah (section with three to six columns) from loosening or tearing, pieces of klaf approximately two by five centimeters can be glued onto the back of the sefer Torah between each yeriah, one a few centimeters from the upper edge and one a few centimeters from the lower edge.

The Torah scrolls should be rolled carefully in order not to damage the edges of the parchment. Frayed edges lead to tears. If a Torah scroll has frayed edges, have a sefer Torah expert reinforce them to prevent tearing.

In preparation for raising the sefer Torah, it should be opened so that it is centered between two yerios, in order to limit the pressure placed on the stitches.

Purchasing a Used Sefer Torah or Completing a New One
When buying a used sefer Torah, be sure that the sefer Torah is not too heavy for your congregation. Many older Torahs are heavy because of their height and/ or because the back of the parchment has a lime wash coating.

Have Torah restoration done by a true Torah expert, of which the vast majority is located in Israel. Bear in mind that older Torahs often require an extensive restoration and repair process. This makes up a very significant part of the purchase price of an older Torah. Only restoration by such experts will ensure a kosher Torah. There are a significant number of sofrim providing restoration services even though they are not properly trained for this particular expertise. Many sofrim do not realize that their skills as a sofer do not fully equip them for such work. Therefore, a lower price for an older Torah or a lower price quote for restoration may be due to the Torah not being restored appropriately and thoroughly. Needless to say, one must choose an impeccable source due to the handful of charlatans claiming to sell quality, kosher, used Torahs.

Inquire about the guarantee of kashrus prior to purchasing a used Torah or hiring restoration services.

It is highly recommended to have a used Torah computer checked.

Upon completion of the writing of a sefer Torah, it is customary to have a ceremony at which the final words are written. It is strongly recommended for the words to be completed only by a sofer or a rabbi who is experienced in writing Stam script. This will ensure that the aesthetic beauty of the writing will not be affected.

Caring for Your Tefillin

To prevent your tefillin from getting lost, mark your name, address, and telephone number on or inside your tefillin bag and on the individual tefillin cases. (Do not put labels over the air vents of the tefillin cases.) Take note of identifying marks on your batim, leather housing and retzuos, straps.

In order not to lose your tallis and tefillin when traveling, be sure to keep them in your suitcase or carry-on bag. Don't carry them separately. When taking a bus or hitching a ride, keep your tallis and tefillin bag on your lap or inside a bag or briefcase with your other things.

If one is traveling alone, he may take his tefillin into the washroom, as long as they are inside a second bag.

Do not leave your tefillin sitting out in shul or in school. If there is no locked cabinet or room available, put them away in a closed cabinet or out of sight. Similarly, if you absolutely must leave your tefillin in the car, they should be kept out of sight. An attractive tefillin bag may entice someone to break in and steal it.

Students and campers: Do not put your tefillin bag on top of your laundry bag when returning home! You will not be happy if they accidentally go into the washing machine.

Tefillin Paint
Keep tefillin paint handy, preferably in the plastic bag protecting your tefillin bag. If the bottle is made of glass, keep it in a Ziploc bag in case it shatters. (I learned the hard way.) A tefillin marker is also highly recommended. Unlike regular marker ink, it has rabbinical endorsement. The ink is jet black and will dry quickly. Furthermore, it is not glossy and it will blend well with the matte paint on batim.

Test a tefillin marker before purchase to make sure that it is not dried out. A marker has the advantages that it will not break or spill, but it will dry out and get used up more quickly than bottled tefillin paint.

Tefillin paint must be tested on a small area of the tefillin before use. A chemical reaction with the original paint may cause it to dry a light bluish-gray, which is not kosher. It may also cause the original paint of the retzuos or batim to bubble.

Shuls and yeshivos should make tefillin paint available for public use. It is a very small investment with tremendous rewards.

A word of caution: Do not use thick paint on retzuos. It is likely to crack when the retzuos are bent and then cause any original paint underneath to crack, exposing the leather and making the retzuos invalid or kosher bedieved, minimally kosher.

Protecting the Retzuos, straps
It is important to handle your retzuos gently so that the paint will not be rubbed off. Avoid rubbing the retzuos against the zipper of your tefillin bag, especially if it is metal, when you remove your tefillin from the bag or put them back in. When you open and close the shel yad, arm tefillin, case, take care not to let it scratch against the knot of the shel yad. Also, the case should not press against the knot when it is closed, since it will cause the paint to wear off. You may need to slightly enlarge the opening for the knot by trimming the case at the points where it rubs or presses against the knot.

Do not wrap your retzuos tightly around your arm or the cases. This will cause the retzuos to gradually stretch and the paint to crack.

When the retzuos are pulled through the maavarta, passageway in the batim, the edges of the top surface may be frayed or scuffed. This is not a halachic problem as long as the retzuos remain black. In order to prevent the retzuos from being scuffed or gradually worn from within the maavarta, ask the sofer to smooth out any bumps inside. [391]

If the lengths of the shel rosh, head tefillin, retzuos that hang over your body do not stay on the black side when being worn, pull them through your belt to prevent them flipping onto the unpainted side.

Protecting the Bayis Shel Rosh
For maintenance's sake, it is preferable not to rest one's tallis on the shel rosh. It will gradually cause the paint to wear off the bayis's (leather housing, singular) corners and the edges and cause them to lose their sharpness. A tallis with a silver atarah (adornment) is heavier than a plain tallis and will therefore cause the paint on the corners to wear off more quickly. If you regularly wear your tallis over your shel rosh, you must keep a close eye on its corners and edges. A black, plastic shel-yad cover can be cut out in order for the shins to be visible and placed on the shel rosh to protect it.

Those who wear a hat during shacharis (morning prayers) should try to prevent it from resting on the edges of the shel rosh.

When putting on your tefillin in the morning, it is best to hold the plastic shel rosh case upside down to minimize the chance of the bayis falling and then carefully open the bottom of the case and remove the bayis in a way that it will not rub against the case. Replace it in the same manner.

The shel rosh case should not be too tight so that it will not wear the paint off the sides and corners of the bayis. It should also not be loose enough for the bayis to move around inside. If a piece of felt lining in the case falls out, replace it right away.

If the bayis shel rosh has no glue between the compartments of the ketzitzah, upper cube, it should be kept in a snug case whenever it is not being worn to help prevent the four compartments from opening. This is likely to gradually cause the paint to wear off the edges and the shins, and the bayis will require more frequent touching up.

Protecting the Bayis Shel Yad
It is very important to always keep the inner, black shel yad cover on because it protects the bayis's paint and corners. Those who take it off when making the berachah, blessing, on tefillin should be sure to carefully put it back on afterwards. Regularly pulling your shirt or jacket sleeve over the unprotected bayis will cause the corners to wear and the paint to wear off more quickly. If your case gets lost or broken, replace it immediately.

Without an inner cover, the bayis will bounce around inside the plastic case. Use an inner cover that fits snugly and will not fall off. A piece of paper, tissue, or felt can be placed or glued into the inner cover to hold it snugly on the bayis.

The inner, black covers are available in plastic and cardboard. Choose whichever one fits your tefillin best. If they both fit equally well and you plan to leave the cover on at all times, choose the plastic because it will last longer. If you take the cover off daily to make the berachah, cardboard is preferable because it will wear away the corners and the paint less quickly.

The inner, black shel yad cover should be slightly taller [386] than the bayis so that it will not rub the corners.

General Protection of Batim
When you put on your tefillin, position yourself over your tallis and tefillin bag, which should be resting on a table. If a bayis slips from your hand, the table and bag will break the fall, preventing or reducing the damage.

Try not to handle the batim by the corners and edges.

Do not daven too close to a wall or bookcase. You may accidentally dent a corner of one of the batim.

Try not to regularly daven in a place where you will get sweaty, since sweat can cause the batim to warp.

If you perspire heavily, then:

  1. As often as necessary (perhaps one to two times weekly), spread a fine coat of Vaseline on the bottom of the batim. Allow it to absorb for a few hours, and then wipe off the excess. This prevents moisture, in this case perspiration, from soaking in and damaging the batim.
  2. Place a thick piece of paper towel in the bottom of each of the tefillin cases. This may soak up some of the sweat from the batim. Be sure to change the paper towel as often as necessary.
  3. Do not cover the bayis shel yad with your sleeve.

Never put on tefillin when your hair is damp, as this will cause the batim to gradually warp. If you shower or go to the mikveh immediately before davening, completely dry your hair before putting on your tefillin.

Never leave tefillin in direct sunlight, extreme heat or cold, rain, or a very humid room. Tefillin should not be left in a car or trunk, near a window, or on a radiator. When traveling, do not put your tefillin in a suitcase that will be put in the airplane's hold. Rather, take it on board in your carry-on luggage.

If you go directly to work or school after davening, store your tefillin either in shul or in the office or school. If you have no choice but to leave your tefillin in the car, they must be kept out of sunlight and stored in a hot-cold protective container. A special tefillin container with a Styrofoam lining is on the market.

If you are careful to don tefillin before going to shul be sure to take proper precautions to prevent the tefillin from getting wet on a rainy morning.

Position in Bag
Halachah requires that the shel yad be removed from the bag before the shel rosh. In order to facilitate this, the entire retzuah of the shel yad should be wrapped on one side of the case, making it wider than the shel rosh and automatically closer to the opening. [387]

Halachah requires that the tallis be removed from the bag before the tefillin. In order to guarantee this, the tallis should always be placed on top of the tefillin bag inside the larger tallis bag.

Mezuzah Tips

Note: The word mezuzah always refers to the scroll, and the case or cover is always referred to as such.

Every mezuzah should be wrapped in a protective wrapping before it is placed in a case. Wax paper, parchment paper, thin plastic sandwich bags, or any other porous wrap are recommended as they allow the mezuzah to breathe. Saran Wrap holds moisture in, which may cause damage to the mezuzah.

A mezuzah case that does not necessitate the mezuzah to be rolled tightly is best. This will place less stress on the writing and help prevent the ink from cracking or crumbling. Also, when there is sufficient space inside there will be less chance of the mezuzah tearing or crumpling when it is put in and taken out.

The parchment used for mezuzos should not be thick, since this will be more difficult to roll. It may have to be rolled tightly to fit into a case, putting considerable pressure on the lettering and possibly causing ink to crumble or crack prematurely.

Stone cases are not recommended.

Outdoor Mezuzos
A mezuzah affixed outdoors must be placed in a sealed plastic, metal, or specially treated wood case which opens only from the bottom with a plug or screw. This will help prevent rain from seeping in. Care should be taken to prevent water from being directed toward the case from the bottom, for example with a sprinkler.

If a mezuzah will be in direct sunlight, use a solid white or silver-colored case in order to reflect the light. Clear plastic cases are not recommended for use in direct sunlight, as the mezuzah may get burn spots or dry out and crack[390]. Dark-colored cases will get very hot and may damage the mezuzah.

Convenience in Affixing Mezuzos
Fragile Mezuzah cases, such as those made from silver, glass, ceramics and Polymer clay must be affixed with extreme care. If they are not affixed gently they may crack or break. Be sure not to tighten the screws or nails tightly as the pressure can also cause damage. It is advisable to use screws, rather than nails, to affix a mezuzah because it will be easier to take down later and there is less risk of causing damage to the case. In addition, the mezuzah case and the door frame can get damaged when removing nails.

Double-sided foam tape or a permanent bond glue may be used to affix a mezuzah case as long as the case does not have a removable back. This is an excellent option if you do not want to make holes in the door frame or will have difficulty making holes. Cellophane or masking tape should preferably not be used if the case will not be firmly affixed.

Many people dread removing and reaffixing their mezuzos and cases when it is time to have them checked. To avoid this feeling it is suggested to use cases which unscrew or unplug from the top or bottom. With these cases one only needs to remove the plug and possibly one screw to remove and reinsert the mezuzah.

If a mezuzah is stuck inside its case, carefully bang the case against another object to loosen it. Alternatively, you can remove the mezuzah by grasping the very bottom of it with a blunt tweezers, taking care not to damage the lettering. Before putting a mezuzah into its case, you may want to wrap thread around it (after it has been rolled and wrapped) and put it into the case with some dangling thread easily accessible. You can later remove the mezuzah by pulling the dangling thread. Save yourself time, effort, money, and grief by not forcing a mezuzah into its case.

In order to be certain that the Sha-dai remains facing forward inside an opaque case, the mezuzah should be rolled loosely enough so that it cannot rotate but tightly enough for it to be easily removed. Alternatively, it can be taped into place. If you use a clear case or one with a window for the Sha-dai, you will always be able to see if it is facing forward. Some mezuzah cases are made of a clear glass or plastic tube resting in a wood or metal base. The tube of this type of case often turns, causing the Sha-dai to shift. Simply twist it back into place as necessary.

Purchasing and Checking Mezuzos
It is in your best interest to purchase mezuzos well in advance, especially if the sofer you want to order from is in demand or you are ordering a large number of mezuzos. If you are buying from a retailer, place your order at least a few weeks in advance, and if you are buying directly from the sofer place your order at least a few months in advance. If you are moving to a new home, purchasing mezuzos in advance will give you one less thing to worry about as the move gets closer.

When having your mezuzos checked, it is a tremendous act of kindness to remove the mezuzos from their cases and protective wrappings before bringing them to the sofer. Otherwise, the sofer must spend precious time uncasing and unwrapping them. According to many poskim, the plastic wrapping must be put in genizah.

Label the side or bottom (not the back, where it will not be visible) of each mezuzah case with the date that the mezuzah was checked.

When taking down mezuzos for checking or painting, place each mezuzah in a separate bag and label each one with the room or doorway from which it was removed. This way each mezuzah will be returned to its proper place.

When taking down mezuzos for painting or renovations, be sure to put them in a safe place. When moving to a new home, be sure to put your mezuzos in a safe and accessible place so that you will be able to put them up without delay.

Protecting Mezuzos from Damage
If there is a possibility that paint, chemicals, or liquid will seep into the mezuzah case, the mezuzah must be removed prior to the application of the paint, chemical, or liquid to that area. If you are hiring painters, remove the mezuzos in the area yourself because the painter may paint over, lose, discard, or mistreat the mezuzah.

Do not use a spray cleaner or a wet rag to clean on or around an unsealed mezuzah case while the mezuzah is inside. Use a dry cloth instead. Also do not polish a silver mezuzah case while the mezuzah is inside.

Printed in Tefillin and Mezuzos: A sofer shows you how to choose, maintain and understand your tefilin, mezuzah and Torah scrolls by Yerachmiel Askotzky, published by Targum Press, 2003.