Question from Rabbi Tzvi Landau: How often should mezuzot and tefillin be checked by a sofer?
I. Mezuzot (In addition to the sources cited below, see Rabbi Abraham Amsalem, Sefer Mezuzah K’hilkhatah, Jerusalem, 1999, pp. 96-99; Rabbi Hayyim David Halevi, Mayyim Hayyim, Tel Aviv, 1991, No. 52).
1. Twice every seven years
Regarding mezuzot, the answer is simple. We have learned in Yoma 11a: “Tanya [it was taught in a beraita]: the mezuzah of an individual is checked twice in a shemitah [=every 3.5 years], and that of the public – twice in a Jubilee [=every 25 years]”. Rashi explains (ibid.) that a mezuzah is checked “lest it rotted or was stolen”. He also explains that a public mezuzah refers to a mezuzah at the entrance to a city or a courtyard. It is only checked twice in fifty years because we do not want to make too many demands on the public: everyone will say that his friend should take care of it! This Beraita was codified by Maimonides (Mezuzah5:9), by the Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 291:1) and by later codes of Jewish law such as Yosef Ometz by Rabbi Yosef Yuspeh Hahn (parag. 477).
2. Once a year
There is, however, a late custom which developed in Eastern Europe that pious Jews check their mezuzot and tefillin once a year during the month of Elul as part of the process of teshuvah. It was quoted as a “good custom” by Rabbi Efraim Zalman Margaliot (d. 1820) in his Mateh Efraim 581:10 and was then copied by Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried (1804-1886) in his Kitzur Shulhan Arukh 128:3. It is supported in our day by Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef in his Yehaveh Da”at, Vol. 1, No. 49 (and cf. the summary by his son Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, Sova Semahot, Vol. 1, Jerusalem, 1998, p. 364).
Rabbi Yehiel Michal Epstein (d. 1908) in his Arukh Hashulhan (Yoreh Deah 291:1) cites Rashi quoted above that we check the mezuzah lest it has rotted or was stolen. “Therefore, a place that is damp as is common in our country [= Russia ] should be checked on a regular basis at least once a year and so is my custom”.
Therefore, according to Jewish law, a private mezuzah should be checked once every three-and-a-half years and a public mezuzah once every 25 years to see if it has been damaged by dampness or stolen. There is a nineteenth-century custom to do so once a year, but this is certainly not obligatory.
This is a more complicated topic. Indeed, there are at least six opinions as to how often tefillin should be checked.
1. Once a year
We have learned in the Mekhilta D’pischa (ca. 200 c.e.; Parashah 17, ed. Horovitz-Rabin, p. 69 and cf. the parallels cited there):
“[You shall keep this institution at its set time] from year to year” (Exodus 13:10) teaches that a person needs to check his tefillin once every twelve months. It says here “From year to year” and it says there (Leviticus 25:29) “[his house] may be redeemed until a year has elapsed since its sale” – just as there it means at least twelve months, here too it means at least twelve months – so says Bet Hillel…
Rabbi Judah the Prince concurred in the Talmud Yerushalmi (Eruvin,Chapter 10, fol. 26a): “It has been taught: Tefillin, one must check them once every twelve months – these are the words of Rebbe”.
In the middle ages, Rabbi Aaron Hacohen of Lunel (ca. 1300) reports (Orhot Hayyim, Hilkhot Tefillin, paragraph 29): “And I heard that so was the custom of the Sages of France to check them once a year”.
Finally, we have already seen the Eastern European custom of checking tefillin once a year, though for a different reason.
2. Tefillin do not need to be checked at all.
The Mekhilta (ibid.) continues: “Bet Shamai says: he does not need to check them ever. Shamai the Elder says: These are the tefillin of my mother’s father”.
The Yerushalmi (ibid.) also quotes Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, Rabbi Judah the Prince’s father: “They do not need to be checked.Hillel the Elder says: these are the tefillin of my mother’s father”.
In other words, the Mekhilta and the Yerushalmi had different traditions as to the teachings of Shammai the Elder and Hillel the Elder on this topic (Regarding these variants readings, see the notes in the Horowitz-Rabin edition of the Mekhilta; Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef quoted above; and Rabbi Ya’akov Ettlinger, Responsa Binyan Tziyon Hahadashot, Vilna, 1874, No. 39).
In any case, Maimonides followed this latter opinion (Hilkhot Tefillin 2:11). He rules that if a person writes his own tefillin or buys them from an expert or from another person and checked them “he never needs to check them again… as long as their casing is complete, they have the hazakah [of being kosher]… Hillel the Elder used to say: these are the tefillin of my mother’s father”. Rabbi Moshe of Coucy (Semag, Positive Commandments, No. 22, fol. 106a) copied the Rambam with a few additions.
This ruling was also followed by Rabbi Ya’akov ben Asher (d. ca. 1340; Tur Orah Hayyim 39): “Tefillin which have a hazakah of being kosher, do not need to be checked ever”.
Rabbeinu Yeruham of Provence and Toledo (ca. 1334; Toledot Adam V’havah 19:5, fol. 171d) concurred: “Tefillin do not need to be checked ever. This is simple. [He then quotes Shimusha Rabbah – see below] and the first opinion is the main one”.
This opinion was codified by Rabbi Yosef Karo in his Bet Yosef (to the Tur ibid.) and he wrote in his Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 39:10): “Tefillin that have a hazakah of being Kosher, do not need to be checked ever”.
Finally, a responsum of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg rules on the basis of Mishnah Mikvaot (10:2) that tefillin do not need to be checked since they are closed, while mezuzot need to be checked because they “stand at the entrance, a place of water-flow and rain, and they are liable to rot from the dampness of the wall” (Irving Agus, Teshuvot Ba’aley Hatosafot, New York, 1954, No. 77 = Yitzhak Ze’ev Kahana, Teshuvot Pesakim Uminhagim, Vol. 1, Jerusalem, 1957, pp. 50-51).
3. Twice every seven years
It is clear that the rabbis who state this opinion simply borrowed it from the laws of mezuzah quoted above.
This opinion is quoted by the Tur (Orah Hayyim 39) in the name of the She’iltot which was written by R. Aha of Shibha ca. 750 c.e. However, the Bet Yosef (ibid.) says that it shouldbe in the She’iltot to Parashat Bo – but it is not (see She’iltot, Bo, ed. Mirsky, Nos. 47-48). Therefore, U’ba’she’iltot in the Tur is probably a scribal error for U’b’shimusha Rabbah which was abbreviated as “ U’b’sh’ ” and a scribe thought that it was referring to the She’iltot which is much more well-known than Shimusha Rabbah. The latter work was written in Babylon in the Geonic period (See Simhah Assaf, Tekufat Hage’onim V’sifrutah, Jerusalem , 1955, p. 209 and Ya’akov Gartner, Gilguley Minhag B’olam Hahalakhah, Jerusalem, 1995, p. 141, note 38) and it says what the Tur attributes to the She’iltot: “And one must check them twice every seven years”. The Tur must have seen the book itself or saw it quoted by his father the Rosh or by the Tosafists. (See Shimusha Rabbah at the end of the tractate of Menahot, ed. Vilna, fol. 123c; also quoted by the Rosh, ibid., 123a; Rabbeinu Yeruham quoted above; Tosafot to Menahot 43a, s.v. Tefillin at the end; and the Bet Yosef to Orah Hayyim 39).
The Rosh adds that there seems to be support for this opinion from mezuzah (Yoma 11a), but they are not comparable, because we check mezuzot every 3.5 years lest the parchment is ruined or faded “and we need to worry more about a mezuzah because of the dampness of its place and the water-flow and rain”. In other words, as Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg stated above, a mezuzah should be checked every 3.5 years because it is exposed to the elements. Tefillin do not need to be checked, because they are not.
Rav Amram Gaon (d. 875) wrote a brief responsum on our topic which is quoted in six different books (Shaarey Teshuvah with Iyey Hayam, Livorno, 1869, No. 153, fol. 60b = ed. Leiter, Pittsburgh, 1946, No. 153, p. 16 (Rav Amram); H. M. Horvitz, Bet Nekhot Hahalakhot oh Toratan Shel Rishonim, Frankfurt am Main, 1882, p. 46, end of No. 1 (anonymous); Yoel Hacohen Muller, Halakhot Pesukot min Hageonim, Krakau, 1893, No. 62, pp. 38-39 (anonymous); Orhot Hayyim, Part 1, Florence, 1750, Hilkhot Tefillin, paragraph 29 (teshuvat hage’onim); Sefer Ha’eshkol, ed. Auerbach, Part 2, Halberstadt, 1868, p. 92 (paraphrase in the name of Rav Amram); Tur Orah Hayyim 39 (abbreviated and inaccurate version in name of Rav Amram). I have quoted from Muller’s version which is the most accurate). He makes two main points. His second point is that “if he only wears his tefillin occasionally, they definitely need checking, and so we heard from Sages and Elders who heard from their Rabbis: twice in every seven years which is a shemitah”. R. Yosef Karo also quotes this latter approach in his Shulhan Arukh (Orah Hayyim 39:1).
Rabbi Hayyim Benveniste (Turkey, 1603-1673, Knesset Hagedolah, Orah Hayyim39) quotes a gloss to Bet Yosef: “a number of tefillin have already been checked and found to be unfit because of sweat which ruins the letters, therefore, it is appropriate to take into consideration the words of the geonim [and to check tefillin twice every seven years]”. His opinion was then followed by Rabbi Abraham Gumbiner (Poland , 1637-1683, Magen Avraham to Orah Hayyim 39, subparagraph 14).
4. If he wears the tefillin regularly, they do not need to be checked even after forty or fifty years.
This is the opinion expressed in the first half of Rav Amram Gaon’s teshuvah: “And a person who wears his tefillin regularly, even for forty or fifty years they do not need checking, because he wears them regularly, the air rules them and they do not rot inside”.
It is worth emphasizing that Rav Amram does not quote the Mekhilta or the Yerushalmi (see above) which support his approach. This is because the earlier Geonim in Babylon only made sporadic use of the Tannaitic midrashim and they did not use the Yerushalmi at all (See Robert Brody, The Geonim of Babylonia and the Shaping of Medieval Jewish Culture, New Haven and London, 1998, pp. 166-169).
5. If there is no expert available, he should not check his tefillin.
Orhot Hayyim (ad loc.) also quotes a responsum by Rav Yosef Gaon (Pumbedita, early ninth century): “In a place where there is no one who knows how to sew tefillin and to check them and the tefillin there are old, he should put them on without checking, since they cannot be checked or made. And even though he is not doing the mitzvah in its proper fashion (k’tiknah), there is [still] the reward of [wearing] tefillin”. This opinion is also quoted by the Rema (Orah Hayyim 39:10).
This is a very pragmatic approach which says that if no sofer is available, checking is not required.
6. “At some time”
Rabbi Yehiel Michal Epstein (Arukh Hashulhan Orah Hayyim 39:6) quotes the Shulhan Arukh and adds: “And know that this is the law. But in our time, it is well-known that our ink after a few years peels off the parchments and therefore, now it seems to me that, according to law, one has to check them at some time (b’eizeh z’man) and so one should do”. This approach has no textual basis nor does Rabbi Epstein explain what he means by “at some time”.
In conclusion, the simple law follows Bet Hillel and Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel as quoted in the Yerushalmi, that tefillin purchased from a reliable sofer do not need to be checked at all (paragraphs 2 and 4). A person who wants to be a scrupulous or is worried about dampness, can follow the other tannaitic opinion and check his tefillin once a year (paragraph 1). The third opinion – once every 3.5 years – is simply borrowed from the mezuzah but has no early textual support (paragraph 3). If tefillin have not been used for a long period of time, they should be checked (Rav Amram in paragraph 4). If a person lives in a city where there is no sofer, he is not required to check his tefillin (paragraph 5).
However, in our day, the main challenge is not to check tefillin but rather to convince Jews to wear tefillin every day since it is one of our most basic mitzvot. As we read in the Shema three times a day (Deut. 6:8): “You shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they should be for frontlets between your eyes”. “And this shall be a sign upon your hand and a reminder between your eyes in order that God’s Torah shall be in your mouth, that with a mighty hand God took you out of Egypt” (Exodus 13:9). Ken yehi ratzon!
29 Marheshvan 5769
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David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.