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BARGAIN BASEMENT MEZUZOS OR WORTHLESS MEZUZOS? (Part 2 of 2)

As a result of the inspiration generated a little over one-and-a-half years ago by the commemoration of the fifty-year anniversary of the Rebbe launching the Tefillin Campaign, many bachurim and married men stepped up their involvement in the Rebbe’s mivtzaim, as part of their efforts to prepare the world to greet Moshiach. * That increase in activity led to a marked rise in the sale of tefillin and mezuzos, especially those categorized as “mivtzaim mezuzos” and “tefillin for mivtzaim.” * Beis Moshiach undertook an investigation (published in Hebrew at the time) and uncovered many serious failings in the field of “Stam” (Sifrei Torah, Tefillin and Mezuzos) products, particularly regarding low-cost mezuzos. * Sofrim, dealers in religious articles, shluchim and rabbis, spoke to Beis Moshiach about pasul (invalid) mezuzos being passed off as kosher and unscrupulous dealings in the field of Stam. * They also offered tips to us, the customers, as to how to avoid buying a pasul mezuza, and what we can do to stem the tide.

MERCHANTS WHO DON’T KNOW THE SCRIBES

When I got involved in the details and investigated how the Stam market works, I learned that there isn’t a problem; there is a catastrophe!

Let’s imagine that we managed to convince a mekurav of ours, who is opening a new factory next week, to put up mezuzos on the doors of the factory. That’s about a hundred doors. In an attempt to minimize the costs as much as possible, we go to a mezuza seller and ask for a hundred mezuzos, the cheapest kind. We know the seller and rely on him. But when talking about such large quantities, from one day to the next, he can’t supply a hundred mezuzos.

He goes to a bigger merchant and orders a hundred mezuzos. The big merchants in the market work with large quantities. You want a hundred mezuzos, k’sav Arizal? Fine. You’ll have them tomorrow morning.

Our seller, the one we rely on, relies on a bigger guy. He has no idea who the sofrim are who write mezuzos for the big merchant. He can only quickly check the mezuzos (more on that later) and ensure that there are no missing or extra letters. Can he know whether the mezuzos were written l’sheim k’dushas mezuza? Can he know if they were written in order? No!

“I don’t want to cast aspersions on merchants,” said one mezuza seller. “After all, I am one of them. There are definitely G-d fearing merchants who buy mezuzos only from sofrim who learned the halachos well and who have a k’sav kabbala, and they also know them personally as G-d fearing people. But these merchants cannot sell mezuzos at sale prices.

“When I first started out as a merchant, I would also work with the broader public who mainly purchase cheap mezuzos. But after I personally witnessed many problems in this area, I stopped selling cheap mezuzos. These days, I only sell to Anash who are willing to pay 200 shekels and up for a mezuza mehuderes that is written by a G-d fearing sofer that I know personally.”

CUTTING CORNERS WITH CHEAP MEZUZOS

One of the rabbanim we spoke with during this research project, who personally checked things out and was shaken up by the results, told us about another problematic point which applies mainly to cheap mezuzos:

“First, unlike what many think, that the big money is made by selling mezuzos mehudaros, the truth is that the big money is in the cheap mezuzos. This is because the scope of the market is so big that even a profit of twenty shekels per mezuza adds up to a profit of thousands of sh’kalim in the sale of hundreds of mezuzos a day.

“Merchants who want to earn quick money, focus on the market for cheap mezuzos. Like every product on the market, in order to lower the costs, they cut corners. The problem is that when you’re talking about Stam, cutting corners is at the expense of halacha and sometimes people are buying items that are outright pasul. So if we want to buy a cheap mezuza, there is a high likelihood that we will get a mezuza that is pasul.

“Where are corners cut? First, in the taggim. Whoever looks at a mezuza or Torah scroll immediately notices that certain letters are somewhat different; some have crowns. The source for this is explicit in the Gemara Menachos 29, “…When Moshe ascended above, he found Hashem sitting and tying crowns on to letters.” According to halacha, the letters shin, ayin, tes, nun, zayin, gimmel, and tzaddik (whose acronym is shatnez getz) get three thin lines on them with a little circle (which look like crowns). There are additional letters that are customarily adorned with crowns l’chat’chilla, but the letters of shatnez getz are a halachic obligation.

“Adding the crowns while writing is a relatively lengthy process. Since the merchants want the sofrim to finish writing a mezuza quickly, they ask them to write without crowns. Then they bring the mezuza to someone who adds the crowns. The problem is that when the latter works for many hours in a row, it often happens that he misses some. Most of the cheap mezuzos are missing crowns which makes them halachically questionable.”

EVERYONE RELIES ON EVERYONE ELSE

Corners are also cut at the next stop, the checker. In order that the mezuza be checked properly, you need a G-d fearing checker who learned the halachos of Stam very well and who patiently reviews each mezuza. A checker like this will check only a few mezuzos an hour.

Merchants who want to lower the costs of checking will use people who did not learn the halachos, and they will urge them to check quickly. Thousands of mezuzos reach the market without proper checking and often, these mezuzos are pasul mid’Oraisa.

Many merchants pay a checker per mezuza. Unbelievably, the average price that a checker gets for a mezuza is four shekels (one dollar and nine cents)! A checker who wants to go home with 50-60 shekels an hour, cannot designate more than four to five minutes per mezuza!

If the sofrim would really put their all into these mezuzos, then maybe it would be possible to check a mezuza in five minutes, but the mezuza market has created a situation in which the sofer writes wholesale for the merchant and so he writes quickly, with a not quite professional script, and without checking what he did. He actually relies on the checker. The merchant claims that he also relies on the checker, but when the checker gets dozens of mezuzos that are of poor quality, so that each one requires at least ten minutes to make them at least kosher b’dieved, how many can he supply?

Of course, not all merchants do this and there are G-d fearing merchants who are not willing to sell cheap mezuzos. They also pay their checkers by the hour and not by the mezuza. This way, they can be sure that the checker is doing his utmost so the mezuza will undergo the best possible checking and if fixing is needed, he will put all his time into that.

WHAT IS THE SOLUTION?

If you think that the solution is to stop buying from Stam merchants, you are not necessarily correct. In a conversation with a Stam merchant, he explained that this approach is practical only when you want to buy small amounts of mezuzos. But when it’s a shliach, who wants dozens or hundreds of mezuzos, a sofer who he personally knows will not be able to supply him with so many, surely not from one day to the next.

Most people don’t personally know sofrim, and they have no idea how critical is the yiras Shamayim of the sofrim. For example, a person knows a sofer from shul and the sofer makes a good impression on him. If he investigated a bit he would discover that the sofer’s wife does not dress modestly. Is a sofer whose home has an atmosphere of pritzus considered G-d fearing?

If you go to a G-d fearing merchant, specifically one who is knowledgeable in the field, he can recommend to a customer that he buy mezuzos from this or that sofer who are up to standard as far as all of the halachic requirements.

Parenthetically, some think that when they buy directly from the sofer they will get it cheaper, because there is no middleman. But this is not necessarily the case, because when a sofer sells many mezuzos to a merchant, he agrees to sell at a lower price, as he is selling in bulk, whereas when a private customer comes to buy one mezuza, the sofer will ask him for full price.

ASK FOR THE SOFER’S NAME AND HIS K’SAV KABBALA

G’dolei Yisroel in previous generations, who identified this problem long ago, declared that it is forbidden to buy Stam products from a sofer who did not receive ordination for safrus, which is called a k’sav kabbala.

The Chasam Sofer in his introduction to his work Kesses HaSofer (on the laws of Stam) wrote, “Don’t give permission and a k’sav kabbala to any sofer except for one who is proficient in his knowledge of this book, and a sofer who is not proficient should be invalidated from his craft …” Rabbi Chaim Palagi (in his T’nufas Chaim) writes, “Without semicha, his hands will be forbidden from writing even one letter in a Torah.” Similarly, Rav Wosner a”h declared that “It is forbidden for a sofer to write without a k’sav kabbala.” He also paskened that “a k’sav kabbala that is three years old is deemed to be expired.”

When a sofer has a k’sav kabbala from a known and reliable institute, we can be assured that he learned the halachos of Stam properly. In order to get a certificate, a sofer has to study for many months and the test takes hours and encompasses both the theoretical and the practical aspects of the craft.

Obviously, there is no 100% certainty regarding a sofer’s yiras Shamayim, which is in the domain of the heart, but usually, Stam institutes do not issue a k’sav kabbala solely based on the exam results but also check out the yiras Shamayim of the sofer to the best of their ability.

If we want to ascertain whether we bought kosher l’mehadrin tefillin or mezuzos, we need to ask the merchant: 1) who wrote the tefillin or mezuzos and does he know the sofer personally as a yerei Shamayim, and 2) does the sofer have a current k’sav kabbala. If the merchant does not know the sofer or does not know whether he has a k’sav kabbala, you may not buy Stam from him. If you buy Stam from him, you are gambling with your money.

In the modern world, customers have enormous power. If Stam merchants knew that people would not buy products from them without knowing who the sofer is, or without knowing whether they have a k’sav kabbala, they would have no choice but to stop working with dubious sources and market only those Stam products that come from G-d fearing sofrim with a k’sav kabbala.

The same goes for those who approach a sofer directly. You need to ask three questions: 1) Can the parshiyos be given for checking to an outside checker, 2) do you have a current k’sav kabbala, and 3) which rabbi can attest to your yiras Shamayim?

Obviously, all of these prerequisites will affect the cost, which will definitely be higher, but when you appreciate the importance of tefillin and mezuzos in the life of a Jew, both spiritually and materially, as we know that defects in tefillin and mezuzos cause defects in health, parnasa, etc., there is no question that it’s worth paying more, even hundreds of dollars more, in order to get outstanding tefillin and mezuzos.

The Pri Megadim writes that a sofer who produced (and sold) non-kosher tefillin, is worse than a shochet who released a treifa for sale! For those who eat the treifa, are transgressing a prohibition one time, while those who put on tefillin that are pasul lose out on a positive mitzva every day and are also transgressing every day the prohibition of saying a bracha in vain!

SYSTEM-WIDE SOLUTION: BOYCOTT CHEAP MEZUZOS

In an interview that Rabbi Yisroel Yud, director of the Machon Pe’er in B’nei Brak, gave Beis Moshiach some time ago, he said that the Rebbe’s tefillin and mezuza campaigns heightened awareness about the kashrus of Stam. He said that until then “the issue was in disarray. People relied, with eyes closed, on the sofrim and did not check things out. People thought all was well and preferred not to get too involved. When the Rebbe started to agitate about this business, everything changed.

“Awareness grew. People began demanding sofrim on a professional level and began making inquiries about sofrim. The public was more alert, and mainly, people began understanding that there is a connection between various problems and a p’sul in their tefillin or mezuzos. In this too, the Rebbe is the ‘Nachshon ben Aminadav’ of our generation.”

In those years, the breaches were far more severe and the Rebbe warned against them sharply. In a letter from 10 Elul 5715 to Rabbi Shlomo Yosef Zevin, he writes about the outrage over “thousands of mezuzos and apparently tefillin too that are photocopied on paper etc.” that come from Eretz Yisroel “under the slogan of promoting [the mitzva of] settling the land.”

And in a letter from 20 Cheshvan 5717, the Rebbe writes, “Obviously, checking tefillin includes parshiyos, battim and retzuos … there were a number of times in such situations that they informed me from Eretz Yisroel about giving tefillin to be checked to one sofer who ruled them kosher and then another sofer after him discovered a missing letter and the like. That is a p’sul according to all opinions.”

As far as the serious problems that we came across in this investigation, the ones who can have a dramatic influence on the market are specifically the shluchim of the Rebbe, since they naturally purchase large amounts from the Stam dealers. If they would insist on the standards that we mentioned, and in addition would simply boycott the cheap mezuzos, they would affect real change in the Stam market.

OUTRIGHT SCAMS IN THE MEZUZOS MARKET

Over the years, numerous investigations have been published about the major frauds in the field of Stam products, but most of them deal with outright counterfeiting operations, such as silk printing, or the case of the dealer who hired a group of Chinese graphic artists to write mezuzos for him, or the Arab female students of a school for graphics who wrote mezuzos and a dealer brought them to market.

These forgeries are not something one would encounter among the dealers that we know. The phenomenon that we are warning about in this report tends to be seen as less serious, and to some extent or another, even the dealers that we buy from are likely to get tripped up.

That is why our awareness as customers of the problematic issues is so important, especially the understanding that we are not simply talking about a lesser standard of hiddur, but in many cases we are dealing with mezuzos that are absolutely pasul, and we must therefore tackle this matter head-on.

RAISING THE STANDARDS WITH TECHNOLOGY

Over the years, the Rebbe very much heightened awareness about the need for checking tefillin and mezuzos. While other groups only check their mezuzos twice in seven years and rarely check tefillin, Chabad Chassidim often follow the custom to check them every Elul.

This annual check offers an opportunity for the customer to actually see the quality of what they bought. But most people bring their mezuzos or tefillin to the sofer, without their seeing what their parshiyos look like, whether the writing is mehudar or kosher b’dieved.

This will, hopefully, be changing soon. A special computer program, developed by Machon Stam in Crown Heights, and which is being marketed to other Stam institutes around the world, makes the process completely transparent. It forwards to the customer a picture of the parshiyos, along with exact details as to the level of the writing, which letters need fixing, and in a case where it ruled invalid, there is an explanation of the problem that led the checker to conclude that it is pasul.

Machon Stam has been using the program for over four years now. When a customer brings in his tefillin or mezuzos, each item is assigned a code which is scanned into the program, and the customer is given a username and password which allow him to log into his account at any time and see what is happening with his tefillin or mezuzos.

At the Machon, they are pleased that, thanks to the program, customers have begun to show more interest in the type of script, the level of hiddur, and other details that they did not tend to ask about in the past, since “out of sight, out of mind.”

Undoubtedly, when sofrim and dealers will know that they are under observation by the customers, this will raise the kashrus level of Stam products, and then the unpleasant task of writing about these issues will have been worthwhile.

Reader Comments (1)

bh Boruch plz

link part one and two with a refer link

suggestion only

important article BOTH parts

take care gut shabbos
Feb 14, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMEIR WEISS

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