Misconception: Tefillin must be checked twice every seven years to ensure that they are kosher.
Fact: The halachah is that tefillin that have been checked and found to be kosher and are then used regularly are not required to be rechecked. Nonetheless, as a stringency, various customs have arisen regarding how often they should be checked.
Background: Because myriad halachot are involved in the production of sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzot, they must be made by a competent and God-fearing sofer. Despite the best efforts of the sofer, however, errors can occur. Thus, all sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzot should be independently checked before they are used. Since over time, it is possible that the ink will fade, the parchment will tear, batim will warp, et cetera, it seems prudent to periodically have tefillin inspected. The frequency of such inspections is the subject of debate in ancient sources.
Basic Halachah The Mechilta (Bo, 17) records a debate in which Beit Hillel, based on Exodus 13:10 and Leviticus 25:29, asserts that tefillin must be checked every twelve months, while Beit Shammai maintains that they never need to be checked. Some commentaries, such as the Rosh, say the opinions are reversed. A similar debate is recorded in the Yerushalmi (Eruvin 10:1; 26a), where Rebbi requires a yearly inspection and Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel says no periodic check is needed. The Mechilta and Yerushalmi each record an incident as proof of the latter opinion, but with different protagonists. The Mechilta relates that Shammai said that he used his maternal grandfather’s tefillin.1 In the Yerushalmi, it is Hillel who makes the statement about using his maternal grandfather’s tefillin.2 The Korban Ha’eidah and Pnei Moshe on the Yerushalmi explain that the point of the story is that the tefillin had not been checked since it had been used by either Hillel or Shammai’s grandfather.3
The halachic tradition through the ages has nearly unanimously followed the position of Beit Shammai and Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel. Rambam (Hilchot Tefillin 2:11) rules that as long as the batim of the tefillin are intact, the tefillin do not need to be checked. He cites the story about Hillel as found in the Yerushalmi presumably as a basis for his ruling. The Smag (Aseh 22, also citing Hillel), Rosh (last halachah in Hilchot Tefillin ) and Tur (OC 39) rule similarly. The Beit Yosef (OC 39:10) cites the Mechilta (in the name of Tosafot [Menachot 42b-43a, s.v. “tefillin”]) and the Yerushalmi, and rules that “tefillin that are known to be kosher never need to be checked” (SA, OC 39:10).
Why Check? According to ancient sources, tefillin need to be checked either on an annual basis or never; and, as stated above, the halachah was decided according to the latter. Nonetheless, the Shulchan Aruch adds that if the tefillin are not worn regularly, and thus may have been damaged over time, they do need to be checked.4 The Tur quotes this distinction in the name of Rav Amram Gaon. So too, the Orchot Chaim (Tefillin 29) quotes Teshuvot HaGeonim (possibly Rav Amram?) as ruling that tefillin worn regularly do not require checking “even after fifty years”5 (see Prisha 39:5) but those worn only sporadically need to be checked.
Regarding the frequency of this required check, the Orchot Chaim cites those who maintain that tefillin should be checked twice in seven years. The Beit Yosef (OC 39) quotes the Rosh who says that those who require a twice-in-seven-years check6 are basing their ruling on a gemara (Yoma 11a) which sets that as the frequency for checking7 one’s mezuzot.8 The Rosh notes that there is a fundamental difference between mezuzah and tefillin in that the former is exposed to the elements.
A relatively early source (the eighth-century Sheiltot, according to the Tur, and the slightly later Shimusha Rabba, according to the Rosh and Beit Yosef) advocated a twice-in-seven-years checking for all tefillin. While that position was rejected, it was adopted in instances when an inspection is required for some other reason (e.g., when tefillin are not used regularly, or when batim are punctured or fell into water9).
Because common sense plays a role here, tefillin should not only be checked if they are unused. The Mishnah Berurah (39:26) states that the basic halachah is that as long as the tefillin are sealed, they have a chazakah (i.e., there is a presumption that they are kosher, and do not need to be checked). Nonetheless, since sweat can ruin a pair (Knesset Hagedolah, OC 39; Magen Avraham 39:14), it’s a good idea to check them periodically. So too, tefillin worn on damp hair can get ruined. If the batim open or fall into water, they require an immediate inspection. If an inspection cannot take place right away, they should be worn but no berachah should be recited. The Chayei Adam (14:20) also states that an inspection is required if tefillin were left in a place with moisture, and Mishnat HaSofer (24:3) says the same about tefillin left in the sun for an extended period of time.
The nineteenth-century classic on the laws of safrut, Keset Hasofer (Rabbi Shlomo Ganzfried 24:1 [p. 145 in 1985 edition]), writes that tefillin that are known to be kosher never need to be checked. However, he adds that it is proper to check them since they can get ruined due to sweat. Rabbi Yaakov Emden (Mor U’ktziya, p. 39) rejects the possibility that sweat can penetrate the leather batim and cause damage. Yet he relates that when his tefillin were checked—only three-and-a-half years after they were previously found to be kosher—they were found to be missing a letter. He writes how impressed he is with the wisdom of the sages who required checking every three-and-a-half years.
Aruch Hashulchan (OC 39:6) quotes the Shulchan Aruch and adds that because [in his day] the quality of the ink is poor and oftentimes peels off the klaf, he suggests periodic inspections (he does not specify how often). So too, a mezuzah placed in a damp environment should be checked more frequently—at least once a year (Aruch Hashulchan, YD 291:1). Similarly, if a doorpost is painted with the mezuzah still affixed, it may have been damaged and must be checked; therefore, mezuzot should be taken down before painting takes place (Iggerot Moshe, YD 1:183; Rav Yosef Eliyahu Henkin, Eidut L’Yisrael, p. 141). Additionally, one who dreams that his tefillin are not kosher should have them checked (Mekor Chaim, cited in Chayei Moshe 39:10).
Over the last half century, it has become common for batim to be made from thicker hide than was used in previous years. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach states (Halichot Shlomo 4:36, p. 59, n. nun-bet) that because tefillin today are mehudar, and fashioned out of high-quality ink and parchment and thick leather, one should not have them checked without a specific reason.10 Inspecting tefillin requires opening the batim and then resealing them, which itself can cause problems. Because of the technical difficulties involved, the Rema (OC 39:10) rules that if there is no expert who can take the batim apart and reseal them, it is preferable to not have them checked. (Checking a mezuzah, however, is a much simpler process and can be done by anyone who can read Hebrew [Pischei Teshuvah, YD 291:3 citing Chatam Sofer, YD 283].)
Pious Customs Although tefillin do not need to be checked and mezuzot do need to be checked every three-and-a-half years, different customs have evolved. 11 Orchot Chaim (Hilchot Tefillin, p. 29) says that the sages of France had a custom to check once a year. Mateh Efraim (581:10) and the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (128:3) record a custom to check mezuzot and tefillin yearly during Elul. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, zt”l, (Yechave Da’at 1:49) cites this custom approvingly. The Chayei Adam (14:20) says that it is proper to check tefillin twice every seven years.
There is a custom to check the tefillin of a deceased individual before anyone else uses it; thus, if one buys a deceased person’s tefillin,12 he should have them checked (Misgeret Zahav, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch [Vilna, 5661] 10:8 and more recently, Yalkut HaSofer 24:1).
Conclusion Adhering to the strict letter of the law and never checking one’s tefillin could make one anxious. What if one bought kosher tefillin, never inspected them as per the halachah and now, thirty years later, finds them to be pasul? Has he not fulfilled the mitzvah since they became pasul? Has he made two berachot levatalot daily? Shu”t Rav Pa’alim (4:2) states that when one acts in accordance with halachah and his intentions are l’shem Shamayim, then, if through no fault of his own, the tefillin were found to be pasul, it is as if he performed the mitzvah.13 Similarly, the gemara (Shabbat 63a) states that if one planned on doing a mitzvah and was prevented from doing so, God considers it as if he did the mitzvah. Chayei Moshe (39:10) argues that not only should one not feel guilty about wearing pasul tefillin if he adhered to the halachah, but even the berachot levatalot are not a concern. Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halichot Shlomo 4: 59, n. 115) suggests that if one does find that one’s tefillin is pasul, he should wear tefillin a few extra minutes each day from then on and also wear them during learning.
Others disagree. The Meshech Chochmah (Shemot 13:10), for example, says that one should be extra careful about checking mezuzot (and tefillin) because even if one adhered to the halachah, if one’s tefillin or mezuzah are found to be pasul, it is not considered as if he fulfilled the mitzvah, regardless of whether he was at fault.
After taking all of the above into account, the Peri Megadim (Eishel Avraham 39:15) concludes that one who checks his tefillin often with expert scribes is praiseworthy.
Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky is on the faculty of the Brain Science Program at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
Notes 1. See Orchot Rabbeinu (Bnei Brak, 5751) p. 46, which records that the Chazon Ish, who was childless, gave his nephew his own father’s tefillin for his bar mitzvah and said that there was no need to check them, despite the fact that they had not been used in years. No explanation was given.
2. On the change of names, see Shu”t Binyan Tzion Hachadashot 39 (cited in Torah Lada’at XX; cited in parashah sheet Bo 5756). See Torah Sheleimah on Shemot 13:10, n. 131 for sources.
3. This explanation seems to fit with the story in context. Nonetheless, the well-known work on scribal laws, Baruch She’amer (by the fourteenth-century Rav Shimshon son of Rebbi Eliezar, reprinted 1970, p. 16b; in 1877 edition, p. 19b) decries the fact that many do not check their tefillin and mezuzot and end up not fulfilling the mitzvah. He advises checking tefillin regularly and reports that he personally had seen many that had become pasul.
4. Eishel Avraham (the Buchacher; OC 39) and Misgeret Zahav (10:8) say that even though in Talmudic times tefillin was worn for longer periods of time throughout the day, putting on tefillin daily certainly fulfills the requirement of airing them out. Mishnat Sofer (24:2) says any less frequent than daily wearing is considered “sporadic”; therefore, tefillin not worn daily require a periodic checkup.
5. See Ran (Megillah 5b in Rif, s.v. “v’hilchata”) that a “mezuzah is checked once every seven years, while tefillin, which are protected, are checked once in a yovel [fifty years].”
6. A frequency of “two out of seven years” appears in several additional places in rabbinic literature. These include: fixing the houses that fall in the Sharon region (Sotah 44a), refreshing the memory of families with questionable lineage (Kiddushin 71a), transmitting the accurate pronunciation of the Divine Name (Kiddushin 71a) and checking the second floor of the Holy of Holies (Pesachim 86a). The impetus may have been to link these items to the shemittah cycle. This is in addition to the items which are intrinsically linked to the shemittah cycle, such as biur and vidui ma’aser, which obviously occur twice every seven years.
7. Rashi (Yoma 11a, s.v. “nivdeket”) says there are two reasons for the inspection: to make sure it has not become pasul and to verify that it was not stolen from the case.
8. This is codified as the halachah (Rambam, Hilchot Sefer Torah U’Mezuzah 5:9; SA, YD 291:1); thus, mezuzot should be checked every three-and-a-half years (AH, YD 291:1.)
9. He includes these laws in his Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (10:26).
10. He similarly says (ibid, n. nun-bet) that a mezuzah securely placed in a glass case in the wall (as is the practice in Israel) does not require checking twice every seven years. It would seem that the same would apply to one wrapped in plastic.
11. Unlike mezuzah and tefillin, the strings of a tallit should be examined daily (Shulchan Aruch, OC 8:9). The Magen Avraham (8:11) explains that because they can easily be damaged, the assumption that they are kosher doesn’t apply. His argument is attacked by many (e.g., Gra, OC 8:9), but the halachah stands and the Taz (8:8) offers a different explanation for it (see also MB 8:22; Machatzit Hashekel 8:11; Shev Shema’tata, sha’ar 3; perek 11 and n. 52 in M’luei Shmaiyta; Shu”t Zkan Aharon [2:OC:2]).
12. On the inheritor (or anyone) selling tefillin, see MA 153:23, Biur Halachah (commenting on 153:10) and Shu”t Shevet Halevi 1:41.
13. See also Har Zvi 1:35 and Shu”t Chemdat Moshe (Rav Moshe Yaakov Beck, p. 34).