Here’s what you need to be aware of when purchasing your mezuzos.
You can be walking down the street of some of the most remote areas, and still see a mezuzah prominently placed on the front door. A mezuzah may be the most common denominator of Jews all over the world.
More significantly, it is an incredibly important mitzvah, one of the few that the Torah promises long life for. It also provides protection, not only for the person living in the house, but also for the house itself.
However, it is important to ensure that our mezuzos are kosher. So what should we look out for? And why do we find such a significant price difference between the levels?
Allow me to take you through the process of a mezuzah’s creation. This should give you a better idea of what you should be looking for.
The first and most important factor is whether the sofer is qualified. Asking an unqualified sofer to write a mezuzah is like visiting an unqualified doctor. Thousands of halachos must be learned and many of them are complex and would cause the mezuzah to be pasul if ignored. Unfortunately, many mezuzos are written by sofrim who have never been tested!
Next the sofer has to buy the parchment, klaf. The most mehudar klaf is typically made from the hide of a cow’s fetus. Both sides of the hide are removed and it is processed using lime and chemicals. This must be done by a religious Jew. In most cases, all the Jew does is to turn on the machine, however, klaf that is ‘hand made’ is of higher halachic quality. Either way, klaf must have a hechsher.
Traditionally, a sofer writes with a quill made from reed or the feather of a kosher bird. The best sofrim continue this practice, although some have moved over to plastic, metal or other materials due to the difficulty in making and maintaining feather or reed.
A halacha unique to tefillin and mezuzos is ‘kesidron’. That means that each letter must have its correct halachic form in order. If the sofer only realizes a mistake once he has moved on, the mezuzah is often not repairable. Therefore, a sofer must write slowly and carefully and check that each letter is correct before moving on to the next one. Moreover, it is imperative that the sofer has a Rav to ask his questions to. A sofer inevitably ends up with questions and without a Rav to ask, he is guessing.
Once the mezuzah is complete, it must be computer checked to ensure that there are no mistakes. Additionally it must be checked manually by an independent examiner. This is because the computer program is far from perfect.
When you buy a mezuzah, you must consider all of the above. The most important thing is that the mezuzah is kosher. How can you be sure?
You can either buy directly from a reputable sofer, or from a reliable merchant who both knows the sofer and has a good understanding of the halachos.
Either way, I recommend that the buyer asks the following questions:
- Does the sofer hold a valid certification?
- What hechsher is the klaf?
- Who does the sofer ask his questions to?
- Can I show this mezuzah to an independent sofer? This question is very important because a sofer with something to hide will run at this point!
One should be able to get positive answers to these questions at any price point and these confirm the kashrus, although not the quality (hiddur level). However, unfortunately, the cheaper mezuzahs are harder to trace. More often than not, no one knows who the sofer was.
It is often said that you get what you pay for, but with mezuzahs, if one letter is missing, it is completely worthless.
Moving up the price ladder, you should expect the mezuzah to be far more beautiful, as well as being written on hand made klaf. You will come across different terms, such as kosher lechatchila, mehudar and so on, but each seller of mezuzahs defines these terms differently, making things very confusing.
Here are some pictures of mezuzos. The mezuzah on the right is kosher lechatchila and may be used. In the USA, you will often pay over $100 for such a mezuzah. This is despite the fact that not every letter is exactly the same size and the spacing necessitates some overly extended ‘mems’ at the end of lines. Also, although every letter is kosher, the formation of the letters is not exactly right. Some examples of this are ‘yuds’ that are a little long, ‘vavs’ that are a little short and ‘mems’ which are not square enough.
Contrast that to my own, more mehudar mezuzah on the left. The letters are almost exactly the same size, the spacing is ideal, and the formation of the letters subscribed to the highest standards of halacha.
The cost of the mezuzah is not random. It depends on the kashrus and quality of the klaf. It reflects the time the sofer spent choosing the klaf, preparing the quill, writing slowly and carefully, bringing it to a magiah, bringing it to a Rav to ask any questions that may come up, fixing any mistakes that may be fixed, and the list goes on. That is without taking into account the fact that some mezuzos will inevitably end up pasul and unusable.
Aside from that, a skillful and more experienced sofer will produce a more aesthetically beautiful mezuzah (and therefore more mehudar) than other sofrim and will therefore charge more. More importantly, a mezuzah written beautifully, slowly and carefully has a far higher probability of being kosher.
The only real way to ascertain any meaningful information about your mezuzah is to buy from someone who knows the sofer personally.