In today’s day and age, virtually every kosher product available to the consumer comes with a hechsher. By hechsher, I mean an official and recognised rabbinical body or agency that certifies the kashrus of a product, be it a food item or a religious article. Hechsherim play a vital role in providing consumer confidence, and something branded by a reputable kashrus agency will be considered more legitimate than a similar product that does not. The agency has rigid policies and protocols in place to ensure correct standards are met, and they are independent of the manufacturer so that there is no conflict of interest.
As we have discussed on this forum previously, there is a distinct lack of official hechsherim on Sta”m products - Tefillin, Mezuzos and Sifrei Torah. Even the Vaad Mishmeres Sta”m, the oldest and most well- known rabbinic agency in the Sta”m world does not certify products. They test and ordain sofrim and magihim (examiners), offer a computer checking service (spelling errors only), and get involved in cases of major fraud such as printed Sta”m. Very little exists by way of a proper hechsher by a reputable kashrus agency for Sta”m.
The average reseller, be it retail Judaica shops, book or gift shops, online Judaica websites etc., do not usually offer Sta”m with a hechshser. Most establishments operate without any significant rabbinical oversight, and it basically boils down to the knowledge (or lack thereof) and integrity (or lack thereof) of the owner and their respective suppliers. There is very little in terms of regulation or quality control even in Israel and certainly in the diaspora.
It is true that many private sofrim and Safrus establishments provide an excellent standard of kosher Sta”m, and they will argue that a hechsher is unnecessary. However there are still unscrupulous vendors pushing the boundaries of kashrus, and lack of regulation allows them to get away with it. While reputations do play an important role - a more informed customer may know who is more reputable and who is not - many are unaware and find themselves in a virtual jungle, not knowing who to trust. An option to purchase Sta”m with a reliable hechsher with sound policies and thorough rabbinical oversight, may go a long way in improving both consumer confidence and regulating standards.
So it is therefore welcome news that, as of this year, the American-based OK Kosher Certification agency has begun giving a hechsher on Sta”m. You are now able to buy tefillin, mezuzos, megillos and Torah scrolls, sealed and packaged, bearing an official hologram with the symbol of the OK. Finally, one of the reputable, mainstream hechsherim have plucked up the courage to take on a hechsher for Sta”m.
But will this hechsher on Sta”m really work? This is not the first time one of the big kashrus agencies has become involved in certifying tefillin and mezuzos for the mass market. It has been tried several times before and they usually don't last for more than a short period of time. Things usually unravel at the first cycle of checking (Sta"m is checked very often in some circles, particularly Chabad). No system is foolproof, even the best sofrim / magihim can make mistakes. It doesn’t need to be a major error such as a spelling mistake. Even something as small as two letters slightly touching (negiya) render the product unkosher. Or it may even be something which is questionably kosher, a phenomenon which can manifest itself in hundreds of ways. Once these mistakes are found, they will be out there in the public.
The agencies quickly learn that Sta"m is very different to food and other products they certify. Most problems resulting from human error during kosher food production, are either never exposed to the consumer or are self-limiting due to the perishable nature of food. However, in Sta"m, every individual item eventually gets re-examined down the track (not once, but many times) by other independent expert examiners, (many who will not have the agencies’ interests at heart.
I know this may sound blunt - but I've been in this business long enough to know the reality. It is not a question of IF mistakes will be found. It is a question of how many, how quickly and how bad they are. Others in the industry will be looking for them. The fact that they are under a hechsher, a novelty concept, will put them under additional scrutiny. Once mistakes go public, the agency's reputation will begin to suffer, and people may even begin to question other products they certify.
This is exactly what happened about twelve years ago to the Batatz Eideh Hachareidis (one of the largest and most reputable kashrus agencies in Israel) when they began certifying Sta"m, and suddenly stopped about a year later. I spoke to one of their examiners at the time and he said they scrapped it because it caused too much "agmas nefesh" for the Eidah. (They still certify batim and retzuos, but that's not the same thing since they do not come under the same level of independent scrutiny down the track.) A few years ago the Star K also started certifying Sta”m, and again, did not manage to keep it going for more than a short while. And this is precisely the reason why the Vaad Mishmeres Sta”m, the most qualified organisation to regulate this industry, do not certify individual products.
(The only official Hechsher that I know of, that has survived long term, is the hechsher of Rabbi Landau. Rabbi Landau has a small “Lishkas Sta”m” in Bnei Brak, that sells sealed mezuzos and tefillin with a hechsher. However, they only sell very small quantities and only certify Sta”m with very high-quality writing. They are extremely selective and do not certify the typical middle and lower range of tefillin and mezuzos. As a result of this policy, they have not really penetetrated the market, nor is this hechsher viable for mass production to the mainstream.)
Unquestionably, the biggest challenge that the OK will face, is that they have chosen to certify middle and lower quality (non – mehudar) Sta”m. This is a necessary evil if they want their Hechsher to be available to the mass market, because it’s what sells most. Almost all retail establishments such as Judaica and Jewish book shops, primarily sell the more basic level of mezuzos and tefillin. It is umpteen times more difficult to certify cheaper Sta”m. They require a lot more scrutiny, repair and quality control prior to sale. Problems are much more common, and the halachic grey areas are much more challenging.
Even on higher end Sta”m, many discrepancies exist between individual sofrim even rabbis, about how to define halachic levels and minimum standards of acceptability for items to be classified as Mehudar, Kosher lechatchilah and Kosher bedieved. Discrepancies in Sta’m even with regards to broader classifications of what is kosher and what is possul are often debated between the major poskim in the field. It is more diverse than in any other area of halacha. The nature of Sta”m is that a shailo presented may never have existed before, or never exist again. It is far from an exact science and much depends on personal judgement. The OK are going to need a very solid and reputable rabbinical team to stand behind their decisions and policies. In order to gain acceptability and the trust of the public, at least one highly regarded posek in the field of Sta”m will need to be actively involved.
Most of the kashrus issues in Sta’m pertain to the technical halochos of tzuras ha’osiyos – the formation of the letters themselves. I appreciate that someone who is not a sofer or knowlegable in these laws will not be interested in how the OK will rule on some of these more contentious issues. However more commonly discussed halachic aspects, pertaining to broader matters of kashrus in Sta”m, will likely be of interest to many. It will be interesting to know what their policies will be on the following:
1. Will items being sold under the hechsher be written exclusively by sofrim with ksav kabollah (ordination / certification)? It is no secret that the majority of practising sofrim do NOT have ksav kabolla, even though in today’s day and age it is considered a basic requirement. Will the OK be indicating which Rabbonim / certifying agencies they will they accept and which will they not? On what basis will they make this decision?
2. What type of parchment will the OK allow their sofrim to write on. There are more klaf manufacturers now than ever, (with varying levels of credibility) and each sofer has his personal preference. Some have hechsherim and some do not. Which manufacturers/hechsherim will be accepted and which will not?
3. Which batim will they be using for tefillin? There are dozens of manufacturers and some of them are known to sell highly problematic merchandise (despite having a hechsher). Which hakpodos (specifications/ stringencies) will they require? For example, will they be selling rov prudos or only prudos legamri (different types of separation of the four batim compartments)? What will their position be on the debate regarding alcohol testing for cracks (as debated previously on this forum)?
4. With regards to retzuos, will they allow machine-made types for their lower end tefillin, or only hand-made? Again, which manufacturers will they approve? Will they rule in accordance with Rabbi Landau or the Badatz on the highly debated issue of how the retzuos must be painted.
5. Who will examine their Sta”m and what credentials will they require of their examiners? The Vaad Mishmeres Sta”m have a separate exam and certificate for examiners, which is more advanced than the one for ksav kabollah (certification for writing only), and requires further study and a minimum of 3 years shimush (apprenticeship) specifically for checking. (Most sofrim are not qualified examiners, nor do they need to be). Will the OK require examiners to be certified and by whom?
6. Will they allow examiners to make minor repairs and touch ups with a rapidograph (technical pen) or only a proper feather quill? If they allow the use of rapidograph, (as many poskim do), will they be against the use of the European synthetic rapidograph inks? Which inks will they allow?
As stated above, these questions represent some of the broader kashrus issues which are discussed and debated in Sta”m. However, this is really only the tip of the iceberg. As said earlier, most of the Halachic challenges in Sta”m pertain to the laws of the formation of the letters (tzuras haosiyos). They involve thousands of technical laws, and some of their nuances are heavily debated by today’s poskim. These will need to be carefully navigated by the decision makers behind the hechsher. They far surpass the scope of this article. (Perhaps another time we can explore their policies on contentious matters such as how to define kav moshuch and sofek kav moshuch and if and how they are fixable lechatchilah; What are the exact gedorim of kuba and zonov and do these laws apply to tefillin as well? Is there room for ponim chadoshos bedieved or is it considered completely unacceptable?; If there is a space of more than three yudin between two words, is it kosher lechatchilah or bedieved? For a lamed to be kosher lechatchilah, does the neck need to be 1, 1.5 or 2 times the length of its head? Etc, Etc.)
In conclusion, it must be reiterated that the success of the hechsher long term is two-fold. Firstly, their examiners must be extremely punctilious and their quality control must be stellar, because, as explained above, mistakes will be more detrimental to their hechsher than any other product they certify. Secondly, the rabbinic team who will be setting halachic policy and paskening on individual shailos much must hold a great degree of weight in order to justify the positions on the many contentious technicalities in Sta”m.
If the above two criteria are met (the second will be easier than the first) there is every good chance that the hechsher will work. Hopefully the certified products will not just be available through one or several resellers, but will be available to the mainstream consumer, at gift and Judaica shops, kosher shops, Jewish bookstores and online websites. Considering the (well-documented and much complained about) lack of regulation and ensuing widespread sale and distribution of problematic Sta”m at such establishments, this will be a fresh and much needed option available to consumers. When presented with a choice at these establishments, I hope a noteworthy percentage of people will opt to choose to buy the certified Sta”m products.