By COLlive staff
What sparked the saga?
R’ Moshe Dovid Wolf purchased 10 mezuzos from 8 different Stam vendors in Crown Heights and had them checked by R’ Binyomin Rosenbaum, a sofer in Chicago. He presented the results in a video stating that 5 vendors sold non-kosher mezuzos and 2 of them had “very poor quality mezuzos.”
What led him to conduct this research?
Wolf, who works in property management in Chicago, often assists his father Rabbi Aron Wolf with his organization “Chicago Mitzvah Campaign,” which sells Tefillin and Mezuzos to locals.
“The hope is, through this video, stores will be more careful in what they are selling to the consumer and at the same time educating customers about the sad reality of today’s mezuzah market,” the young Wolf wrote in an email to COLlive.com.
How did the Stam vendors respond?
Seven of the 8 vendors responded by inviting Wolf to a Din Torah at Vaad Rabbonei Lubavitch, the Chabad rabbinical court that is based in Crown Heights. Wolf was given 2 weeks to respond with a hearing date, where he can justify his claims.
Why are they doing that?
Because Wolf’s research specifically accused each one of them with fraud, instead of presenting the findings without identifying each store and vendor by name.
“Relying on a single unknown magia (reviewer) to do a character killing of many people and people’s livelihood is wrong,” says Rabbi Gad Sebag of Oraita, one of the vendors named in the video. “The poor choice of how to do this and the public shaming of sofrim is wrong.”
Rabbi Sebag also pointed out that Wolf’s “refusal to have a multiple neutral hagoho (review) performed of these mezuzos and then review the outcome is screaming foul.”
Did vendors respond to the actual claims?
A few of the Crown Heights Stam vendors responded that each Mezuzah they sell is carefully checked by one of their in-house magihim (reviewers) before being sold, and if one isn’t up to standard, they send it back to the merchant who got it from the sofer.
Who is the merchant?
Because of the high demand for Stam, individual sofers in Israel sell mezuzos they have written to a merchant, who then supplies them to vendors and stores in the United States. The Crown Heights vendors have in-house sofers/magihim that can make corrections when required.
Is this done with all Mezuzos?
Most mezuzos – both low-cost or expensive ones – are inspected by in-house magihim before being sold. The low-cost ones may undergo repairs as well. These are known as the “Mivtzoim Mezuzos” (which is what Wolf has purchased and presented in his research).
These Mivtzoim Mezuzos that cost under $42 are commonly purchased by Chabad Shluchim and outreach activists for Jews who don’t necessarily lead a Torah observant lifestyle but are willing to hang up a mezuzah that won’t require a costly investment on their part.
“There is a big demand for the low-cost mezuzos that (we provide) according to the Rebbe’s request that every Jew have a mezuzah,” says Rabbi Moshe Klein of Hasofer. “It is definitely better to sell a mezuzah that isn’t written beautifully but is 100% kosher than for a person to put up a piece of paper or none at all.”
What did the Rebbe say about such Mezuzos?
We aren’t aware of a direct reference (and welcome any if anyone is aware of them). Some Shluchim pointed this week to a sicha on Sukkos 5727, in which the Rebbe told a story about the Baal Shem Tov who built a Sukkah which was kosher, yet questionable, to justify the similar ones built by the simple Jews, “so that they also have a kosher Sukkah that will protect them and save them from sin.”
But Wolf’s research said those mezuzos were outright not kosher…
“It is possible. I have not inspected them. It is very difficult to accept any halachic rulings as final through this medium,” Rabbi YY (Fitz) Rabin of Yeshivas Stam in Crown Heights wrote in a public letter to students of his training program while noting he wasn’t vouching for any vendors.
“There are many questions. For example, a space in the middle of a word being “too big” and dividing the word into 2 is a highly subjective question. Very often 2 sofrim will not see it the same way.
“Or, a ‘crack’ in a letter. Was it seen with a light shining behind it or a magnifying glass in front of it? Many magihim check like that and discoveries made through these means are meaningless in halacha… It is very difficult to accept with certainty and finality “pesulim” (‘not kosher’ rulings) of these kinds, without really seeing them.”
Rabbi Sebag of Oraita says he sent Wolf’s video to magihim in the U.S. and Israel “and they were puzzled” because the video adheres to “new concepts in halacha such as she’elas tinok (asking for a child’s innocent opinion) in spacing issues… Not mentioned in Shulchon Aruch.”
“The letters Tzadik showed in the reports are not even questions (clear space between the 2 heads. Kosher lechatchila. The disconnect parts of letters that are reported as posul are not nikar l’hedya (visible enough) and therefore kosher, as is, even without repair,” he said.
He added, “As for the spacing between letters in the same word, a couple of them could have be been closer but are not posul. I do have to notice that those same issues appear in the others’ report that for some reason was kosher there.”
This now becomes a “he-said-he-said” argument. What is the solution to this?
With Stam becoming more commercialized, the industry should be regarded like any other – kosher food, nonedible kosher l’Pesach products etc. where consumers demand to see a certification on each item. In Israel, Stam comes with a hechsher from Rabbi Moshe Landa, Badatz Eida Chareidis Yerushalayim or others.
Is there a chance for a central Chabad certification for Stam?
In 5754 (1994), Crown Heights Beis Din member Rabbi Yehuda Kalmen Marlow tried instituting that (following the public guidelines that were outlined in a 5748 letter). He announced a cooporation with the Mishmeres Hastam organization in Israel to issue “certification documents” on all Mezuzos imported from Israel with a computerized tracking system that would identify who wrote it and when.
That system isn’t in place today and sadly, the Crown Heights Beis Din (Badatz) is fractured into two separate institutions. Another factor is that many will resist giving a single entity a complete monopoly over the industry. Even in Israel, there are multiple certifications available.
So what does this mean going forward?
One option is for each vendor and store to announce who is supervising their Stam and ideally, it should not be the owner himself.
Rabbi Eliezer Lipa Shapiro of the Shapiro Stam Center (“Hamafitz upstairs”) was quick to produce such a certification this week signed by Rabbi Yehuda Benchemhoun, a sofer for 35 years who was certified by Vaad Mishmereth STaM and Rabbi Yisroel Yitzchak Piekarski OBM, Rosh Yeshiva of 770.
In the letter, Rabbi Benchemhoun states that Shapiro’s Stam “are affixed with my signature to indicate that they are kosher without any doubt whatsoever, thus are worthy of being used with a Brocho.”
Rabbi Moshe Klein, owner of Hasofer which is in business for 36 years in Crown Heights, produced a similar letter from his in-house sofer and magia Rabbi Faitel Lewin.
Would that be enough?
In a statement this week, 2 out of 3 members of the Crown Heights Beis Din wrote that having the certification of an in-house sofer or magia (like Rabbi Benchemhoun) who is on the payroll of the vendors or store doesn’t suffice and that an independent sofer is needed.
“It is now possible to rely on a certificate of approval from known and authorized rabbis who have given their witness on Stam that are sold,” Rabbis Yaacov Schwei and Yosef Braun wrote.
They added, however, that, “without this, one must be careful to demand a test and proofread by an expert and G-d fearing sofer, and, of course, one who does not work for the seller.”
How do I make sure that what I’m buying is 100% kosher without question?
Mezuzos are written by people, so naturally, they are subject to human error. And even if they were 100% kosher when they were purchased, weather and conditions can affect them. That is one source of the practice during the month of Elul to send Tefillin and Mezuzos to be checked, as mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch.
Any practical tips for making sure what I buy is good?
The best option is to buy your Stam directly from the sofer who actually wrote it and that you trust. Since that isn’t always an option, here are 2 pointers:
1. Pay the price. Be ready to buy something more expensive and pay the full price that a Mitzvas Aseh from the Torah deserves. Mehudar Mezuzos can cost from $55 to $150. Crown Heights Rabbi Yosef Heller once commented that it is better to have an expensive Mezuzah on the front door, than low-cost ones all around the house.
2. Be specific about what you want and ask questions. When purchasing, ask who wrote it and say clearly that you want a mezuzah that was written k’halacha before the magia inspected it. Show the vendor that you care about what you are buying and that is is important to you.