Inside a T’filin Factory in Modern Krakow

May 10, 2023 | Agnieszka Traczewska and Shai Secunda
About the author:

The photographer and film producer Agnieszka Traczewska has dedicated much of her career to documenting the renewal of Jewish religious life in Poland. In this photo essay, she portrays a factory that produces the leather used to make t’filin (phylacteries) in her native city of Krakow. Shai Secunda writes in his introduction:

The business is owned by the Sonnenfelds, a family of Jerusalem-based Gerer Ḥasidim who regularly rent the factory floor for brief stints of intense work, and employ a small, international team of Ḥasidim, along with some local Polish workers.

T’filin are remarkable pieces of religious technology that bind sacred text to physical body, and they require a high level of expertise and precision to produce. The biblical passages are painstakingly written by expert scribes on parchment made from kosher animal skins. These texts are then sealed in black leather boxes that are adorned with black leather straps, which connect the casings to the body.

One of the features of the rules governing t’filin production is that they must be the product of intentional human effort. Ideally, every component used to make t’filin must be produced expressly for that holy purpose, from the divine names in the biblical passages, which should be written with special intent, to the tanning of the leather to make the straps. Intention is, of course, a human art, so the use of machines in t’filin production can be halakhically tricky.

Indeed, the term “t’filin factory” is something of a misnomer. The Sonnenfelds and their workers strive to produce an entirely handmade product, and they avoid automation of any kind. When they feed the hides into the drum, add lye and other ingredients to treat them, and—after the tanning is complete—blacken the leather with a special, kosher dye, they declare that all these actions were undertaken “for the dedicated, holy purpose of t’filin.”

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