OU Kosher initiative will oversee kashrut of mezuzahs

In a market lacking transparency, OU Kosher will partner with Israel-based nonprofit to improve mezuzah industry’s kashrut.

A STAMP-certified expert checks the text of a tefillin. Credit: Courtesy of the Orthodox Union.
A STAMP-certified expert checks the text of a tefillin. Credit: Courtesy of the Orthodox Union.

It’s a situation which, Orthodox Union rabbis say, unfortunately occurs far too often: a person invests in a number of beautiful new mezuzos at a Judaica store or from a sofer, a scribe, sparing no expense to fulfill the mitzvah—never knowing that those mezuzahs may actually be pasul (disqualified) or, at best, kosher b’dieved (barely kosher).

“People involved in checking mezuzos are finding too many mistakes at an alarming rate, to continue relying on an assumption of kashrus moving forward,” says Rabbi Ezra Sarna, director of the OU’s Halacha Initiatives department. “At the end of the day, even the stores selling the mezuzos don’t realize they may be selling something that is not up to par. To be clear, we’re talking about kashrus—not about chumras (halachic stringency) and hidurim (beautification or enhancements).”

Almost all of sifrei Torah, tefillin and mezuzahs/megillot, known by the abbrevation STa”M, circulating in the world originates in Israel, which is home to the overwhelming majority of sofrim (scribes) and magiim, experts who are trained in STa”M writing and inspection. The exponential population growth of the Orthodox community and increased engagement in religious life have generated a marked increase in demand for STa”M. This has led to a flooding of the supply market, with individuals producing and selling varying qualities of mezuzahs with limited assurance of kashrut for the consumer.

A unique STAMP certificate of authenticity accompanies each mezuzah. Credit: Courtesy of the Orthodox Union.

“There is currently insufficient oversight of the mezuzah industry,” says Sarna. “Since the general public is largely unfamiliar with the complex halachos of STa”M, there is a significant risk that the mezuzos sold on today’s market may not meet basic halachic standards.”

As many intricacies go into writing a kosher STa”M article, Sarna says the potential for mistakes is tremendous.

“Each mezuzah contains over 700 letters, and multiple components. In many cases, if even one is off, the entire mezuzah can be pasul. Moreover, even if everything appears to be correct, it could still be pasul because of the manner in which it was written. For example, as the mezuzah must be written in the original word order, if a sofer writes the word ‘Shema’ and then decides to scratch out the [Hebrew letter] ‘mem’ and redo it, the entire mezuzah would be unusable.”

Rabbi Avraham Lessin is the founder and director of STAMP, short for STa”M Project, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit funded in part by the Mayberg Foundation in Chevy Chase, Md. Launched in 2018 together with Louis and Manette Mayberg, an OU board member, STAMP aims to restore transparency and accountability to the world of STa”M through a rigorous quality-assurance process.

“I am truly grateful to the Maybergs who saw the positive change it could bring about for Klal Yisrael and were willing to take a chance on a new venture,” says Lessin, who became aware of the issues affecting mezuzos about 14 years ago, while working as a sofer and magia, a scribe and an expert in STa”M writing and inspection.

As people increasingly submitted mezuzos for him to check, Lessin repeatedly found a number of problems with the writing itself—such as spelling errors and improperly formed letters—as opposed to issues caused by natural wear and tear or heat and moisture.

“I realized that the industry had no system of checks and balances,” says Lessin. “Because of that, there were problematic articles flooding the market which had never been properly reviewed or fixed. Together with the industry’s leading rabbanim, we created an infrastructure where STa”M articles pass a quality control stage before going out to the public.”

Recognizing the seriousness of this dilemma on a communal scale, the OU is partnering with STAMP to oversee the kashrut of mezuzahs as a communal service to the North American Jewish community. OU Kosher, the world’s largest and most widely recognized international kosher-certification agency, is not only lending its extensive experience in the supervision of various processes and projects, but also its name and reputation to all mezuzahs confirmed kosher lechatchila (completely kosher) by STAMP, through the OU’s STa”M Pikuach Initiative. Accordingly, consumers can now ask for OU mezuzahs by name.

STAMP founder and director Rabbi Avraham Yechezkel Lessin. Credit: Courtesy of the Orthodox Union.

Lessin is honored to partner with the OU. “In essence, STAMP is doing for STa”M what the OU did for kosher food,” he says. “We share that common passion to bring about a kind of revolution. To collaborate with them on an organizational level is an incredible privilege. On a personal level, having their guidance and experience gives our organization a huge leg up. It’s truly a zechus to be able to work with such fantastic people who are involved l’shem shamayim.”

Sarna says that in providing pikuach for mezuzos, the OU does not expect to eliminate every mistake, only to make them rare. “The production of every mezuzah is halachically complex, labor intensive, and contains thousands of minute details that affect its kashrus,” he notes. “We will make continuous efforts to refine and improve our process based on the feedback we receive. The consumers who provide that feedback will be our partners in this.”

Under the guidance and supervision of STAMP’s rabbinic board, comprising industry experts Rabbi Chaim Sperling, Rabbi Moshe Uri Bloi, Rabbi Yaakov Zions and Rabbi Reuvain Mendlowitz, all STAMP sofrim (scribes) must pass tests confirming their knowledge of Jewish law. They must also submit character references and writing samples to compare against the mezuzahs they hand in, in order to ensure that they actually wrote them.

“Many magiim in Eretz Yisrael are remunerated per mezuzah and are incentivized to work as fast as they can,” says Lessin. “STAMP also pays magiim per mezuzah, however our thorough inspection system eliminates the concern that mezuzos may not have been carefully scrutinized. That system comprises a chain of two separate magiim who check a completed mezuzah, which is then inspected by rabbonim, examined once again by both magiim, and scanned by an AI-powered program.”

Once a mezuzah is deemed kosher lechatchila, it is packaged in a tamper-proof sleeve accompanied by a certificate of authenticity, which includes the mezuzah’s basic biography and history and contains a QR code leading to a high-quality image and additional information. The certificate also contains STAMP and OU logos.

Lest people now fear that all of their mezuzos are pasul, OU Kosher’s Chief Operating Officer Rabbi Moshe Elefant stresses that the goal of the OU is not to cause undue panic.

OU Kosher COO Rabbi Moshe Elefant. Credit: Courtesy of the Orthodox Union.

“Based on our knowledge and halachic guidance, people do not have to replace mezuzos if they don’t have any specific reason to believe they are not kosher,” he says. “However, we do believe very strongly that someone buying a mezuzah today should buy one that has an official seal of approval attached to it so that they are confident that it is kosher.”

Sarna also emphasizes that this initiative is not a profit-generating venture.

“The OU is lending its name and expertise to STAMP’s supervisory process and is not involved in buying and selling mezuzos,” he says. “We’re trying to leave the regular capital system intact while simply educating the public in order to create a demand for mezuzos with supervision, so the sofrim and mochrim (sellers) will stop at STAMP first.”

Elefant adds, “It’s not like someone at the OU devised a plan to make something that was always kosher, non-kosher. The proof is that we aren’t making any money with this initiative, nor do we wish to monopolize this space. Rabbi Lessin is our first valuable partner in this endeavor. We’re prepared to partner with any certifying group that is serious and able to do something to bring some order to this very difficult situation.”

Depending on their level of hiddur, OU-STAMP mezuzahs will range in price. While trying to keep expenses to a minimum, the added layers of review and accountability come at an increased cost.

“The reality is that if you want a mezuzah that’s authentic, trustworthy, and properly reviewed and corrected, it will have to cost a little more,” says Elefant. “This is a necessary expense. The Torah says that we must have mezuzos on our doors. Having them brings protection and the Shechinah into our homes. We should try to be sure that ours are 100% kosher.”

OU mezuzahs from Israel have started to arrive in the United States and are now available for purchase via various vendors listed on ou.org/mezuzah. As demand for the mezuzahs increases, so will the supply.

Earlier this month, OU Kosher and STAMP held an event at Baltimore’s Congregation Shomrei Emunah to introduce the STa”M Pikuach Initiative and educate consumers about STa”M’s complexities. Prominent local rabbanim were in attendance, and Va’ad HaRabbonim of Baltimore head Rabbi Yaakov Hopfer publicly endorsed the project. While he could not attend the event due to a last-minute conflict, Rabbi Moshe Heinemann, rav of the Agudath Israel of Baltimore and rabbinic administrator of the Star-K, sent a letter with divrei brachah, words of blessing.

“We want to put the power back in the hands of the public through proper education,” says Lessin. “Hopefully we will raise awareness to the point where people themselves will say, ‘We’re not willing to compromise. Unless a mezuzah is properly certified, whether by STAMP, the OU, or any other future organization, we’re not willing to buy it.’ ”

Rabbi Elefant believes that the kashrut of mezuzos is an issue that applies to all of Klal Yisrael, regardless of community. “Everybody wants to have a kosher mezuzah on their door,” he says. “That’s the only thing we’re trying to guarantee.”

To learn more about OU mezuzos and to view a list of vendors who sell them, visit https://ou.org/mezuzah. To learn more about STAMP, visit www.thestamproject.org.

CONTACT: Rabbi Ezra Sarna, director of Halacha Initiatives, Orthodox Union, (443) 285-9128, sarnae@ou.org.

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