By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
In exploring the mystery of the peeling tefillin straps, this writer went to Israel and had meetings with tefillin strap manufacturers, workers in the dyeing plants, a chemist, visits to a few of the plants both under Eida supervision and under other supervisions, Rabbi Lubin, the head of the Stam Division in the Eida Chareidis, Reb Gershon, the Eida Chareidis mashgiach of tefillin strap production, and the poskim of the Eida Chareidis.
The seven issues that needed to be investigated are: Why are the tefillin straps peeling? Are there new processes that have been adopted that have changed the nature of tefillin strap production? What is the source and nature of the leather being used? Is the supervision of the retzuos manufacturing adequate? Are there issues of the retzuos not being produced with the proper intent of lishma? Is there possible fraud happening in some tefillin straps being misrepresented? And, finally, has the problem been corrected?
Some of the issues were clarified to this author’s satisfaction. Some of the issues still need to be investigated further and this is being worked on. We will try to address each of the issues one by one.
1. Why are the straps peeling? After being given unprecedented access to the dyeing operations themselves of those who actually had produced many of the peeling straps, this author can safely say that the issue is a quality control issue in the very complex manufacturing process. This does not mean, of course, that the tefillin straps are kosher. It is the view of the majority of poskim that they are not. To be sure, there are chemical reasons why the ink appears and acts like a laminate. But the consumer can rest assured that there is no laminate being affixed onto the leather strips, notwithstanding what the laboratories may have reported to us.
2. Are there new processes that have been adopted that have changed the nature of tefillin strap production? Yes and no. Leather dyeing in the commercial world utilizes machines. Tefillin strap production, however, according to most poskim, requires the operations to be performed by hand. The chemicals and materials that are used in the commercial world are often changed and improved, and the tefillin world must adapt, change, and tweak.
3. What is the source and nature of the leather being used? The Eida Chareidis oversees production of four tefillin strap factories: Zonnenfeld, Shimbarsky, Mandrizinsky, and Kaduri. There are no questions on any of the leathers being used in Eida factories. The system they have put in place is quite rigorous—from the supervision, down to the lab testing of ingredients at Baktochen Laboratories, and to the use of specialized chemical consultants with PhD’s.
4, Is the supervision of the retzuos manufacturing adequate? As in any area and field, there are different qualities of product and different levels of oversight and supervision. The Eida Chareidis supervision is unimpeachable and a worthy standard to emulate. The Eida has very strict rules of conflict of interest which are scrupulously adhered to. Those involved in psak, supervision, and management are extremely capable, take their jobs seriously and are yarei Shamayim. The Eida does not allow any amount of non-kosher ingredient whatsoever and accepts no leniencies of bitul whatsoever. There are some other rabbinical supervisions that are also very impressive, some with different halachic opinions in certain rulings than those of the Eida. These differences are the subject of healthy halachic debate. There are also some supervisions that are not up to par, however. The consumer should therefore use extreme caution in ascertaining who exactly manufactured the retzuos and under what supervision.
5. Are there issues of the retzuos not being produced with the proper intent of lishma? There are some supervising agencies that allow more machine use than others. The issue of koach gavrah, that the entire process must be with direct human involvement versus machine or gravity, is a serious one. There are also some fascinating halachic debates as to what must be done when certain errors need to be corrected. Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, had certain requirements, while others, ybl’t, have more lenient positions.
6. Is there possible fraud happening in some tefillin straps being misrepresented? This is a matter that is currently being investigated by a number of parties and we will be, b’ezras Hashem, reporting the findings shortly.
7. Has the problem been corrected? This question and question number six are, of course, the $64,000 question. The larger manufacturer who admitted to the quality control issue has indeed stepped up to the plate and corrected the problem, offering free replacement of the retzuos, both in Israel and the United States. The offer for replacement of the tefillin straps in the United States is a very recent development and has been facilitated in large part by the Five Towns Jewish Times. More details of this will be forthcoming. The problem is that the peeling tefillin straps are not unique to this one firm. Are there retzuos that are free of the problem? Yes. All Eida supervised retzuos are free of the problem, Retzuos supervised by Rav Landau are problem-free,; the black-on-both-sides products are problem-free, and a few others as well.
The author can be reached at Yairhoffman2@gmail.com.