There is a new controversy gradually brewing which has a number of Rabbis visibly upset at some of the Sofrim who deal in the sale of Tefillin. And the controversy does not seem to be going away. It has to do with Retzuos, the straps that bind the Tefillin to the head and to the arm.
The Talmud tells us (Menachos 35a and Shabbos 28b) that the Tefillin straps must be black and this is a law that Moshe Rabbeinu handed down to us orally, straight from the mountain of Sinai. The Tefillin may only be tied with their own type – in other words the straps must also be made of leather.
For thousands of years Tefillin straps have been produced and painted black. The black paint, after years of use will sometimes come off and people have always had some black paint handy to repaint it.
In recent times, however, a new type of Tefillin strap has emerged, apparently utilizing a different type of process to ensure that they are black. This new Tefillin has on it what appears to be a peelable film of black plastic that is on the Tefillin strap.
Those who claim that this Tefillin is not kosher are of the opinion that this is either a plastic laminate that was placed on the Tefillin and not paint, or that even if it is paint, it is peelable and not halachically considered paint. This author had posed the question to Dayan Yechezkel Roth, the Karlsburger Dayan, who tentatively answered (on Wednesday August 22nd) that the straps, as described would be definitely not kosher. However, it could be that the question was not presented as accurately as possible.
Those that say that it is permitted are claiming that it is a dye, not a plastic film. It is just a dye that turns into a plastic-looking film later. Rabbi Moshe Shoul Klein, who is the Dayan in Rav Vosner’s Bais Din in Bnei Brak issued a ruling that the Retzuos in question are definitely permitted and even those who seek mehadrin min Hamehadrin may use it. The letter was issued this past 19th of Av.
There are also those who are unsure, as yet, as to what the halachic status of these Tefillin straps are. This is the opinion of R. Akiva Oppen, the owner of Open Scrolls in Cedarhurst. He quoted a ruling from Rav Mordechai Friedlander, the Motz L’Inyanei Stam of the B’Datz and the Rav of Ramat Shlomo in Yerushalayim, as having said, “It is not clear the Beis Din has to clear the issue. Right now, it should not be announced publically that it is forbidden. He further quoted him as having said, “A Kol Koreh should not be made for this. Let the Bais Din do their job.” He stated not to publicize it yet and that he is looking into it.” Rav Friedlander is known to have been Rav Elyashiv’s right hand man when it came to the halachos of STAM.
Others who have called Rav Friedlander, however, state that his position was that it was not permissible. Many local Rabbonim have quoted this second version of Rav Friedlander’s ruling.
This author called Rav Friedlander and received the following clarification: “I said that if it was peeled off already then it is not kosher at all. However, if it was not yet peeled that is a bridge we have to cross. Rabbi Oppen’s quote of me was 100% accurate and I stand behind it completely.”
He further explained, “ Kol zman that it is on there, there is no din per se that the tzevah has to get into the ohr and not come out like a piece of plastic. Kol zman that it is intact that it is there on the ohr and the black which is on the tzevah and the black that is my dilemma. That is something that we have to wait.. If it has to be pulled off on the ohr that it has to be attached to the ohr. Once it is niklaf it is clearly forbidden. The bridge that I have to cross. I am trying to get the eida Chareidis Beis Din together to issue a ruling.”
Regardless, of the various opinions the company that produced the straps in question did issue a recall that was printed in the Israeli HaModiyah.
The local stores that have sold the new type of Tefillin strap are offering free exchanges for their customers who purchased these straps. However, in the absence of Rabbinic opinion claiming that they are, in fact, not kosher, they are not labeling it non-kosher. They are, however, no longer selling the product.
The halachic concerns regarding these Tefillin straps are as follows:
1] Is this black plastic considered to actually be dying the straps if they are so peelable? In other words, are they really black from a halachic perspective?
2] Is this considered a Chatzitzah? Is there a need for the Retzuos, the straps to be completely clear and unblocked by anything?
The Mishna Brurah (OC 32:185) cites a similar trend regarding the paint of the Tefillin housing that occurred in the late 1800’s when the Sofrim developed some sort of coating that can actually be peeled off in its entirety. In describing it he writes, “it’s form resembles black paper.” In declaring it non-kosher, the Mishna Brurah cites the Nishmas Adam (Klal 14) who forbids it.
The rationale of the Nishmas Adam is that the Tefillin box must be open to the air. He cites the Talmud in Sanhedrin (89a) backing up this view. If the coloring has significant substance to it than it would be considered a block that does not allow it to be exposed to the open air.
Rabbi Yechezkel Landau, in his Noda BiYehuda (MK OC #1) writes that even if there is substance to it, it is still permitted because since it comes to beautify it, it is considered batel to the Tefillin housing. The Mishna Brurah chooses not to rely on this view in regard to a coating that can be peeled off in its entirety, but to rely on it when the coating is still solid enough that can be chipped off one piece at a time.
Some may be tempted to try to prove from this Mishna Brurah that the new-fangled Retzuos are kosher. How so? Because the Mishna Brurah on cites the view of the Nishmas Adam to say that it is non-kosher because it is not exposed to the air. He does not bring any argument to say that it is not considered black. Others say that there are numerous distinctions between these two cases and that a proof cannot be brought from a non-statement at any rate.
Some of the people who have purchased the new straps have witnessed the black layer peeling off. Presumably, the sweat and hair oil that are on the wearers body are causing it to come apart. At any rate after the top layer comes off, a brown, undyed strap is left below.
Of late, a number of entrepreneuring individuals have started manufacturing Tefillin straps in Brazil and Thailand. It is the Ukrainian ones that have become more widespread, however.
Is there only one company that is producing problematic Retzuos? Apparently not. This author was present when a well-known philanthropist came in for new Retzuos. He had purchased them from a well-known reliable Sofer in Jerusalem – one that thousands of local people have purchased their Tefillin from.
What is the reason for the problem?
There are three major theories that insiders have been proposing, all of them involving some unfortunate tweaking to the older methods of processing. Possibility #1 is that the method of leather processing has changed from a 4 to 5 day process to an overnight process. Instead of utilizing vegetable oils in the processing the new chemicals being used are changing the absorption properties of the leather which explains the peeling. Others have explained that the manufacturers have purposefully changed the leather so that less paint will be necessary to make it black. Yet a third theory is that too much plastic has been put into the paint itself.
The Five Towns Jewish Times is in the process of sending the Tefillin paint to check for the percentage of plastic.
What will be the final disposition of these Tefillin straps?
It is this author’s view that the Eida Chareidis Beis Din will end up forbidding it and that they are, in fact, problematic.
Were those people who wore the Tefillin reciting a Bracha levatala? The Aishel Avrohom (OC 39) clearly rules that they did not. However, from now on, they should not recite a blessing over them and they should definitely wear a different pair.
Are there Tefillin straps without problems?
“Tefillin straps that are manufactured now under the supervision of the Eida Chareidis, are without problem,” remarked Rabbi Abraham Berkowitz from Five Towns Judaica. “They have a mashgiach Tmidi present during the entire process.” Rabbi Shimbarsky, who studied in the Ponevech yeshiva and Rabbi Dunnenfeld, who studied in Brisk, are two such manufacturers with an unimpeccable reputation under the Eida Chareidis.
The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org