New York – The Tefillin Strap (Retzuos) Controversy


    New York – 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

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    1. The scenario here is obvious to all those who understand how these things work.

      Someone will find an MO Zionist Rabbi who permits these retzuos. These retzuos will then automatically and immediately become posul. The frummeh will gloat that they don’t use them, only the MO watered-down Jews use them. They will eventually become unavailable. The MO Rabbi will always be remembered as the guy who went against the gedolim. Life will go on as usual.

    2. Many types of modern paints create a thin “film” on the surface similiar to what is described here as assur. Thus, it seems than only a true leather dye would be mutar, but paints and similiar “coatings” that stay on the surface of the leather rather than chemically changing the surface texture and color of the leather are assur.

    3. Guys, let’s keep it bekavodika and try to focus on the issue Rabbi Hoffman has brought up. I don’t understand why a kol koreh should not be made – isn’t there a safek whether we are all yotzei? Especially since Dayan Roth has assured it! Anyone know an answer?

    4. “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.”
      So the most popular tefillin straps are produced in Ukraine? Could they not find a less antisemitic country to make your holy straps? Is the world running out of leather that they need to go to Ukraine where antisemitism is part of yearly political elections.

      • “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.”
        “So the most popular tefillin straps are produced in Ukraine? Could they not find a less antisemitic country to make your holy straps? “
        Lately I have seen in Crown Heights (Brooklyn NY) retzuos for sale manufactured in New York by a Chabad chossid, without this problem and with many hiddurim/enhancements, such as “avodas yad” and chrome-free (people with allergies can relate to this).

    5. If it’s a “dye that turns into a plastic film later” then the retzuos should be black even after the film is peeled off.

      Also, the proof from tbe mishnah brurah not saying the batim are posul because aren’t black is unconvincing for another reason: batim aren’t posul if they’re not black. Retzuos shechoros is halacha lemoshe misinai, but batim shechoros is just beauty for the tefillin.

    6. Beautiful well written article. About 2 yrs ago I changed the retzuos of both my Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam tefilin. Last year I noticed some peeling of my Shel Rosh of my Rashi and 6 months later the same thing on the Shel Rosh of the Rabbinu Tam. It kept on peeling more and more leaving a very sticky residue underneath. The color still seemed to be black but little pieces of lint would constantly stick to it. I finally brought it back to the Sofer and he told me he was getting some complaints and it was due to a “bad batch” from the mfg. He offered to change them free of charge and said he wstopped getting from this “very reputable” supplier and was now getting from someone else. I guess I will have to find out from my Rov (or the Sofer) if I need to change the retzuos of the Shel Yad which at present are not peeling at all.
      (BTW, not to nitpick, there is no such word as “entrepenuring” it’s “enterprising” and also. “unimpecable” should be “impecable”.)

    7. Can’t every “paint” chip away eventually in pieces? Does it’s “tangible substance” therefore make it a surface “coating” only vs paint?

      I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the chevrah who produce the new improved totally black retzuos (all the way through till the back) who did not achieve their goal of gedolim recommending their use, are the ones who started this tumult! 😉

      • I’ve done a little leather work. A lot depends on the stain, dye or paint, the leather, the conditions under which the work is done and pure random stuff. I’ve seen the same dye take and flake off. And yes, many supposedly permanent ones do wear off eventually. It’s not as if it penetrates all the way through.

      • The so called “chevrah” that produces the all black (avodas yad) retzuos is basically all the retzuos makers. (I can think of at least 6 in Israel offhand.) and under a number of hechsherim, including the Edah, Rav Landau and Rav Klein. They produce the all black and regular retzuos so it’s not as if they have an agenda to hurt the makers of regular retzuos since they themselves make/sell them and are happy to sell either type. (The slight additional cost for the all black retzuos is to cover the additional cost/time.)

        As an aside, among avodas yad retzuos, the all black ones seem to be far more popular than the regular retzuos, primarily because there is no longer a need to worry that ones retzuos (and hence tefillin) are bedieved of passul due to lack of paint, which oftentimes goes unnoticed.

    8. As a close talmid of Rav Friedlander for almost 24 years, I met with him yesterday and again today to get clarification on this matter. The Edah, including the av beis din, Rav Shternbuch, paskened yesterday on this matter. Rabbi Akiva Oppen is expected to publicize the psak after consultation with Rav Friedlander so I will leave him to be the mouthpiece to present the official response, particularly since I am in Israel and the issue primarily seems to be with retzuos that the maker sold to sources in New York.

    9. I do feel it necessary to make a few points.
      1) Rav Friedlander was upset with those who made this matter public. He specifically asked that that it be kept quiet until the Edah could complete their investigation and come out with a ruling. Now the matter will be publicized by one who has been appointed to do so.
      2) Rav Friedlander said that even if the all black retzuos would have a problem of peeling (we are not aware that this is the case) they would still be fine as they are black underneath and there is no question of the upper layer of paint being a chatzitza.
      3) Once the problem was brought to the makers attention, he dealt with the matter and there doesn’t seem to be any problem with what was produced after this problematic run. I am also told that the problem was likely only with one run so earlier productions are also likely fine.

    10. 4) The article mentions 2 recommended makers who produce retzuos under the Edah. While I agree that Shimborsky and Zonnenfeld (not Dunnenfeld) make excellent retzuos and have impeccable reputations, they are not the only makers who offer retzuos under the excellent supervision of the Edah. (If you want retzuos with the hechsher of the Edah then be sure to say so and not just mention the name of the maker. Some makers produce retzuos under more than 1 hechsher.) Bear in mind that there are also retzuos made under Rav Landau, whose supervision is well known to be very strict. Also note that ONLY avodas yad retzuos are made under rabbinical supervision. Machine made retzuos are made without hashgacha. This is besides the fact that many poskim consider them to be bedieved.

      5) Finally, I doubt that it would have made a difference under whose hechsher the problematic retzuos were made. The problem seems to have become apparent after the manufacture.


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