Tefillin Retzuos, Maintenance, and Purchasing Instructions

Question #1: How are tefillin
retzuos made

Question #2: My tefillin
did not come with an “owner’s manual.” What should I do to maintain them in
good condition?

Question #3: How can I make
sure I get “quality” tefillin?


This week’s parsha has a
very indirect allusion to the mitzvah of tefillin, since it refers to
the mitzvah of zakein mamrei, the rebellious elder. The details of zakein
are rather extensive and will not be discussed in this article.
However, the example chosen for establishing a person as a zakein mamrei
is someone who declares that tefillin are supposed to contain five parshios
rather than four (Rambam, Hilchos Mamrim 4:3).

As I sent out two articles on the topic of tefillin
manufacture only weeks ago, this article will be our “wrap-up” of the topic,
and will discuss the halachos of tefillin straps, what one should
ask when purchasing them and how to maintain your tefillin in perfect “operating”

For the sake of tefillin!

Tefillin must be manufactured lishmah
– for the sake of the mitzvah. In practical terms, this means that an observant
Jew begins each process and declares that the production is for the sake of the
mitzvah of tefillin (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 32:8).

The contemporary process of tanning hide for
parchment, batim and straps is a multi-stage process, similar to the
method used to tan leather for mundane uses, such as belts, shoes and handbags.
However, as I mentioned above, the parchment, batim and straps for tefillin
must be tanned lishmah, for the sake of the mitzvah (Shulchan Aruch,
Orach Chayim
32:37 and 33:3). For this reason, it is preferable that each
step be performed, or at least begun, by an observant Jew, lishmah.
Therefore, one of the questions to be ascertained when purchasing tefillin
is to what extent an observant Jew was involved in the processing of the hide.
This issue impacts on the question of machine-made vs. handmade retzuos.

Is there a halachic preference for
handmade retzuos?

In earlier days, tanning retzuos and other
leather items involved salting the hide and then soaking it in lime wash.
Today, although both salt and lime are still used in the tanning process, most
of the tanning of retzuos is usually accomplished by the gradual,
automated adding of other chemicals to the soaking leather after the salt and
lime have been rinsed out. Thus, although many early poskim ruled that
placing the hide into the water lishmah (after the salt and lime have
been added) is sufficient to make retzuos lishmah, this may not
be true today. The hide must be processed in a way that it meets the
requirements of lishmah, which, in today’s world, probably requires that
the other chemicals were added to the water lishmah by a Torah-observant
person (Zichron Eliyahu).

Most Torah-observant Jews use hand
matzos for the seder, because of concern that machine matzos are not
considered lishmah. (I am not ruling that machine matzos are a
problem for seder use. The majority of poskim contend that they
are fine.) In all likelihood, the manufacture and painting of machine-made retzuos
has greater halachic concerns than the shaylos involved in
machine matzos, for several reasons, including the fact that the processing of retzuos
is not one continuous process, as I explained above. In addition, there are and
were halachic authorities who preferred the use of machine matzos
because they are baked much faster, and therefore might reduce the chance of
. This is not a factor in the manufacture of tefillin retzuos.
It is clearly advantageous to use handmade retzuos, and, to the best of
my knowledge, no disadvantage. When one realizes that the mitzvah of eating matzoh
is only once a year, yet most people use only hand matzos rather than
machine-made, whereas the tefillin will iy”h be worn daily for
decades, I believe the choice is obvious.

An additional question is whether lishmah
can be created by pushing the buttons that start the electric process. Although
most, but not all, halachic authorities accept that this is considered
it is easier to comprehend that this works for matzoh than
for retzuos.  The lishmah for matzoh is to make sure
it does not become chometz and therefore an observant Jew supervising the
process to make sure everything is kosher lepesach who starts the
machine’s operation lishmah is sufficient.However, germane to retzuos
and the like, the goal of tanning the leather lishmah is to create kedusha
on the leather so that it can be used for a sacred purpose. It might follow
that pushing buttons cannot be considered an act that creates kedusha.


After the tanning of the retzuos is
completed, they are painted jet-black lishmah (Mishnah Berurah

Must the side of the retzua be black?

The underside of the retzua, the part that
lies on the skin, need not be dyed at all. There is an opinion that the edges
of the retzuos must also be painted black (Keses Hasofer 23:2).
However, this opinion is not accepted in halachic practice (see, for
example, Mishnah Berurah 33:24, quoting Pri Megadim, Eishel Avraham 33:7).

Thoroughly black

Some manufacturers of tefillin retzuos
soak the entire leather in a kosher black solution, so that the entire
thickness of the strap is now black. Although I see no halachic
requirement in this additional process, there is a practical advantage that is
up to the consumer to decide. As the retzuos age, they develop cracks.
If the retzua was originally soaked in black solution, when the leather
cracks, the retzua may still be black and not require painting. However,
if the retzua is not soaked, the now-showing cracked area is light
colored and requires painting. I have found it annoying to constantly check to
see whether my retzuos are still black, and therefore, when I purchase retzuos,
I ask for those that have been soaked black to avoid this issue. (Although from
my own observation, how black the inner part of the retzua gets when
this is done varies tremendously from batch to batch, I still usually find it
worthwhile.) From a consumer perspective, I think the additional cost is
worthwhile, because it is probable that these retzuos can be used for a
longer period of time before they become so difficult to paint constantly that
one replaces them. Again, I note that this is not a halachic consideration.

How wide are my retzuos?

The retzuos should be about half an inch
wide. When purchasing new retzuos, they should be wider, so that they
remain the proper width, even after they become stretched out.

How to maintain your tefillin

What should I do to maintain my tefillin
in good, kosher condition?

Maintaining the batim and parshios
of your tefillin is fairly easy. Never leave your tefillin in
direct sunlight, in a very hot place, or inside your car during the daytime. As
much as possible, your hair should be dry while wearing your tefillin.
When going to mikvah before weekday davening, make sure to dry
your hair well before putting on your tefillin.

Protect the corners of the batim by leaving
the cover on the shel yad. (It should be noted that some poskim contend
that one should not place these covers on the shel yad while one is
wearing them, or while making the brocha. However, since most poskim
permit leaving these covers on, one may be lenient.)

Checking retzuos

It is important to check periodically that the retzuos
on one’s tefillin are still completely black and are not cracked or
faded. Although a good quality pair of tefillin should last a lifetime,
the straps on the tefillin do wear out and periodically need to be

The Mishnah Berurah, whom many people
consider the finalauthority in these areas of halacha, implies
that the entire length of the retzua must always be black (Biur
33:3 s.v. haretzuos). (There are authorities who disagree,
most notably Rav Yosef Chayim Sonnenfeld, who contends that it is adequate for
most of the retzua to be black.) Check that the retzuos are black
all the way to their tip. Be particular to check that they are black near where
the retzua is tightened daily, because at that point the paint often
rubs off. One should also check that the retzua is still wide enough
where it is tightened near the knot and that the yud of the shel yad
is touching the ketzitzah of the tefillin. If it is not, this can
be corrected by a knowledgeable sofer or a batim macher (a
trained tefillin manufacturer).

If the retzuos are no longer fully black,
blacken them with kosher tefillin paint. Everyone who wears tefillin
should have access to kosher tefillin paint or kosher tefillin

Depending on where you live, this might be an easy
item to purchase; it usually comes either as a pen-looking marker or in a small
container reminiscent of correction fluid.

Before painting the retzuos, one must state
that he is doing it lesheim kedushas tefillin. I once wrote a halachic
teshuvah (in Hebrew) in which I concluded that someone who painted the
faded parts of their retzuos, but forgot to say that they were doing it lishmah,
has not invalidated the tefillin, and they may be worn as they are.
Still, one should lechatchilah (the preferred way) be careful to say
that one is blackening them lesheim kedushas tefillin.

If someone’s retzuos are cracking in
several places, he should consider replacing them.

While checking the retzuos, check that the batim,
titura, and stitches are all perfectly square. This means that, to the
naked eye, the width and the length appear to be the same, and that there are
no dents, nicks, or projections along the sides or in the corners of the bayis.
The back corners of the batim often become rounded because of hats or taleisim
that are constantly rubbing against them.  By the way, the edges of the ma’avarta
(the part of the tefillin bayis  through which the straps (retzuos)
are inserted) do not need to be square.

If the stitch of the titura is not taut or
it loops in the middle, it is not kosher, and you should contact your batim expert.
With time or damage, the stitches often loosen or move, or the batim get
banged or nicked and are no longer properly square. Your local batim expert
has the equipment and know-how to repair them.

Know a batim macher or batim repair
expert. Every major Jewish community should have at least one person who is
trained and has the equipment to repair batim. Just as the community has
shatnez testers, a mohel, a butcher, a mikvah for dishes, sefarim
stores, and talmidei chachamim who are trained to check mezuzos,
a community must have a talmid chacham who is trained properly in the
repair of batim.

Where should I buy my tefillin?

The individual selling tefillin and tefillin
accessories (such as replacement retzuos) should be a halachically
reliable person, and preferably a talmid chacham. Furthermore, he should
be fully familiar not only with the halachos of tefillin but also
with the details of tefillin manufacture. From my personal experience,
it is not uncommon for a person selling tefillin to be extremely ehrlich
but totally unfamiliar with the halachic issues and concerns involved.
Unfortunately, many sofrim and rabbanim lack sufficient training
in the practical details of tefillin manufacture.

Where not to buy your tefillin!

I’ll share with you one frightening story of my
personal experience. I was once “tipped off” by someone about a
manufacturer of tefillin batim who was personally not observant.
Shortly thereafter, I realized that an errand would require me to be in the
same city in which this manufacturer was located. I presented myself to the
owner, who was clearly not observant, as a rabbi from America looking for a
supplier of tefillin for his congregation, but who would like to
familiarize himself with the process of how tefillin are made. One would
think that the manufacturer might be interested in the possibility of making
some sales, but, indeed, he would not even let me past his front door! When one
realizes the myriad details involved in tefillin manufacture that
require yiras shamayim, one grasps how unlikely it is that these tefillin
were kosher. We will never know how many pairs of tefillin this manufacturer
produces annually, but clearly, lots of people are, unfortunately, purchasing
these tefillin.

The price of tefillin

Considering how much time, labor
and trained skill are required to produce a kosher pair of tefillin, it
amazes me how inexpensive tefillin are. Imagine purchasing an item that
requires tens of hours of skilled, expert workmanship! What would you expect to
pay for such an item? Probably thousands of dollars! And note that one wears tefillin
every weekday of one’s life, without exception. The tefillin are
certainly hundreds of times more valuable than a top-quality suit! Remember
that a top-quality pair of tefillin should last many decades. A pair of tefillin
that costs $1,500 and lasts for sixty years is worn approximately 300 times a
year, or a total of 18,000 times. Thus, this pair of tefillin cost about
8½ cents a day. Compare this to the cost per wearing of a nice suit!

Ask for what you want

Assuming that one is purchasing tefillin
from someone familiar with the halachos and practical aspects of tefillin
manufacture, be specific as to the level of tefillin kashrus you
are seeking. If you don’t tell him that you want tefillin that are
kosher lechatchilah, you might receive tefillin that meet only
the very minimum standards of kashrus. A person who discriminately buys
food with high kashrus standards should not settle for less when
purchasing tefillin. Such a person should order “kosher mehudar
,” or “kosher tefillin with extra hiddurim.” These
descriptions may also affect other questions that we have not discussed in this
series of articles, such as the quality of the writing of the parshios
or the source of the batim.

What to ask when ordering tefillin?

When ordering a pair of tefillin,
one is entitled to ask as many questions about the tefillin as one
chooses. After all, one is making a major purchase. In addition, asking these
questions informs the seller that one wants tefillin that are
and are not simply minimally kosher.

Thus, it is perfectly acceptable
to ask whether the seller knows the sofer personally, or at least by
reputation. Why did he choose this sofer? Is the sofer licensed
by an organization that tests him periodically on the relevant halachos?
One should definitely request that the sofer be instructed to write parshios
that are kosher lemehadrin, and not simply kosher or even kosher lechatchilah.

Request that the parshios
be checked by two different examiners and also by computer. Also insist that
the examiner be instructed that the parshios should be kosher lemehadrin.
Usually, the examiners are only checking to see if the parshios are
minimally kosher.

From which manufacturer are the batim
being ordered? Why did the seller choose this batim macher? Do the
carry a hechsher? Order batim that are kosher lemehadrin.
Clarify that the batim macher cuts between the compartments of the shel
after painting to guarantee that they are properly separated.

Of course, one needs to verify
that the tefillin are set up for someone left-handed or right-handed,
and whether the ksav (the script) and the knots are for nusach
Ashkenaz, Sfard
(Chassidish) or Edot Hamizrah. Clarify, in
advance, how large the batim of the tefillin will be. If the
bar-mitzvah bochur is small, one may have a shaylah whether the tefillin
are too large to fit correctly on his arm. Clarify this issue in advance with
your tefillin seller and with your rav.

None of the items above should
cost anything additional, and therefore one should always ask for them, even if
one’s budget is limited. These questions also make your seller aware that you
are looking for tefillin that are kosher lemehadrin, just as you
shop for food that is kosher lemehadrin.

What extra items should I ask
for when ordering tefillin?

There are several other hiddurim
one can order when purchasing new tefillin. Bear in mind that each of
these items will add to the price of your tefillin and may require that
you order the tefillin more in advance.

1. Ask your rav whether you
should order tefillin that were manufactured originally perudos ad
hatefer legamrei
, literally, separated completely down to the stitch,
referring to the stitching on the top of the titura. This means that the
batim were manufactured without any glue between the compartments of the

Although all poskim agree
that it is halachically preferable to have batim that are
constructed without any glue between the compartments, there is a risk that
these batim could separate, with time, and thus, no longer be properly
square. For this reason, if the person wearing the tefillin will not be
checking periodically to ensure that his tefillin are still properly
square, it may be preferable to have the compartments glued together. This is
one of the many reasons why your rav or posek should be

If you are ordering tefillin
that are perudos ad hatefer legamrei, ask for batim that were
made originally this way, from the beginning of their manufacture. Sometimes a batim
receiving an order for “perudos ad hatefer legamrei” will
take a knife and attempt to cut through the glue that is holding the
compartments of the bayis together, in order to separate them. If
you are purchasing perudos ad hatefer legamrei, then you should ask not
to have these batim. Firstly, the cutting could damage the batim.
Secondly, if you are paying for tefillin that are mehudar, why
settle for second best? Furthermore, the batim macher may have made his batim
assuming that they will hold together with glue, and without glue in the
middle, they will quickly separate and become posul.

2. Order batim, parshios,
and retzuos that are avodas yad. Discuss with the sofer
whether the parshios should be written on extra-thin parchment.

3. Order tefillin where the
shin was pulled out by hand, and the mold was used only to enhance an
existing shin.

What should I check when the tefillin

The big day arrives. Your local seforim
store, sofer, or rav tells you that your tefillin have
arrived!  Is there anything you should check on the tefillin?

Check if the batim, titura
and stitching are all properly square. You do not need to have a trained eye to
check. Look if they appear perfectly square to you. Pay special attention that
the titura area that faces the ma’avarta is smooth. It is not
unusual that this area is not finished to the extent that it should be.

What should I be checking on my
own tefillin?

Just as a car owner knows that he
must check the level of the motor oil periodically, the tefillin owner
should know to periodically check certain things on his tefillin.

Check that the retzuos and batim
are completely black and are not rubbed out, cracked or faded. Are the retzuos
black all the way to their tip? Be particular to check that they are black near
where the retzua is tightened daily, because at that point the paint
often rubs off. One should also check that the retzua is still wide
enough near the knot. If they are not fully black, blacken them with kosher tefillin

The yud of the shel yad
should be connected in such a way that it touches the ketzitzah of the tefillin.

Tefillin are one of the special signs that
Hashem gave the Jewish people, and we should certainly excel in treating this
mitzvah with the appropriate dignity. When Yidden request that their tefillin
be mehadrin, they demonstrate their reverence for the sign that bonds us
to Hashem.