How Are Tefillin Retzuos Made?
In this week’s parsha, Avraham tells the King of Sodom that he (Avraham) will not keep "even a thread or even a shoelace" from the booty of Sodom, although all of Sodom and its populace are rightfully his property as spoils of war. The Gemara teaches that as a reward for this, Avraham’s descendents were given two mitzvos, the techeiles thread of tzitzis and the strap of the tefillin. As I have written several articles on the topic of techeiles in the past, this article will discuss the halachos of tefillin straps, and what one should ask about when purchasing them.
Although a good quality pair of tefillin should last a lifetime, the straps on the tefillin do wear out and need replacement periodically.
Of what are Tefillin made?
All parts of tefillin and all other devarim she’bi’kedusha (holy items) must come from kosher species, although not necessarily from an animal that was slaughtered in a kosher way (Shabbos 108a; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 32:12). The different parts of tefillin come from dissimilar parts of the hide of the animal, the variation being the thickness of the hide and how it is processed.
Tefillin have three major components:
1. The Parshiyos (singular, parsha). These are the parchments, which are the processed skin on which the sofer carefully writes the four sections of the Torah that are inserted into Tefillin. For the tefillin shel yad (arm tefillin), all four parshiyos are written on one piece of parchment, whereas for the tefillin shel rosh (head tefillin), each parsha is written on a separate piece of parchment.
2. The Batim (singular, bayis). These are the housing of the parshiyos and are made from thick hide. The bayis itself has three subcomponents. (a) The Ketzitzah, the cube-shaped box inside which the parshiyos are placed. (Note that it is perfectly kosher and sometimes preferred for the height of the ketzitzah to be greater than its other two dimensions; however, most pairs of tefillin are made with a cubic ketzitzah. I have written another article in which I explained this issue more thoroughly.) (b) The Titura, the square base on which the ketzitzah rests. (c) The Ma’avarta (Aramaic for “bridge”), the extension of the titura through which the straps are inserted. In good quality tefillin, the entire bayis, that is the ketzitzah, titura, and ma’avarta, are all made from one piece of hide.
3. The Retzuos (singular, retzua), the straps, which are made from softer leather than that used for the batim.
For the sake of Tefillin!
Tefillin must be manufactured “lishma,” 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 lishma. Because of this, 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, which I will discuss shortly, and on many other important questions of tefillin manufacture.
After the tanning of the retzuos is completed, they are painted jet-black to fulfill a halacha le’Moshe mi’Sinai (Menachos 35a). The paint used may contain only kosher ingredients, and the painting of the retzuos must also be performed lishmah (Mishnah Berurah 33:18).
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 used in the tanning process, most of the tanning of retzuos is usually accomplished by the gradual, automatic adding of other chemicals to the soaking leather after the salt and lime have been rinsed out. Thus, although early poskim ruled that placing the lime into the water lishmah is sufficient to make retzuos lishmah, this may not be true today. For this reason, most contemporary poskim rule that one should use “avodas yad” retzuos, meaning that the extra chemicals added to the water were done lishmah by a Torah-observant person (Zichron Eliyahu). However, most retzuos sold for tefillin are not avodas yad.
According to my information, most retzuos are painted by transporting them on a conveyor belt through a large, electrically powered paint sprayer. This provides an additional reason to use only avodas yad retzuos. 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 matzohs are a problem for Seder use. Most 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, because of several facts, including that the processing of retzuos is not one continuous process, as I explained above. (In addition, there are and were halachic authorities who preferred use of machine matzohs because they are baked much faster, and therefore might reduce the chance of chometz. This is not a factor in the manufacture of tefillin retzuos – there is only an advantage to use of handmade retzuos, and, to the best of my knowledge, no disadvantage.) When one realizes that the mitzvah of eating matzah is only once a year, yet most people use only hand matzohs rather than machine-made, whereas the tefillin will IY”H be worn daily for decades, I believe the choice is obvious.
Checking one’s retzuos
It is important to check periodically that the retzuos on one’s tefillin are still completely black and are not cracked or faded. The Mishnah Berurah, whom many people consider the final halachic authority in these areas of halacha, rules that the entire length of the retzua must always be black (Biur Halacha 33:3 s.v. retzuos). (There are authorities who disagree, most notably Rav Yosef Chayim Sonnenfeld, who contend that it is adequate if most of the retzuah is black.) Also check that the retzuos are black all the way to their tip. Be particular to check that they are black near where the knot is tightened, because at that point the paint often rubs out. One should also check that the retzua is still wide enough near the knot and that the knot of the shel yad is touching the ketzitzah of the tefillin. If it is not, this can be corrected by a knowledgeable sofer.
While checking the retzuos, check that the batim, titura, and stitches are all perfectly square. This means that the width and the length appear to be the same length to the naked eye, 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 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.
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 markers.
Depending on where you live, this might be an easy item to purchase and usually comes either in a pen looking like a marker or in a small container reminiscent of correction fluid.
If someone’s retzuos are cracking in several places, he should consider replacing them.
Before painting the retzuos, one must state that he is doing it l’sheim 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 lishma, 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 l’sheim kedushas tefillin.
Must the side of the retzua be black?
The side of the retzua that lies on the skin need not be dyed at all. There is an opinion that the edges of the retzuos should 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 in Eishel Avraham 33:7).
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. From my own observation, how black the inner part of the retzua gets when this is done varies tremendously from batch to batch. 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 more cracks. If the retzua was originally soaked in black solution, then when the leather cracks, the retzua still appears black and does not require painting. However, if the retzua is not soaked, the cracked area now appears light colored and requires painting. I have found constantly checking to see whether my retzuos are still black to be annoying, and therefore, when I purchase retzuos, I ask for those that have been soaked black to avoid this issue. From a consumer perspective, I think the added price 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.
How wide are my retzuos?
The retzuos should be about ½ inch wide. When purchasing new retzuos, they should be wider, so that they remain the proper width even after they become stretched out.
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 that a person selling tefillin, although extremely ehrlich, is 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 for tefillin for his congregation, but who would like to familiarize himself with the process of how tefillin are made. One might 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. Yet, lots of people are purchasing these tefillin.
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 what level of tefillin kashrus you are looking for. If you don’t tell him that you want tefillin that are kosher lechatchilah, you might receive tefillin that only meet 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 tefillin,” or “kosher tefillin with extra hiddurim.” These descriptions may also affect other questions that we have not discussed in this article, such as the quality of the writing of the parshiyos or the source of the batim.
How to maintain your tefillin
Maintaining 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. 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 bracha. However, since most poskim permit leaving these covers on, one may be lenient.)
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 only, they demonstrate their reverence for the sign that bonds us to Hashem.