This article has been updated with the latest information since it was first published in late Elul in the 2nd print edition of the Yeshiva World News.
Recently the English speaking Torah world has been inundated with articles and proclamations regarding the validity of some tefillin retzuos. The speculations, claims, suspicions and opinions have left even leading poskim and STaM experts in a daze. This author has been contacted by frantic customers, friends, colleagues and rabbanim for information and guidance and in turn he met a number of times with his rav, Harav Mordechai Friedlander shlit”a, a member of the Edah Hacharedis and a renowned posek and expert in STaM. (Please note that Harav Friedlander has no personal or financial interest in retzuos or their hashgacha.) As the dust and tempers begin to settle and the facts and realities become somewhat more apparent, here are important conclusions (to date) and some general information regarding reztuos.
First of all, what is the issue?
The paint on some retzuos peels off like a strip of tape. We are not only concerned about once they already peel, as then, at the very least, they’d be treated like any other retzuah which lacks paint. We are even questioning retzuos that look fine but when you lift the edge with the assistance of a blade or the like you can then peel it off like a strip of tape. Are such retzuos considered painted/kosher or not?
Is this a problem with retzuos from all makers?
Upon the directive of HaRav Friedlander, no names are to be publicized. One may consult his local sofer for information.
According to one well known retzuos maker, this problem is not new and has and will happen on occasion to all retzuos makers under any hechsher. Sometimes the leather, perhaps due to being too fatty, doesn’t allow the paint to take proper hold. The public was not aware of this occasional problem since it is almost always caught when the hides are being cut into strips at which point they are treated as ruined. However, some problematic retzuos from one well established maker made it onto the market. This maker had the same problem around 3 years ago. In any case, it seems that most of the peeling retzuos are from a not well known maker and are also being confused for the retzuos of this more well known source.
Why the confusion?
This less known maker produces avodas yad retzuos under the hechsher of someone with the same last name as the renowned rav, who provides the hechsher to the well established maker. People in the business often refer to the retzuos by the name of the machshir rather than by the name of the actual maker making it even more confusing. Furthermore, it is yet unclear if this less known maker is marketing his retzuos in a manner that leads people to think they are under the hechsher of the renowned rav of the same last name and hence from another source. Some are also concerned with this lesser known maker because this renowned rav stopped giving him a hechsher and since then has been under the separate supervision of 3 lesser known rabbanim.
This author can confirm that the better known maker did not introduce recent changes to the process that would cause this peeling problem nor did he intentionally market retzuos that were problematic. It seems that these retzuos are from one production and he has issued a recall for any retzuos that peel. He has also become more alert, which will hopefully prevent this problem in future. Unfortunately, this better known source is the one whose reputation has taken a considerable beating even though most of the problematic retzuos are from another maker.
Harav Friedlander wants it to be made very clear that at least this better known maker is not accused or suspected of wrongdoing. It should also be known that a mashgiach is flown overseas to supervise each production of his avodas yad retzuos. This other maker however, needs to be further investigated. Dealers and sofrim are urged to verify the source of their retzuos and only take from recognized makers. Individuals should consult their sofer and rav for guidance.
Are we talking about a specific type of retzuah?
The better known maker told this author in person that if the problem happened to one type, if could happen to any of his retzuos. This means that whether they are hand or machine made, regular or the all black variety, there is potential of peeling.
It should be noted however, that even if the black “through and through” retzuos do peel or are of the peelable type, they remain kosher since the leather underneath is black.
Bottom line, are these peelable retzuos kosher?
There is a difference of opinion among the poskim. The Edah Hacharedis concluded that the peelable type of retzuos is pasul. The author has heard that there are leading poskim in the US and Canada who concur. Hence, if one has the non all black retzuos from this maker he must test them. If the paint peels off like a strip of tape they are passul and if not, they are fine. Rav Moshe Shaul Klein Shlit’a, a renowned posek and STaM expert in Bnai Brak, is of the opinion that unless the retzuah actually peels it is kosher lechatchila. Even so, Rav Klein writes that for Choshen Mishpat reasons one may demand a refund or exchange if the retzuos are the type that can be peeled.
It is critical to distinguish between the peeling of paint that is the source of this present upheaval and the rare but more common type of peeling. On occasion a small area of paint on a retzuah peels or frays. This can be caused by either or all of the following:
1) Wear – such as regular friction against the batim, case, body or sleeve
2) Pressure – such as along a section of the retzuah that is folded, stretched or bent on the body or case
3) Nature – such as buildup of oils and sweat in the leather
This can happen to retzuos made by anyone and under any hechsher. In general, there will remain a fine layer of paint on the leather. If however, the entire layer of paint peels off in this spot and the retzuah is not of the black through and through type then it needs repainting. (Whether such a non black spot is passul or bedieved, consult a posek.) This type of peeling is not a sign of the problematic peeling (like a strip of tape) and does not require replacement or testing. If this happens to a relatively new retzuah that was handled with reasonable care then you may be entitled to a refund or exchange. If one has any doubt as to the type of peeling they should show the retzuah to a sofer.
Tangentially, one article mentioned the fact that the top surface of the retzuos is coated with a synthetic adhesive prior to painting. This shouldn’t cause a stir. This helps strengthen the leather fibers, which are weakened by the chromium sulfate in the final stages of tanning. This has been done for years and with the knowledge of the poskim. Once dry, the leather is sanded down to remove any of the material on the surface, allowing only what has soaked into the leather to remain so painting is actually onto the leather and not onto this adhesive and this treatment should also not prevent the paint from soaking into the leather.
Rabbi Askotzky is a certified sofer, examiner and batim expert and author of Tefillin & Mezuzos, Targum Press 2003