Do You Take Your Retzuos Black?

(Friday, December 7th, 2012)

I’ve heard of retzuos that are called all black, black on black, black on both sides, double black and black through and through. I’m confused by all these terms. What type of retzuos are these and is there reason to use them?

In addition to the typical black on top retzuos, the makers of avodas yad (handmade) retzuos produced, for a limited clientele, a small quantity of doubled sided black retzuos and/or retzuos that were black on the sides.

Why?

According to the Rambam and the Or Zarua the back side of the retzuos should be black as well. While this is not the accepted halachah there have always been individuals who have worn such retzuos. These retzuos have long been referred to as double black or black on both sides.

According to the Keses Hasofer (author of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch) the sides of the retzuos should be black as well. Again, even though this is not the accepted halachah there has always been some demand for them.

Around ten years ago, after some experimentation, the makers of avodas yad retzuos started producing retzuos which, in addition to the regular painted tops, were saturated in black dye producing a black through and through retzuah. The tanned hides are soaked in a bath of black dye until the entire thickness is totally black. Just like the regular retzuos, the top surfaces are then painted and finally cut into strips, creating a retzuah that is black both on the top, back, sides and within. The top surface has a glossy, smooth black finish while the sides and back are a matte black and maintain their natural leather finish.

These new straps obviated the need for the double black and black on the sides retzuos.

What’s the purpose of the inside of the leather being black?

The top surface of the retzuos must be black according to halacha lemoshe misinai. This is not the forum to go into detail but the fact is that a non black spot on the top surface makes the retzuah and thus the tefillin bedieved at best. Since the leather is completely saturated with the black dye, the area below the painted surface is also black. Hence, if paint wears or cracks off the top surface it remains black, preventing the retzuos from every becoming bedieved or passul for lack of black.

I’ve seen some of these retzuos that look more gray or charcoal color on the backside. Is this just because it is matte while the top is glossy or is it in fact not black?

Bear in mind that for the all black retzuos to function as intended, the dyed leather must, in fact, be black. However, it is still somewhat common for the dyed leather to come out charcoal or gray. There is no difference between the single black sided retzuos with natural color leather and the all black retzuos with dyed leather that is not a halachic shade of black. A dark charcoal shade might be deemed acceptable but gray is not. When in doubt consult a posek.

The machshirim don’t consider it their jurisdiction to verify that the color of the back, sides or inside of the leather is halachically black since this is not a kashrus or hiddur issue. Unfortunately, rather than redying them until they turn black, some of the makers are marketing them as is. This author finds it inexcusable since consumers are mislead into thinking that they never have to touch up these type of retzuos. In fact, though, unbeknownst to the wearer, the leather underneath is not halachically black causing the retzuos to become bedieved or passul when the upper layer of paint wears or cracks. Retailers and consumers must refuse such retzuos and they certainly have the right to demand a refund or exchange.

This is an amazing innovation. However, it begs the question – If it’s seemingly such an obvious solution why didn’t earlier generations make such retzuos? Are these retzuos against the mesorah?

This is a fair concern and various plausible reasons have been proposed as to why these retzuos were not made in earlier generations. While some have expressed apprehension with going against the mesorah, many feel that the advantage outweighs this possible concern.

Even so, but I’ve heard that the gedolim aren’t using these retzuos. Are they against them?

The fact that a gadol may not be wearing these retzuos doesn’t necessarily mean that he doesn’t condone them. Gedolim are well aware that their actions are precedent setting. They may very likely choose not to wear them in order not to give the impression that these retzuos are more mehudar yet may agree that they serve an important role. Furthermore, a gadol who doesn’t wear them may feel that they don’t serve him any practical purpose since he is careful to check and maintain the blackness of his retzuos. However, this doesn’t mean that they are not recommended for others.

Rav Mordechai Friedlander Shlit’a, a renowned posek in STaM, member of the Edah Charedis and who was very close with Rav Elyashiv Zt”l, said that the Rav Zt”l, who himself didn’t wear these retzuos, had no issue with those wanting to use them for the preventative advantage they provide.

Let’s also bear in mind that leading poskim and STaM experts are providing a hechsher lemehadrin on these retzuos so they do garner the support of HaRav Moshe Shternbuch Shlit”a, at the head of the Edah Charedis, HaRav Moshe Landau Shlit”a and HaRav Moshe Shaul Klein Shlit”a.

Tachlis, what is your recommendation?

It is this author’s conclusion, based on the above and the firsthand knowledge that a considerable majority with standard retzuos are fulfilling the mitzvah at a bedieved level, at best, due to cracked or missing paint on their retzuos, that those who properly care for their retzuos have no need for the all black retzuos. However, for those (most?) who don’t properly care for their retzuos, the advantage of these retzuos strongly outweighs the concerns and are recommended.

This doesn’t mean that one should replace their retzuos just to get these all black ones. Rather, when purchasing new tefillin or when in need of new retzuos, many recommend them for those who fit into this latter category.

Rabbi Askotzky is a certified sofer, examiner and batim expert and author of Tefillin & Mezuzos, Targum Press 2003. He can be reached at sofer@stam.net or in Israel via 718.874.8220. Visit his website at www.stam.net

 

One Comment

  1. Consider the economic advantage. The all black retzuos cost around 10% more and will last 20-40 years if not pulled too tightly around the cases or arm. The standard retzuos from the same maker and hechsher, treated the same, are likely to last 5-10 years. This is obviously besides the halachic advantages presented in the article.

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