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Shabbat Parashat Bereishit 5777

Ask the Rabbi: Color of the Inside of the Retzuot (Tefillin Straps)

Rav Daniel Mann

Question: Until recently, I had only seen tefillin retzuot blackened on one side, but when I went to buy tefillin for my son, the sofer suggested retzuot that are black on both sides. He says these are now common and preferable, and the price difference is modest. Which is better to buy?


Answer: The gemara (Menachot 35a) says that there is a halacha l’Moshe miSinai that retzuot must be black and asks from sources that if the batim are not black (yes, many say this is possible – see Shulchan Aruch, OC 32:40), the retzuot should be the same color. The gemara answers that the alternative color is on the retzuot’s underside.

The Rambam (Tefillin 3:14) rules: the underside can be any color (other than red, which is degrading if turned over); it should be the same color as the batim; it looks nicest if the batim and the entire retzuot are black. There is a machloket (see Radbaz and Rabbeinu Manoach ad loc.) in understanding the Rambam, whether, when the batim are black, the retzuot’s underside must be black or it is just nicer. However, he certainly at least prefers our retzuot being black on both sides. On the other hand, the Beit Yosef (Orach Chayim 33), Rama (Darchei Moshe ad loc.), and Mishna Berura (33:21) have no qualms with the widespread minhag to ignore this opinion.

Some Acharonim cite the Arizal as positing that there are important kabbalistic grounds for the retzuot to be black on both sides. We do not deal with kabbalistic issues and have nothing to add on this.

There are two other advantages to black on both sides. It is deemed very negative for the parts of the retzuot that fasten down the tefillin to turn over and preferable that no part of the retzuot do so (Shulchan Aruch 27:11 with Mishna Berura 27:38). This is not a problem, or is less of a problem, if the bottom side is black (see Biur Halacha 33:3). Also, some note that the way retzuot are blackened on both sides is by soaking them through and through. This is advantageous in that even if the layer of black paint peels or cracks in a way that affects the retzuot’s validity, the general blackness saves it.

On the intrinsic level, we know no reason to object to fully blackened retzuot. Yet, my retzuot are natural color on the bottom, and I and many others have no plans to replace them anytime soon – based on minhag. Let’s understand what that means in this context. Very often, each minhag on a matter has advantages and disadvantages, so that changing minhagim means adopting a practice with intrinsic negative elements. In contrast, here the negative elements are missing.

Still there are several related issues – yuhara (holier-than-thou haughtiness); casting aspersions on others in the past or present; causing machloket. These general issues have many classical sources to which we cannot presently do justice, but one can start with the Shulchan Aruch, OC 34:3 and ibid. 468:4. Therefore, we discourage people from trendsetting in this matter, especially because the advantages we have mentioned are merely preferences and are not halachically compelling (see Mishna Berura 468:23).

Veteran sofrei stam can testify about a mushrooming of hiddurim/chumrot for standard upper-echelon tefillin over the last 50 years (sociological analysis is interesting). Many youngsters have more mehudar tefillin than their fathers and rabbis, and none of the mentioned problems have resulted. The difference is that the coloring of the retzuot are noticeable, and the advertisement (even, unintentional) of the stringency/hiddur turns into a real potential problem (see Shulchan Aruch, OC 468:4).

       So, here is our recommendation. Get for your son that which is normal for his peer group. Do not be one who spreads a new practice due to the above reservations. On the other hand, to the extent that the practice has spread in your surroundings, it is not your doing. Every generation brings changes, and, in retrospect, many of them are fine. Your young son need not be a minhag-preservation purist and should not feel that his tefillin are sub-standard among his peers.

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