The new tefillin retzuos – is it a hiddur?

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Question

My son is becoming bar mitzvah this year, and I am in the process of purchasing tefillin for him. Tefillin with retzuos that are completely black on both sides and throughout have recently come on the market. Is this a hiddur that I should opt for? I would be more than happy to provide my son with the best tefillin money can buy if there is a halachic advantage in purchasing these types of straps, yet I wonder why this hiddur was not practiced in earlier generations.

Answer

It is clear from the Gemara that although one is required to dye the outer surface of the tefillin straps black, he has the option to leave the inner part without any dye at all, or to dye it any color of his choice (except red).

The Rambam paskens that while there is no requirement to blacken the inner side of the tefillin retzuos, there is halachic advantage in doing so, because it would beautify the mitzvah (“vena’eh hu latefillin sheyihiyu chulan shechoros, haketzitzah veharetzuah kulah”).

 
Black on Black Retzuos
Black On Black Retzuos

The Beis Yosef cites the Rambam but observes that it is not the minhag to follow the Rambam and blacken both sides of the retzuos. Darkei Moshe brings the Ohr Zarua, who suggests that one should indeed blacken both sides. Darkei Moshe, however, concludes that it is not the common custom to do so. The Mishnah Berurah quotes both the Beis Yosef and the Darkei Moshe as the practical halachah, clearly indicating that the vast majority of Klal Yisrael have not practiced the custom of painting both sides of the retzuos.

There are, however, a number of sources that suggest that is meritorious to dye the straps on both sides and that there were individuals throughout the generations who were meticulous about doing so. The Arizal is quoted as having been strict in the matter. The Radvaz and others suggest that one be careful to follow the opinion of the Rambam to dye the straps black on both sides.

It should also be pointed out that there is a very practical advantage to dyeing the retzuos black through, to, and including, the other side. It is quite common that the blackness of the straps fades, chips, and cracks over time. Often this wear and tear is not noticed or is noticed after many days of use without the proper blackness. Although it is easily repaired by repainting the faded or cracked parts (the ink or paint must be applied with the proper intent of “lishmah”), the days that the tefillin were worn without the retzuos dyed in every area have been lost.

The precious mitzvah of tefillin is incumbent upon men every single day and is often not fulfilled properly due to lack of knowledge or attentiveness. It is crucial to have every segment of the retzuos completely black at all times, and even those who are aware of this halachah are often not careful to check the straps on a consistent basis. If the retzuos are blackened throughout, there is very little chance that any part will become white even after extensive use. This dyeing process ensures that no one is caught off guard, discovering suddenly that the retzuos need another touch-up and that the mitzvah has not been fulfilled properly for some time.

It is important to note that even if one has retzuos that are dyed black on both sides, care must be taken to make sure the smooth, shiny side always faces the outside.

Your historical question about why the hiddur has only become more popular recently is a valid one. If the ability to dye the retzuos on both sides is not a new phenomenon, why didn’t more Yidden in previous generations dye their retzuos on both sides?

I was told by experts in the field of tefillin that perhaps the hiddur is being offered now because of a combination of economics and technology. We now have the ability to perform the dyeing process in a faster, more efficient way, thus making the process more affordable than it was in years gone by. This factor, coupled with the relative prosperity of the frum community, has perhaps revived the age-old discussion of this aspect of possible noi mitzvah. These new retzuos are not much more expensive than the standard retzuos, and many are eager to spend a little more money for the possible gain in hiddur mitzvah.

One cannot, however, mitigate the mesorah of psak and minhag Yisrael. It is quite clear that the overwhelming majority of poskim rule that only the outer side of the retzuos must be dyed black. It is also very obvious that this has been the minhag Yisrael for many generations. You cannot go wrong by maintaining this minhag and purchasing for your son the same retzuos that both you and your father have.

It is important, though, to point out that the tefillin that you are wearing, and certainly the tefillin that you will be purchasing for your son, are qualitatively superior to the tefillin your parents and ancestors wore. We are not discussing the yiras Shamayim of the sofer and the kavanos of lishmah by those who fashioned the batim and retzuos. It is obvious that in those areas we do not even come close to the madreigah of those of previous generations. We are only discussing hiddurim in the physical properties of the tefillin today, and it is clear that their quality surpasses those of yesteryear, again due to improved technology and economics.

HaGaon HaRav Wosner, shlita, of Bnei Brak, writes in Shevet Halevi 9:16 that those individuals who opt to purchase retuzos that are blackened on both sides will be blessed for their exemplary display of exactitude in hiddur and noi mitzvah. However, this should not necessarily be legislated as a new practice for the masses. (“Im yechidin yinhagu ken, tavo aleihem berachah; aval lehanhig derech horaah lo ra’isi tzorech.”)

As mentioned above, one should not feel any halachic or social pressure to buy the new retzuos that are dyed black on both sides. If one wishes to do so in order to avoid losing the precious mitzvah of tefillin for even one moment due to the fading or chipping of the dye, as happens often with our standard retzuos, there would be benefit in doing so. One would then also have the benefit of fulfilling the opinion of the Rambam and others as well.

Wishing you hatzlachah on your decision. Mazal Tov and much nachas on the upcoming bar mitzvah.

From Contemporary Questions in Halachah and Hashkafah. Published by ArtScroll]

 

Rabbi Yosef Viener

Rav of Kehillas Sha'ar HaShamayim, Wesley Hills, NY. Author of Contemporary Questions in Halachah and Hashkafah.

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