Jan 30, 2011

Interesting Psak: Black-On-Back Tefillin Straps

There is a chumra that has become fairly common in recent years, and that is painting both sides of the tefillin straps black. The concern is that the strap might turn over, as it is wont to do, and the white/grey/brown side would be showing. By painting the back side black as well, even if it flips over, it will be black.

I recently heard from a famous and well-respected sofer discussing this chumra that poskim he has discussed it with have basically deemed it unnecessary. There is no real indication form the gemara or halacha that it even helps, as it is not clear that the problem with the being flipped over is that white/brown/grey would be showing, a problem that painting black would solve, or that the problem is that the top side must be forward and if it flips over, even if it is black, it is a problem.

So, he said, it is a nice chumra, but not necessary and should only be incorporated into one's tefillin if it does not come at the expense of more important chumras and hiddurim - it costs extra money to paint the back sides black, and one must consider if that is money well spent.

Kikar reports that a battim machir from Bnei Braq went to Rav Elyashiv this past week and asked Rav Elyashiv what he thought of this hiddur of making the straps black on both sides.

Rav Elyashiv said he is not interested in this hiddur. Surprised, the battim macher asked why and if the hiddur is not important.

Rav Elyashiv responded, supposedly, that while it is a very good and important hiddur, he himself does not want to iplement it in his own set of tefillin. The reason being that if he gets such straps, everyone around the world will say that rav Elyashiv is makpid on davka using tefillin that is completely black on both sides. They will think that tefillin that does not have the back side black is not kosher, chas v'shalom. As well, people will run to switch their straps and that will be an unnecessary expense that will have been caused. He therefore said he wants to keep his original, black-on-one-side, straps.


  1. I think that's a sensitive and responsible thing for R' Elyashiv to say. When I bought my son his tefillin, we went with the double black because he liked it. I don't think we paid extra for it. At the same time, I replaced mine - just because it had been 20-something years and I thought it would be nice for 125 shekels. But I went with the single black - old school.

  2. I wouldn't give it the respect of calling it a 'humra'. For that, it would need to have some solid halachic reasoning to back it. It does not. I would call it a 'shtut'.

    In addition to Rav Elyashiv's response, there is a basic halachic response. This newfangled, unnecessary idea would make a mockery of how our fathers and all previous generations wore their tefillin. Now, *that* is a halachic reasoning that we find in poskim on any number of topics; and one I think trumps the shtut rather clearly.

    1. Is the Rambam, Arizal and Or Zarua who say the back side should be black called Shtut? Chas Veshalom! It would be correct to say that it's not halachah lemaaseh and not the minhag.

      It doesn't help to have the back side black in case it flips over. See Teshuvas HaRadvaz chelek 5 1/426; Kaf Hachaim 27/51; Meleches Shamayim Klal 20 Bina 5; Mishna Brura 33/20

  3. There's actually a health issue with the "black-on-black" straps. A relative of mine who is a Batim Macher mentioned to me that as of about 5-6 years ago, one of the suppliers for an ingredient for the black polish changed his source, and now, it is no longer certain that that product is only from Kosher animals (tfilin need to be "min hamutar b'ficha"). As a result, a different ingrdient, which is toxic in larger quantities, was substituted.

    While this substance is fine when it's only on the "top" side of Tfilin, there is a possibility of it being absorbed through the skin if it's on the bottom side as well. Accordingly, this Batim Macher said that he refuses to paint the underside of the retzuos.

    Rafi - if you want to verify this, please post in the comments, and I'll contact you off-line with the name of this batim macher.

  4. contact me off-line. I am not sure of the benefit, but perhaps I would contact him

  5. First of all it's not a "new" chumra. The Rambam (3, 14) says it's better that way. The Or Zarua (564), in the name of R. Simcha, says that the underside of the straps should be of the same color as the batim (which don't have to be black either; but if you paint them black, the underside of the straps should be, too). The Arizal says the uinderside should be black (Shaar haKavanot 9b). The Gra was makpid, at the end of his life, that at least the sides of the straps sould be black (Hilkhot haGra uMinhagav 44). So this has solid foundations, even if I'm obviously not saying everyone should follow this.
    It also has a most pratical advantage: since the straps absolutely have to be black on the outside, if the leather itself is black (as is the case in all-black straps) you don't have to worry about the eventuality that a speckle of paint went off (which happens particularly where the kesher is).
    RE:Anonymous, concerning the paint: the leather itself must be "mi-mutar bi-fikha", not the paint. "Kosher" tefillin paint is only a hiddur, much more so than black straps. And all-black straps are not coated on the underside, the leather itself is tainted black. Does this tincture have to be "mi-mutar bi-fikha", since it's absorbed in the strap? Is it the "toxic substance" your firend was talking about? The details are rather sketchy.

  6. Chanokh,

    I am not the expert in how the straps are dyed black, but what I've seen is straps that are painted on both sides - not something that's actually absorbed in the leather. Re: the requirement of Kosher paint - you may well be right that having the paint be min hamutar is a hidur, but does it really make sense to have a Chumra of black-on-black at the expense of a known Hidur, particularly in a situation of possible Sakana?

  7. Chanokh: I think you've misread the sources. First off, we can do away with the Gra, since the discussion about the sides of the straps is an extension of the issue of the *face surface* being black. See the Kesset Hasofer/Lishkat Hasofer Siman 23 on this.

    Now, the Rambam does not say "it's better that way". He says it is 'noi'. A beautification. That's not a humra; it's a hiddur. Zeh eli ve'anvehu. A humra is when you have a possible position that obligates/forbids something. The Rambam clearly says this is in no way required. Then he says it is 'noi' to do so.

    The Or Zarua doesn't say what you claim, either. The Or Zarua quotes the Rabbeinu Simha, who does say this. Then the Or Zarua himself seems to *refute* this by saying 'I don't understand his learning this, when the Tanna was only concerned about the same type/leather, as explained.' ואיני מבין דקדוק שלו דלא קפיד תנא אלא אמין עור כדפריש.

    The Beit Yosef and Rema both consider these possibilities from the Rambam mentioned above and the Rabbeinu Simha, and reject the possibility.

    So, where do you see a firm halachic support for this idea which was discussed and *rejected* by halachic authorities long before now?

    When I learned these halachot as a young man (and worked a bit as a baal magiah), I spent hours discussing my learning and questions with some of the best rabbanim in Yerushalayim in this field. Including especially Rav Mordechai Eliyahu and his brother Rav Naim. Never once was this suggestion made. Why would we start doing it now, when it had no standing with earlier and later great authorities, and wasn't the custom anywhere?

  8. I wish he had said it's because he's been wearing tefillin for 87 years and is pretty sure he's gotten the hang of it.

  9. I think you skimmed over an important detail: It's not that the black side has to be out, it's that the outer side has to be out, and if both sides are black, you won't know which is which.

  10. I said that over in the name of the famous sofer I recently heard a shiur from.. not that you wont know which is which, but that painting the back side does not help, as it is not the white of the back side that presents the problem, but the back side itself is the problem. so painting the back black does not help.

  11. I believe the source is a confusion of the old adage, "once you go black, you'll never go back".

  12. I don't think I will ever change my tefillin straps. They are the best ones I've ever felt, soft supple leather. The new ones are hard and rough and I have not been able to find better ones anywhere. So I'll keep on using my 30+ year old soft and comfortable straps.

  13. your sofer may be famous but he learns during the repeat of 18 which means he has an agenda other than hashem.

  14. The straps under discussion are black through and through and not just painted on the back side. The hides are first died black and then are painted the same as the standard retzuos. The primary purpose of these new retzuos is not to fulfill the Rambam, Or Zarua and Arizal (black side black) or the Keses or the Gra (sides black), none of whom who we pasken like and for whom few have been makpid on, but to ensure the kashrus of the retzuos by preventing them from ever losing their blackness. While Rav Elyashiv didn't support wearing all black retzuos to fulfill these opinions, he didn't have an issue with someone wearing them to protect their kashrus. They also have the support of many poskim due to the advantage they offer. (Why someone didn't come up with this years ago is a good question.) Of course, one must be careful to ensure that the dyed leather is a kosher shade of black. Occasionally they come out grey and this is no different that regular retzuos which must be painted when the black paint wears or cracks.

  15. Sorry, I meant to write: "The primary purpose of these new retzuos is not to fulfill the Rambam, Or Zarua and Arizal (*back* side black)..."

    With regards to the claim that the black pigment is not mutar beficha, all the avodas yad retzuos are made under reliable hechsher including the Edah Hacharedis, Harav Moshe Shaul Klein and Harav Landau so I'm confident it's either animal based from kosher animal species or synthetic.

    The back side in not painted like the top. It's black due to a black dye that dyes the entire hide black through and through. Again, while I'm sure it's kosher, I don't know the source of the black pigment so can't confirm or deny any possible health issues of the paint or dye.


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