The Status of the Retzuot of Tefillin
Tefillin are composed of three distinct elements; the sections (parshiot) written on kelaf, the houses (batim) which contain those parshiot, and the straps (retzuot) which bind the tefillin to our heads and arms.
Clearly the parshiot entail the core of tefillin. They are excerpts from the Torah and contain halakhic kedusha, both as Torah excerpts as well as units of the tefillin. The fact that the Torah does not specifically mandate their inclusion is, in some ways even more indicative of their importance. By mentioning tefillin in only four specific parshiot of the Torah, the Torah implicitly demands the inclusion of these sections in tefillin.
The batim are also an inherent part of tefillin, both in their sheltering the parshiot as well as in their independent symbolism. The Torah refers to the bayit shel rosh as “tofafot,” signifying the independent status that this bayit has beyond merely housing the parshiot. In fact, according to one position in Tosafot in Menachot (35b), the word totafot means an “adornment,” further reinforcing the role of the batim beyond merely containing the parshiot. Whether the bayit shel yad possesses a similar independent status is debatable. The bayit of shel yad is referred to a “ot“ (ve-haya le-ot al yadecha), which may affirm an independent status to that bayit as well.
Unlike the parshiot and batim, the straps of the tefillin seem purely functional. Since the ACT of wearing tefillin requires binding them to the body, straps are NECESSARY. Do they possess any independent status as a component of tefillin? In other words, is tefillin truly a composite of three core elements, or is tefillin primarily comprised of parshiot and batim, while the retzuot merely enable the binding process?
This question is not easy to resolve, as even if retzuot possess purely a functional role, they are still necessary for halakhically valid tefillin. One issue that may help reveal the nature of retzuot is the question of shiur. How long must the retzuot be? The gemara in Menachot (35b) is quite vague about this issue, providing only one shiur - until the “etzba tzereida.” It is unclear which tefillin’s retzuot are being measured, which finger is identified as etzba tzereida, and where the measurement begins. Without enumerating the various shitot, there appear to be two very different positions. One asserts that the retzuot do not have to be significantly longer than the amount needed to bind the respective batim. Rashi asserts this about retzuot of the tefillin shel rosh, while Tosafot quote an Oruch that asserts this about tefillin shel yad. In contrast, Tosafot and the Rambam each rule that the retzuot possess requisite length INDEPENDENT of the amount needed to bind the batim. Ultimately, we rule like the Rambam that the retzuot of tefillin shel rosh must extend down a person’s torso, reaching the bottom half of a person’s body (with slight differences between the left and right retzua), while the retzuot of the tefillin shel yad must be long enough to wrap around the arm, including three wraps around the middle finger. Demanding a larger shiur – a retzua size that extends well beyond the amount needed to bind batim - may indicate that these Rishonim envisioned an independent status for the retzuot of tefillin.
A second discussion which may revolve around the question of retzuot and their status concerns rezuot that have ripped. The gemara in Menachot (35b) does not allow torn retzuot to be mended by tying the two torn pieces together. After all, the Torah writes “u-keshartam,” and the gemara interprets this as requiring a “keshira tama,” a complete and superior keshira. The simple reading of this gemara suggests that the retzuot are an INDEPENDENT entity, and their caliber must therefore be superior. In fact, there is even a word in the parshiot of tefillin that describes the retzuot – namely, “u-keshartam!" If retzuot were necessary MERELY to bind the batim, it would be difficult to explain the disqualification of retied retzuot.
Rashi, however, offers a different reading of the gemara. Rashi suggests (at least in his first approach to the sugya) that tying a retzua would mitigate the effect of the primary knot of tefillin (the one on the back of the head and the one attached to the shel yad). Thus, there is NOTHING INHERENTLY WRONG WITH RETYING A RETZUA. Retzuot per se do not have to be complete or whole. However, if they are re-tied, they can ruin the centrality of the primary knot of the tefillin. Reading the disqualification in this manner does not provide any comment about the centrality of retzuot. Re-tied retzuot are not inherently problematic. The new knot merely ruins a different component of the tefilin.
An interesting nafka mina between the two approaches to this rule may be the gemara’s next question. After disqualifying retied retzuot based on the keshira tama requirement, the gemara questions the case of torn retzuot that are sewn or stitched together. The gemara’s conclusion is unclear (Rashi disqualifies while Rabbenu Tam permits). If retied retzuot are pasul because the EXTRA KNOT decentralizes the primary knot, we could probably validate sewn retzuot; since no NEW knot was added, the original primary knot remains central and exclusively featured. In contrast, if retied retzuot are pasul because the retzuot PER SE must be complete and whole, we MAY DISQUALIFY sewn retzuot as inferior because they are also refurbished or repaired.
Ultimately the gemara’s question about sewn retzuot may simply be a re-analysis of the two ways to understand the disqualification of retied retzuot.
An additional question that may impact the status of retzuot is the color of retzuot. The gemara in Menachot (35a) is quite clear that retzuot must be black based upon a halakha le-Moshe mi-Sinai. Does the gemara mean specifically retzuot or does the gemara refer to the color of tefillin in GENERAL, INCLUDING RETZUOT. Tosafot already cite an opinion that claims that the ACTUAL tefillin may be white and only the retzuot must be black. The Rambam also allows non-black tefillin batim, claiming that black tefillin are still better aesthetically. Of course, our minhag is to blacken the entire tefillin. However, the positions that permit non-black tefillin but insist upon black retzuot may have viewed retzuot as independent elements of the tefillin, deserving of their own unique color. Even if we rule like those who DEMAND black for the entire tefillin, we may still question whether retzuot are black SIMPLY BECAUSE THE BATIM ARE or if retzuot require their black color independent of the black batim.
A final question surrounds the need for processing the hide of retzuot “li-shma,” with direct intent to install the kedusha of tefillin. This issue is part of a very large and systemic question regarding which articles require such intent and which do not. Without investigating the entire issue, two noteworthy positions assert the unique need of retzuot for “ibud lishma." In his comments to Sukka (9a), the Ba’al Ha-Ma’or claims that the retzuot require this ibud, and his comments suggest that he views the retzuot as “essential articles of kedusha” (gufei kedusha), rather than merely accessories to kedusha (tashmishei kedusha), which would not require ibud lishma. Certainly, the Ramban in his response to that Ba’al Ha-aor, as well as the Chidshei Haran in his comments to Sanhedrin (48b), understood the Ba’al Ha-maor as awarding gufei kedusha status to retzuot and not merely tashmishei kedusha.
In addition to the Ba’al Ha-Ma-or, it seems likely that the Rambam viewed the retzuot as independent articles of tefillin and not merely straps to bind tefillin. First, he agrees with the Ba’al Hama’or that retzuot require ibud lishma (Hilkhot Tefillin 3:15), suggesting this independent status to retzuot. In addition, the Rambam rules that retzuot of tefillin shel rosh cannot be transferred to serve as retzuot of tefillin shel yad since the former possesses a higher level of kedusha and cannot be employed in the service of a lower level of kedusha. The gemara asserts this prohibition regarding the tefillin proper – a box that was used for tefillin shel rosh cannot subsequently be employed as tefillin shel yad. By extending this issue to the actual retzuot, the Rambam indicates that he believes that each retzua is invested with DIFFERENT LEVELS of kedusha, reflecting the different tefillin they are part of. This may indicate that the retzuot incorporate themselves as essential components of tefillin and therefore are branded as either tefillin shel yad or tefillin shel rosh.