Wrapping the Tefillin Straps Over One’s Watch-An Incident Regarding the Tschebiner Rav zt”l

Question: When one dons the Tefillin in the morning, must one remove one’s watch so that there is no separation between the Tefillin straps and one’s hand or is this not a concern?

Answer: The Mishnah (Megillah 24b) states that a separation between the Tefillin and one’s arm invalidates the donning of the Tefillin; thus, if one dons Tefillin on top of one’s garments, one has not fulfilled his obligation. The Rosh writes that the prohibition of having a separation regarding Tefillin is derived from the verse, “And it shall be for you for a sign on your hand,” which teaches us that there may not be any separation between the Tefillin and one’s hand.

Nevertheless, we must analyze whether this law applies where the Tefillin straps are bound around the arm or if this limitation only applies where the box of the Tefillin itself (the “Bayit” or phylactery) rests and the law prohibiting a separation does not apply at all to the place of the Tefillin straps.

The Opinion of the Rashba
Indeed, the Rashba writes in one of his responses that the law prohibiting a separation regarding Tefillin applies only where the box of the Tefillin rests and this law does not apply to the straps. He nevertheless concludes, “I am writing this as Halacha. However, practically speaking, one should follow the custom that people follow to be careful of separations even in the place of the straps.”

The Rama, the Magen Avraham’s Question, and Maran zt”l’s Explanation
The Rama (in his notation on Chapter 27) quotes the Rashba’s opinion that the laws of separation apply only to the box of the Tefillin but not to the Tefillin straps. The Magen Avraham questions this ruling, for the source of this Halacha is the response of the Rashba and the Rashba himself concludes that although this may be the Halacha, practically, one should be careful not to have separations even in the place of the Tefillin straps! If so, how could the Rama quote this law as Halacha? The Magen Avraham answers that the Rama understood that the Rashba only wrote what he did regarding an actual separation, such as donning Tefillin on top of a garment; however, regarding a small separation, such as if one has a small strap wrapped around one’s hand, there is no concern of separation regarding this object. Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l adds based on the words of the great Poskim that whenever we find a Posek writing a law “as Halacha but not for practice,” this is only meant as his show of humility, but his opinion can be accepted for practice as well. Based on this, there is certainly room for leniency to allow wrapping one’s Tefillin straps over one’s watch.

The Opinions of Other Poskim
On the other hand, the great Hagaon Harav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, author of the Tanya, writes that the law prohibiting separations applies to the Tefillin straps as well; however, he writes that there is only room for concern regarding the place where the first wrapping of the strap occurs for it is close to the place where the box of the Tefillin is laid. His words imply that he agrees to the opinion if the Rama that there is no concern of a small separation regarding the rest of the windings of the Tefillin straps. Hagaon Harav Shlomo Kluger and other great Poskim rule likewise based on proofs and sources. In any event, regarding a watch which is located after the seven windings of the strap on the arm, there is certainly room for leniency according to Halacha not to be concerned with a separation.

Maran’s Meeting With the Tschebiner Rav
Hagaon Harav Dov Berish Weidenfeld zt”l of Tschebin, one of the greatest Torah scholars of Jerusalem in the previous generation, rules stringently on this matter in his work. When Maran zt”l met him face to face in his youth, he pointed out his lenient approach for wrapping the Tefillin straps over one’s watch recorded in his Responsa Yabia Omer. The Tschebiner Rav told Maran that he also agreed that there was room for leniency and he only ruled stringently originally because he thought the watch was placed higher up on the arm where the first windings of the strap were. However, even he agreed that there was room for leniency as long as the watch is placed on one’s wrist, after the seven windings around the arm.

Thus, halachically speaking, one who acts stringently and removes his watch before donning Tefillin is especially praiseworthy; indeed, this was the custom of Maran zt”l. However, according to the letter of the law, there is no obligation to remove one’s watch before donning one’s Tefillin, for the laws of separation do not apply in this place.

Since we have mentioned the Tschebiner Rav, let us a recount an interesting incident involving him. Once, more than sixty years ago, a certain rabbi was seated next to the Tschebiner Rav as he was leaning and there was a copy of Maran’s “Yabia Omer” in front of him. The rabbi pointed out to the Gaon of Tschebin, “In my opinion, the author of ‘Yabia Omer’ will be one of the luminaries of the generation.” The Tschebiner Rav replied, “In my opinion, he is already one of the luminaries of the generation!”