I always wondered why tefillin need to be black. Why not just natural leather, or at least something light and cheerful?

The Historical Background

When G‑d gave the Jewish nation the Torah on Mount Sinai, it was given together with the Oral Torah. The Oral Torah comprises traditions and extrapolations hinted to in the recorded version, the Bible, as well as other elements that are not found in the Written Torah.

The traditions of the Oral Torah were passed down from Moses to Joshua, and from there down to the leaders and sages of each generation.

Anyone who reads the Bible can see that there are certain verses that are unintelligible on their own—for example, the commandment to circumcise oneself, or to put tefillin on the hand and head, or to take the Four Species on the Jewish holiday of Sukkot.

There is no way of knowing from the text what exactly we are supposed to cut when we perform a circumcision, nor is there any way to know what tefillin is or what the Four Species are.

The specifications for these mitzvahs are in a category of the Oral Torah known as halachah le-Moshe mi-Sinai—“an oral tradition going back to Moses, who received it on Mount Sinai.” This means that many details of the tefillin, including the black color of the straps and the box shape, are traditions that could not have been deduced from logic, or even from expounding the verses of the Torah.1

Now, even though (according to most) this applies only to the straps, the boxes should be painted black as well, matching the straps.2

Is There Really No Explanation?

Maimonides writes that although all of the statutes of the Torah are supra-rational decrees, it is appropriate to contemplate them, and whenever it is possible to provide an explanation for these decrees, one should do so.3 With this in mind, here are some explanations found in the teachings of the Kabbalah.

Why Are Tefillin Painted?

We wear two tefillin boxes. One box is placed upon the head, the seat of our intellect, and the other is placed upon the left arm, resting against the heart, the seat of our emotions and desires. Thus, tefillin signify the submission of one’s mind, heart and actions to the Almighty, as well as the rule of intellect over emotion.

The third Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel, known as the Tzemach Tzedek, explains that from a Kabbalistic perspective the tefillin actually represent how the divine attributes—such as kindness and severity—flow down into this world. Inside the boxes of tefillin are white, colorless parchments that contain the portions of Shema. This represents the divine light at its source, before it even exists as “attributes”—pure white, without color. It is only once the divine light begins to flow down into this world, through a process of concealment and contraction known as tzimtzum, that there appear to be divine attributes. Therefore, we have colored tefillin with straps that flow from the head past the heart, symbolizing how these divine attributes are only how the divine light appears after many concealments. But in its essence, it is plain white.4

But Why Black?

Although we may have explained, from a Kabbalistic perspective, why the tefillin are colored, the question remains: why color it black?

One of the main things we do when we put on tefillin is say the Shema, in which we proclaim G‑d’s oneness and how He is the essence of everything.5 Not only that, but the tefillin themselves contain the portion of Shema.

In light of this, the Kabbalist explain that the reason the tefillin are colored black is because unlike all the other colors, “black is not receptive to any other color,”6 for when you have a black surface (as opposed to a white surface), other colors don’t show on it, and black does not mix with any other color.7 This unique property of the color black symbolizes G‑d’s absolute unity, oneness that does not lend itself to any additional attributes or parts.

For more on the mitzvah of tefillin, visit our tefillin mini-site.