Parashat Shelah Lekha

Numbers 13:1–15:41
June 16, 2012 / 26 Sivan 5772

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Marc Wolf, Vice Chancellor, JTS.

A little blue thread has quietly woven its way back into our synagogue life. Its appearance was gradual, which makes its pervasive presence somewhat surprising. Strung from the corners of our tallitot, the thread of tekhelet intertwined with the white tzitzit threads has experienced a true renaissance in modern Jewish ritual. We learn of tekhelet from our parashah this week: "Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe [p'til tekhelet] at each corner" (Num. 15:38).

This resurgence of tying tzitzit with tekhelet is a result of claims of discovery of the original source of the tekhelet dye that gives the blue fringe its color. Around the close of the Babylonian Talmud (700 CE), the specific identity of the species of mollusk that produces tekhelet, known in rabbinic literature as the hillazon, was lost. After immersing himself in biology and chemistry, Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner, known as the Radzyner Rebbe, went on a discovery mission in the 1880s. He found that the cuttlefish produced a substance that withstood the tests the Talmud dictates for verifying tekhelet dye (BT Menachot 42b–43a). He was followed by a chief rabbi of Israel and, most recently, by a foundation of scientists who all claim to have discovered different species responsible for tekhelet.

Politics aside, the search for the hillazon is less interesting than the indelible impact of its dye. Motivated by tradition, spirituality, discovery, or a host of other possible reasons, we have literally wound tekhelet back into our lives. This motivation is our question at hand. A passage from the Talmud in Menachot provides a possible insight: "It was taught: Rabbi Meir said: 'Why specifically blue and not any other colors? Because blue resembles the color of the sea; the sea resembles the color of the sky; the sky resembles the color of a sapphire; and a sapphire resembles the color of the Throne of Glory'" (Menachot 43b with the addition of Gilyon ha-Shas).

Concentrating on the tekhelet, then, establishes a clear mental connection between our world and the divine. Tekhelet acts as a spiritual prop, encouraging us to connect with God.

Returning to the context of the commandment in this week's parashah: "[The tekhelet] shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them" (Num. 15:39). Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim of Lunschitz (Poland, 1550–1619), writing as the Kli Yakar, raised the question, "How could looking at a blue thread cause us to remember all the commandments?" He notes that the text does not jump from the tekhelet directly to the divine, but creates subtle connections on a directed path: "The blue of the tekhelet reminds us not of God, but of the ocean, and each comparison increases in spiritual depth." The intention of the tekhelet is to create purposeful intermediate steps to help us remember God's presence and direction in our daily lives.

Our attention to tekhelet during prayer creates a visual domino effect that intensifies the intimacy of our experience and causes us to turn our hearts toward commitment. By gazing on tekhelet, we remember who God desires us to be.

During the centuries that tekhelet was hidden, though, we seemed to get along just fine. We had observance, connection, intimacy, and presence. Was there something essential missing from our behavior, belief, and practice? Has the discovery of tekhelet completed our religious world?

The Talmud struggled with the absence of tekhelet, and questioned whether we were able to fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit without it (Menachot 38a). From our verse, the tekhelet seems to be the catalyst of the mitzvah. Our command for the use of tzitzit pivots on the reference to tekhelet in the Hebrew singular form. "That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them" (Num. 15:39, emphasis mine). The discourse continued for years, but the accepted answer is clear: we have worn tallitot through the generations—with or without tekhelet.

This leads us to our fundamental question: if we can observe this mitzvah without the existence of tekhelet, why its increased presence, beyond the visual aid? Can we attribute this solely to our contemporary quest for spirituality?

Our chancellor, Professor Arnold Eisen, devotes his book Rethinking Modern Judaism to ritual and practice in our modern Jewish lives. In his conclusion, he posits that modern ritual is subject to "five predictors" that determine whether a ritual will be embraced or not. These include (1) how the ritual integrates or separates us from the external world, (2) whether the message of the ritual inspires its performance, (3) whether the performance of the ritual establishes a real link to our ancestors, (4) whether the practice of the ritual provides enough autonomy for its observer to define "ultimate authority," and (5) whether the ritual sinks its roots into the tradition of our ancestors (259–261).

The incorporation of tekhelet into our modern ritual observance can easily pass the evaluation above. If they at all inform today's observance of tekhelet, our Talmudic passages demonstrate a connection to tradition as well as to divinity without being overwhelmingly directive. The plethora of ways of wrapping tekhelet itself is indicative of the personal nature of reclaiming this ritual.

Whatever the motivation, the growing existence of tekhelet in our modern ritual observance is inspired by an intimately personal connection. As Chancellor Eisen states, "[t]he vitality of Judaism in contemporary America rests precisely on the dynamics of ritual practices that allow for multiple messages, indirect avowals, and a significant emotional investment" (262).

Who would have thought that a little blue thread could say so much about the direction of contemporary Judaism?

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.