A thread of blue

Rabbi Philip Weintraub
Congregation B’nai Israel
Parshat Shlach Lecha

Shlach Lecha, this week’s parsha, is known for the spies, those individuals who scout out the land of Israel, see the incredible produce and tremble in fear at the “giants” of the land. The perspective of those 12 individuals had repercussions for our peoplehood. It was their vision and their choices that led to forty years in the wilderness.

The end of the parsha is ALSO about vision and also about how our choices make all the difference. Twice daily, we conclude the Shema with these verses:

לח דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, וְעָשׂוּ לָהֶם צִיצִת עַל-כַּנְפֵי בִגְדֵיהֶם, לְדֹרֹתָם; וְנָתְנוּ עַל-צִיצִת הַכָּנָף, פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת. 
38 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 at each corner.
לט וְהָיָה לָכֶם, לְצִיצִת, וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם אֶת-כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹת ה", וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם; וְלֹא-תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם, וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר-אַתֶּם זֹנִים, אַחֲרֵיהֶם. 
39 That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the LORD and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge.
מ לְמַעַן תִּזְכְּרוּ, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֶת-כָּל-מִצְו‍ֹתָי; וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, לֵא-לֹהֵיכֶם. 
40 Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.
מא אֲנִי ה" אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִי אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, לִהְיוֹת לָכֶם, לֵאלֹהִים: אֲנִי, ה" אֱ-לֹהֵיכֶם. {פ} 
41I the LORD am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God: I, the LORD your God.

For me, the words about Techelet have always drawn my attention. Growing up, I always wondered, why don’t we all wear the thread of blue? It is explicit in the command of tzitzit! As I grew, I began doing research and discovered the P’til Techlet organization in Israel. Over the years I have studied the history and the halacha and even toured their factory the last time I was in Israel.

In biblical times, all of us DID wear the Techelet on our tzitzit. We know that the Romans wanted a monopoly on the colors blue and purple. There is even a story in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 12a) that details the arrest of two rabbis from Israel who were smuggling techelet to the Jews of Babylonia. There are occasional mentions of Techelet at slightly later dates--including that it was brought to Rav Achai in Bavel around 500ce (Menachot 43a). The first Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog, wrote extensively on the matter. By the closing of the Talmud and the early gaonic period, Tekehelet seems to have been lost. It remained that way until the modern age.

I learned how Techelet had been lost for centuries and recently rediscovered. In the 1800s, scientists were re-discovering the Murex trunculus. In 1913, Rabbi Isaac Herzog did his doctoral work on the matter, writing that the Murex snail was the most likely candidate for Techelet. In the 1980s, Israeli rabbis and scientists made a successful attempt to reestablish Techelet. In the early 1990s, Rabbi Eliyahu Tavger founded Ptil Tekhelet to educate Jews about Tekehelet, and to create the dye and tzitizit in quantity.

From their website and brochure:
Techeiles… A Seal of Gold (MENACHOS 43B)... as a lover adorns a symbol and reminder of the love, so we carry the tzitzis of techeiles, the royal thread which resembles the Kisei Hakavod, as a symbol of our connection to Hashem. HARAV BENZION HALBERSTAM

The posuk in krias shema says that by looking at the tzitzis one will remember all of Hashem’s mitzvos. Rashi explains that the word tzitzis is numerically equal to 600. Add to that the 8 strings and 5 knots, and you have 613, the number of mitzvos in the Torah. The Ramban and others disagree with Rashi and claim that it is the string of techeiles itself that serves as the reminder. The sky-blue thread evokes contemplation of the heavens and of God’s throne, which leads one to remember the mitzvos.

Interestingly, work by Dutch scientists* regarding the properties of the techeiles dye molecule revealed a striking coincidence. The color of a substance is determined by way it reflects and absorbs light. No two molecules have the same pattern (called a wavelength absorption spectrum) which is measured in units called nanometers. Techeiles obtained from the Murex trunculus snail derives its color from a sharp peak in its spectrum at exactly 613 nanometers.

Looking at the tzitzit, looking at our techelet, we are reminded of the commandments. We wear fringes not for decoration, but to remind us of Gd, of our history and of our future. Just by looking at our tzitzit, we see our past (the Exodus), our present (the commandments) and our future (a holier/Divine world). That’s a lot in just a few verses!

The language here is inclusive. It does not say that tzitzit are for men only or women only, but are for all. Another day we will discuss further, but for today:

Talmud Menachot 43a
רב יהודה רמי תכילתא לפרזומא דאינשי ביתיה ומברך כל צפרא להתעטף בציצית

§ Rav Yehuda would affix white and sky-blue strings to the garment [pirzuma] of his wife. And every morning he would recite the blessing: To wrap ourselves in garments with ritual fringes.
One of my tallitot with Techelet
This shows that Rabbi Yehuda (and others) would ensure that ALL in his family wore tzitzit!

Our journey today has taken us far in the past and back to the present. It is rather amazing what a few knots and strings can do. Whether or not you wear tzitzit on a regular basis, I do encourage you to put your tallit on regularly and say the Shema. If you do not have your own tallit, check out our gift shop--and if today has inspired you to put on techelet, PTil Techelet is having their annual sale--ending tomorrow! I also have a few sets in my office and am happy to help you tie them on. May the thread of blue inspire you to remember the commandments AND to observe them! Shabbat shalom!