missing techelet

parshat tetzaveh

For most of us, the Biblical laws and descriptions regarding the tabernacle and priestly costumes lack all meaning. I mentioned in a previous blog, the theory offered by Maimonides that the Torah actually had a bias against temple worship and a priestly caste, and therefore marginalized and localized these institutions.. only one temple and only in one location. The Torah’s long-term goal was to trivialize this institution so that we could serve a higher authority in a more abstract manner. So… if you find these portions of the Torah irrelevant, I suppose you can pat yourself on the back and consider yourself a highly evolved Jew!

The temple laws join a significant group of laws that even the Rabbis have deemed not applicable (n/a). In fact, Rabbinic law has placed barriers to their revival by forbidding access to the Temple Mount and, for instance, forbidding roasted meat at the Seder.. which might be mistaken for the actual Passover sacrifice. (See Halachos of Pesach by Rav Shimon Eider, Chapt 24: K3). With the creation of the State of Israel and the liberation of the Temple Mount, groups committed to reestablishing the Temple, it’s worship and fashions have emerged. An organization called the Temple Institute even leads tours of the Temple, breeds the Red Heifer, designs the utensils and priestly garments all in anticipation of the third temple to be built by man. That these groups get much of their funding from non-Jews who watch their weekly cable show and who, one might suppose are trying to hasten the advent of the New Jerusalem (see previous blog) should not be a surprise.

In my opinion…. we need a third Temple like a lochen kup (Yiddish: hole in the head), but I do believe that there are still wonderful lessons to be gleaned from these texts.  In particular, I am intrigued by one color from the priestly palate which transcended and outlived the Tabernacle. The color is the royal or sky blue called techelet (Hebrew: תכלת‎). This is the blue ultimately chosen to be the color of the flag of Israel:

The idea that the blue and white colors were the national color of the Jewish people was voiced early on by Ludwig August Frankl (1810–1894), an Austrian Jewish poet. In his poem, “Judah’s Colors”, he writes:

When sublime feelings his heart fill, he is mantled in the colors of his country. He stands in prayer, wrapped in a sparkling robe of white. The hems of the white robe are crowned with broad stripes of blue; Like the robe of the High Priest, adorned with bands of blue threads. These are the colors of the beloved country, blue and white are the colors of Judah; White is the radiance of the priesthood, and blue, the splendors of the firmament. (see Wikipedia: Flag of Israel)

Techelet is the one color that jumps out of every tapestry and veil described in the construction of the Tabernacle:

Moreover thou shalt make the tabernacle with ten curtains: of fine twined linen, and blue, and purple, and scarlet, with cherubim the work of the skilful workman shalt thou make them. (Exodus 26:1)

And thou shalt make loops of blue upon the edge of the one curtain that is outmost in the first set; and likewise shalt thou make in the edge of the curtain that is outmost in the second set. (Exodus 26:4)

And thou shalt make a veil of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen; with cherubim the work of the skilful workman shall it be made. (Exodus 26:31)

And thou shalt make a screen for the door of the Tent, of blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen, the work of the weaver in colors. (Exodus 26:36)

The only figurative element of the veil was the cherubs and they were woven from the blue thread of techelet.

But probably, the most striking and telling use of techelet was in the priestly garments:

And thou shalt make the robe of the ephod all of blue. (Exodus 28:31)

The crescendo of which was the high priest’s head plate with God’s name on it:

And thou shalt make a plate of pure gold, and engrave upon it, like the engravings of a signet: HOLY TO THE LORD. And thou shalt put it on a thread of blue (peteel techelet), and it shall be upon the mitre; upon the forefront of the mitre it shall be. (Exodus 28:36-38)

The image of this head plate, combined with the robe of the high priest demonstrate the uncontested dominance of the blue techelet.

(illustration from The Tabernacle, Its structure and utensils by Moshe Levine, Soncino press1969)

The reason that the blue techelet came to represent the color of the Jewish people, is not because of its preponderance in the Tabernacle. Techelet achieved its significance for the Jewish people because the Torah chose techelet as the sole artifact of the temporary tabernacle culture. The Torah memorialized not only the color, but the very vocabulary used… the Hebrew for “head plate” is Tzitz which means alternatively; wings… as in:

Give wings to Moab, For she will flee away; And her cities will become a desolation, Without inhabitants in them. (Jeremiah 48:9)

And buds… as in:

And it came to pass on the morrow, that Moses went into the tent of the testimony; and, behold, the rod of Aaron for the house of Levi was budded, and put forth buds, and bloomed blossoms, and bore ripe almonds. (Numbers 17:23)

And the blue peteel techelet thread survives “for the generations” in the Fringes or Tzitzit (Hebrew: ציצית):

Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes in the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of blue (peteel techelet).  (Numbers 15:38)

Note that the word for corners (kanfey) also means “wings” as in:

Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto Myself. (Exodus 19:4)

The connection between the High priest’s Tzitz, mantle, wing, bud with a peteel techelet blue thread on the one hand, and the corners of the simple garment of the plebian Jew with a techelet blue Tzitzit on the other, is too obvious to miss. It’s as if the Torah is telling us that while the Tabernacle and it’s royal blue was a temporary accommodation to the Exodus generation’s need for a Royal-Priestly transitional institution, but that the idea that every Jew is regal in his or her own right should last for all generations.

Like the Good Book says: “and ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.”

Sounds downright democratic!

It reminds me of the Jewish Joke (which always ring true) of Lyndon Johnson complaining to Golda Meir that he was the President of 200 million people. To which Golda replied… “You think that’s tough, I’m the prime minister to 3 million prime ministers!” (Track #7 The Presidents, from You Don’t Have to be Jewish & When You’re in Love the Whole World is Jewish by Bob Booker & George Foster)

This…every Jew is a priest was a GREAT idea … but like all great ideas, the history of that idea can take some surprising twists and turns.

Turns out that the reason techelet was a royal blue was because it was made from a very rare mollusk and was therefore very expensive. The Talmud teaches that the source for the blue dye is a marine creature known as the “hillazon” (Hebrew: חילזון‎), translated as “snail” in Modern Hebrew. (see Wikipedia techelet)

Because it was very expensive, the techelet would create an inevitable burden on the mass of Jews.  Surprisingly…. there was a time when our Rabbis cared about adding to the burden of the Jews. There were two rabbinic guidelines. The first is: tircha de’tzibura which means “an imposition on the community” Usually this guideline is used for doing away with rabbinic rules or customs which create discomfort such as adding too many prayers that extend the synagogue service too long (a good subject for another blog…). There is another guideline of a “gezerah shein hatzibur ycolin laamod bah”- a decree that a community cannot abide by, which similarly, is used to disallow Rabbinic decrees that cause undue hardship such as an attempt to prohibit non-Jewish oil (Avodah Zara 36a)

Because using techelet in Tzitizit was from the Torah (and not simply a rabbinic decree), the Rabbis could not use the above mentioned guidelines to easily disallow it.  I believe that they did follow the spirit of these guidelines and use a “divine ruse”, in which they claimed by fiat that the hillazon was extinct, or in any case could no longer be found. The Midrash Tanhuma (Shelach 28; Bamidbar Rabba 17:5) laments, “and now we have no tekhelet, only white.” In short, the Rabbis added the Torah law of techelet on tzitzit to those laws that were n/a…. who said Rabbis can’t change the Toarah for a good reason?

Actually, the Rabbis had a second compelling reason to abandon the techelet besides its overbearing cost. Since it was so expensive and therefore involved money.. it gave birth to corruption and a black market. This widespread corruption is borne out by modern day archeology!

Yigael Yadin; famed Israeli archeologist, politician, and the second Chief of Staff of the Israel Defense Forces is best known for his coffee table book on Masada, but he also wrote a book on his excavations of the caves bordering the Dead Sea at En-gedi inhabited by Bar-Kokhba and/or his freedom fighters, who led the revolt in AD 132-135 against imperial Rome. In this cave Yadin found a bundle of blue wool:

Writes Yadin:

With it we found several unfinished ritual fringes (or sisioths). The colour of this dyed wool was identical with that of the Tyrian purple (obtained from Murex brandaris) believed by many to be the Biblical Tkheleth, the colour of the sisith. However, an analysis by Edelstein and Abrahams of the Dexter Chemical Corporation of New York showed that the colour of our fringes -as not obtained from Murex brandaris, but rather from indigo and carminic acid. (Carminic acid is the colour principle of the well-known kermes dye, obtained from the female of the insect Coccus ilicis which lives on a particular species of oak [Quercus coccifera] and is even today considered very precious.) This offered us a chance to learn very important facts about the problems of the true Tkheleth which confronted pious Jews, and were of great concern to the rabbis. In disturbed times, as those of Bar-Kokhba, it was most difficult to obtain this expensive dye and it was thus often imitated and faked. Since in practice it was almost impossible to tell the real Tkheleth from the imitation, the rabbis ruled: ‘There is no manner of testing the Tkheleth; it should therefore be bought only from an expert’ (Babylonian Talmud, Menahot 42b). Some makeshift tests, the Talmud records, were actually confusing. How a bundle of wool, such as ours, dyed not with Tyrian purple but – as ascertained by Edelstein and Abrahams through infra-red spectro-photometry – with indigo, kermes and highly sophisticated mordants which gave it the appearance of true purple, would stand up under these tests, is unknown. Let us, at least, give the people of the cave the benefit of the doubt, that they bought it bona fide from a non-expert, unaware that it was an imitation. According to the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Baba Metzia 6Ib): ‘It is I who will exact vengeance from him who attached to his garments threads dyed with indigo and maintains that it is Tkheleth.’ In other words, the real crime was when the fake was deliberate.   (Bar-Kokhba: The Rediscovery of the Legendary Hero of the Last Jewish Revolt Against Imperial Rome, Yigael Yardin, 1971 pp 83-84)

The irony of the rebel Jews confronting imperial Rome with a stash of the Royal techelet….recorded in a book written by a secular Israeli archaeologist who was also a chief of staff of the IDF, and who knows his Talmud and understands the socio-economic trials of 2nd century Jews…. is almost too much to take!

But here’s my “take”: I personally don’t wear the newly discovered and affordable techelet .. I prefer to look at my all-white zitzit with the missing techelet.

My missing techelet reminds me that we are all a holy nation of equals. My missing techelet reminds me of a Judaism that transcended the moment of a temporary tabernacle and priestly caste and flys on the wings of an eternal idea that; with the freshness of a bud, posits the nobility of all men. My missing techelet reminds me of a time when our Rabbis and leaders cared more about snuffing out corruption and lessening the burden of the common man then maintaining a rule from the Torah. My missing techelet reminds me of the not so distant past when our generals were scholars and when Judaism and its texts were not monopolized by the few but were the acknowledged birthright of all of us.  Finally, my missing techelet and the environmentalist in me, makes me think of those of God’s species who are missing and wonder what I can do to preserve the turquoise blue seas and azzure skies and all the creatures, down to the smallest mollusk that swarm within.

——— end thought —–

From when may one recite the Shema in the morning?

From when one can distinguish between techelet and white. [Mishnah Berakhot 1:2]

Let the sun shine!


Filed under Bible, Israel, Judaism, Religion, social commentary, Torah, Uncategorized

2 responses to “missing techelet

  1. Check out this new discovery of the Real Techelet… http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/28/world/middleeast/28blue.html

  2. Pingback: missing techelet | madlik

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