Tag Archives: tzitzit

rounding the corner

parshat emor, leviticus 21-24

Join Geoffrey Stern and Rabbi Adam Mintz recorded on May 4th 2023 on Clubhouse. This week’s Torah portion is Emor.  In it we come across the source for the tradition for Jewish men to grow beards and Peyot (side curls) and the prohibition to cut the corners of the beard. We are struck by a recurring theme of the holiness of the corner whether in beard grooming, agricultural laws or in the four-cornered garment and we wonder whether there is something more at play.

Sefaria Source Sheet: https://www.sefaria.org/sheets/484211


Welcome to Madlik.  My name is Geoffrey Stern and at Madlik we light a spark or shed some light on a Jewish Text or Tradition.  Along with Rabbi Adam Mintz, we host Madlik Disruptive Torah on clubhouse and share it as the Madlik podcast on your favorite platform. This week’s Torah portion is Emor.  In it we come across the source for the tradition for Jewish men to grow beards and Peyot (side curls) and the prohibition to cut the corners of the beard.. We are struck by a recurring theme of the holiness of the corner whether in beard grooming, agricultural laws or in the four-cornered garment and we wonder whether there is something more at play. So join us for rounding the corner.


Well, welcome rabbi, another exciting week of Madlik disruptive Torah.

Adam Mintz  01:02

I’m looking forward. And of course, this week talking about getting a haircut is perfect, because the holiday of getting a haircut L’ag B’Omar is next Tuesday. So I thought you chose a great topic for this week.

Geoffrey Stern  01:16

You know, I was thinking I there were two things that happened in the search preparing for this. One was every time I tried to do a search about Jewish customs of grooming the hair, grooming the beard, it is such a popular topic today that it was very hard to get anything Jewish. Men are just much more interested, are growing beards is in fashion again. So that is interesting. And as you say, here we are a part of the Jewish calendar revolves around grooming a beard, part of the mourning process revolves around grooming the beard. So whether we make light of it or not, it is a part of, of the Jewish traditions. And the other thing that was very difficult was there was a lot of focus on shaving, not shaving and stuff like this. But you will see, as I said in the introduction, this focus on the square, and rounding the square, what I call the rounding the corner, I didn’t find many people who was struck on it as much as I was. And I mentioned just a few I didn’t mention tefillin. I mentioned the Arba Kanfot, the four cornered garment. I obviously mentioned the subject matter which is grooming the corners of the beard. And I mentioned agricultural Laws, the corners of the field which you will be talking about probably on shavuot, because Ruth was one of the poor women who was gleaning the corners of Boaz’s field, but I was surprised that there was not that many, if any people that were trying to connect those points. Are you struck by this? I wouldn’t say it’s a fixation, but certainly a recurring theme of the square and the rounding of that square.

Adam Mintz  03:26

There’s no question corners are important. Borders, I broaden it a little bit. Borders; limits are important Sefirat haOmer is a limit, right? You count 49 days. The Torah is very familiar with setting limits with saying, you know, you can you can cut your hair or you can cut your hair only this amount. That’s something that’s very prevalent in the Torah. In truth, it’s prevalent in every legal system, the idea of setting limits,

Geoffrey Stern  03:58

I agree, but we’re going to focus on rounding the corner. So let’s go Leviticus 21: 5 in our Parshat Emor it says they shall not shave, smooth any part of their heads or cut the side growth of their beards or make gashes in their flesh. And we’re talking about rules for a priest; for a Cohen against what they can do during mourning. In the Hebrew when it talks about side growth of their beards, it’s talking about וּפְאַ֥ת זְקָנָ֖ם . The other translations like the Koran actually translate that as the corner of their beard. This is not the first time we’ve been exposed to this in Leviticus 19: 27. It says You shall not round off the side growth on your head or destroy the side growth of your beard, and here it does say פְּאַ֥ת זְקָנֶֽךָ , the corner of your beard, but it says לֹ֣א תַקִּ֔פוּ פְּאַ֖ת רֹאשְׁכֶ֑ם , you shall not round off. For those of you who have ever been to a synagogue on Sukkot on Simchat to add and have engaged in Hakafot, Hakafot  is when you take the Torah in the center and you go around it, you circle around it almost in a snake I think they call it or maybe is it a conga line they do at Bar Mitzvahs, but it’s Hakafot; to circle around. So here it literally says You shall not circle the corners of your beard. And in Rashi on that Leviticus 27. He says really הֶקֵּף רֹאשׁוֹ עָגֹל סָבִיב  that you should not circumvent your head and make עָגֹל   is the Hebrew word for circle and making עָגֹל   rounded into a circumvention. So, we have these two things, we have the pe’ah, which you say is a border and a boundary we will get to that. But certainly, the traditional interpretation of pe’ot especially in this regard, is more of a corner, not necessarily the corner of a square, Rashi in Leviticus 19: 27 quoting the Talmud says that there were actually five corners of the beard, we’re talking about the two cheekbones, and the chin and the temples. So, the idea is that you cannot get rid of those angles. The Ibn Ezra gives a start of a reason why? It says because non-Jewish nations do so that you shall be separated from them. So, it seems and this is the traditional explanation I I’d love you to confirm this, that for mourning rites, the tradition seems to be that non-Jews would do a bunch of things, they would gash themselves, they’d mutilate themselves, they might tear out their hair. And if you want to be very minimalistic and focused, you would say we shouldn’t mourn that way. And the key here is to be separated from them, I should say that we’ve focused on what you can’t do. But clearly, the flip side of this is that it has become a tradition for Jews to grow a beard. And more precisely, to grow side locks or those peyot. Mostly amongst Eastern European Hasidic Jews, but also Yemenite Jews. And while Eastern European Hasidic Jews called it pe’ot, the Yemenite Jews call it Simanim, which means literally in accordance with this Rashi something that is a siman is a sign that distinguishes us from them.

Adam Mintz  08:37

That’s amazing. That’s so great that you bring that up, because the you know, the the Yemenite obviously take that word from the Ibn Ezra. And it says so much more pa’ot just describe what they are right they’re sideburns, but simanim talks about the fact that we’re distinguished with the sideburns. And I think that’s an interesting thing to talk about, that what everybody else used to do, and why what we do is different.

Geoffrey Stern  09:03

Absolutely. So you could simply say that there is no deeper meaning here. It’s just they do one thing, we do the opposite. And by the way, it is kind of ironic, is it not? That today, when my father passed away, I grew a beard. There were some who who really look at this, from an aesthetic point of view, from a fashion point of view. And since in those days, the fashion was to have a beard. If you were mourning, you would rip out that beard nowadays that we shave, if I want to show that I’m in mourning, I grow the beard, but it’s so so on the one hand at a basic level, it shows you that at least the facial hair wasr or the facial hair statement is is still alive and well. It’s a way of showing your disposition. Maimonides in the Mishneh Torah goes a step further than saying simply that it distinguishes our practice from their practice. He says, we may not shave the corners of our heads as the idolaters and their priests do. So, this brings in two more elements, number one, and we came across this a little bit last week, where we were talking about rules that related to women who did certain things, could they marry a Cohen. And we really extrapolated that broadly here to these rules are really stated with regard to a Cohen. But we’re saying that these morning rituals, if a Cohen can’t do it, we extrapolate to say none of us can do it. So that’s the first interesting thing.

Adam Mintz  10:58

That is interesting,

Geoffrey Stern  10:59

The other interesting thing is that he’s saying it’s idolaters. And it’s their priests. So now it’s not simply doing what the non-Jews do, but what the non-Jews do, one would assume, as a cultic, as a religious idolatrous practice. And that, of course, has synergy with our Kohanim or priests can do it, but also why we generally can’t do it.

Adam Mintz  11:26

Right. I mean, now we’re getting into a whole little bit of a different area. And that is what are the priests have to do with this issue? Why should it be that the priests can’t do it? You know, priests are holy somehow. Why does cutting your hair and being holy? And being a priest? What are those all have to do with one another? That’s interesting, isn’t it?

Geoffrey Stern  11:49

It’s interesting, and I am now going to ask you a trivia question that that just popped into my head. The Yiddish word may be the Hebrew word for a priest is a galach, is it not?

Adam Mintz  12:02

Yeah, that’s a non Jewish priest is a galach

Geoffrey Stern  12:05

A Galach. Now, does Galach have anything to do with l’hitgaleach (to shave)?

Adam Mintz  12:10

not. But that’s a good question. You know, you could always say a dirt toe or about anything. So you can say that’s our toe, right?

Geoffrey Stern  12:18

Except all of those Russian Orthodox priests that I’ve ever seen. And the Greek Orthodox have nice beards. So Yeah, that’s funny.. where does that come from ? right? So it really doesn’t hold up. 

Note from Editor:  According to Wikipedia: “Galach or Gal’ach is a Yiddish word meaning priest or, sometimes, any type of Christian minister. Its etymology is the Hebrew word galach, meaning “to shave” or “shaven”, a reference to the fact that rabbis traditionally wore beards” Hyamson, Albert Montefiore; Silbermann, Abraham Maurice (1938). Vallentine’s Jewish Encyclopedia. Shapiro, Vallentine.

Okay, so that was the trivia question. Let’s move on. So, the Mishna Torah continues, and it adds (This is Maimonides) adds another element here. And in Mishneh Torah, Foreign Worship and Customs, 12:3 it says, All the Torah’s prohibitions apply equally to men and women, with the exception of the prohibition against shaving, cutting off the corners of one’s head, and the prohibition against priests contracting impurity through contact with a dead body. And I need to say that this is before he says the more obvious thing, which is what everybody seems to know, which is that women are not required to do commandments that are dependent on time. But this is one that I had never seen. You could say, it’s kind of obvious, isn’t it? That a woman would not be under the prohibition of shaving a beard because she doesn’t have a beard?

Adam Mintz  13:31

Right? Of course, right…

Geoffrey Stern  13:32

The question is, and I think Maimonides gets into this. Who is the sin on? Is it the one who gets shaved or the shaver?

Adam Mintz  13:41

Right. And they say both? And that’s also fascinating. And therefore, maybe if you go to a non-Jewish Barber, that’s different because you know it the question is, who the who the prohibition is on.

Geoffrey Stern  13:55

Well, absolutely. But what is fascinating to me, is here, it brings in another element. And what it brings in is that any rules regarding the beard, at the end of the day, it’s pretty clear that they relate to manhood. they extrapolate slightly more generally; it relates to masculinity or man’s identity. One of the fascinating commentaries that I could not find in Sefira but is brought in an amazing article in one of my favorite go to sources….  I’ve mentioned it many times before TheTorah.com is a rabbi Zeb Farber quotes R. Bachya ben Asher (1255-1340) , who says that the reason you cannot shave or you cannot round the corners of your beard, is because the beard is a main way of differentiating between men and women. And he puts this in the same category, as the prohibitions that we find in Deuteronomy 22: 5 about a man can’t dress like a woman and vice versa. So he’s really focused on the gender identity element of this rule.

Adam Mintz  15:19

Yeah, that’s interesting. Wow, that’s a good thing to find, right? So, so very much this is gendered. Which might just be practical that women don’t grow beards. You see, usually when you talk about things being gendered, it’s kind of a criticism, why does it only apply to men and not to women, but in this case, it’s it doesn’t sound like it’s really a problem, right? That’s just the way it is. And it applies to men and not women.

Geoffrey Stern  15:46

So the word that we would use in this particular instance, is emasculating… the idea that yes, we are gender neutral in the modern era. But none the less, women and men are different, they’re physiologically different. Whatever you want to say, or at least, you know, those of us who don’t want to go all the way will say, there is a word called “emasculating”. And maybe it’s a man’s problem, that he feels emasculated if he does certain things, and he should get over it. But I think the source that we just quoted of R. Bachya ben Asher, and maybe even Maimonides, see in this are trimming of the beard, and the rules relating to the beard rules that will lead to the manhood of a man so to speak, and towards the distinction between men and women. And you started by talking about the boundaries, if there are boundaries in in the Torah. This is an area where you get that you get that message. That’s my read on it.

Adam Mintz  17:06

That’s a good read on it. I think that’s 100%. Right. I think that is the read here.

Geoffrey Stern  17:11

So I said in the introduction, that there are other instances of corners. One of the great commentaries on Leviticus, and I’ve mentioned before you actually do need commentaries on Leviticus because much of it is very difficult for us who don’t have a temple who don’t have the all these rules of purity. So Baruch A. Levine writes, you shall not round off the side growth on your head. Hebrew pe’ah, is the same word used in verse 9 in Leviticus 19: 9. To designate the corner or edge of a field, Hebrew lo’ takkifu, you shall not round derives from the word n-k-f to encircle. Certain peoples who inhabited the desert areas are referred to as ketsutsei pe ‘ah men with their side growth cut off. So in this simple little paragraph, I found a anchor for what I was fascinated with, which is how does this word pe’ah, find itself this concept of corner find itself elsewhere? And what I’d like to suggest before we start looking at all of the sources is that one way or another, whether it’s in the verse that we’re going to read now about the need to leave the corners of the field for the poor and the stranger. The biblical editor establishes as an obvious thematic link between corners of the beard and corners of the field and corners seem to be holy or consecrated, which means that they need to either be dedicated to God or to chosen on Earth, that seems at least to me to be the connection between all the corners that we’re going to look at. And before I open it up to discussion, let me read Leviticus 19: 9, when you reap the harvest, and remember, it’s 19: 9, it’s in the same chapter as the first occurrence of this prohibition of the Kohanim of rounding the corners of the beard. So it’s, uh, not far fetched to say that the biblical author was aware that they were using the same word for different use cases. When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap all the way to the edges of your field, not all the way to the פְּאַ֥ת שָׂדְךָ֖  or gather the gleanings of your harvest. If you’re picking up a bail of hay and you drop some hay, you need to leave those Gleanings for the poor like Ruth. You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard, you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger. I am God, Your God. So now already, I think I have a little bit of a basis to say, yes, it’s mandated by God. But there’s an issue of holiness here of leaving those, the translation we have is edges, which is much in line with how you started Rabbi talking about boundaries, or corners of the field. But do you think like me that there is a connection here that we can’t ignore that it’s not really drash?

Adam Mintz  20:49

There has to be a connection, the fact that it’s written together has to be there’s a connection? Yeah. So what is Levine say? Levine is great. You should just say Levine was a professor of Bible at NYU for many, many decades. He was a real scholar. 

[ed] “In a 2012 autobiographical essay, Levine described the Hebrew Bible as “a repository of ancient Near Eastern heritage. It preserves language and law, religious practices and social patterns, political norms and historical memories indicating that its authors, living in a small Levantine country, were open to the world.”

Geoffrey Stern  21:04

Fantastic. Well, if you recall, he not only made the connection to the verse about the field, but he made a reference to Jeremiah and I, frankly had never looked at these verses in Jeremiah. And in Jeremiah 9. It’s talking about Jeremiah really, you know, wanting the children of Israel of what’s happening and how bad they are and low days are coming declares the Lord, when I will take note of everyone circumcised in the foreskin of Egypt, Judah, Edom, the Amorites, Moabs. And all the desert dwellers who have the hair of their temples clipped for all these nations are uncircumcised, but all the houses of Israel are uncircumcised of heart. What’s fascinating to me, is that Jeremiah mixes metaphors of circumcision with this people in the desert, who are called קְצוּצֵ֣י פֵאָ֔ה they have a clipped the corners of their beard. It happens three other times interesting what Rashi says on this verse is pe’ah, in this regard, an expression of an end, those cast off to the corner of the desert. So Rashi doesn’t even believe that these people are literally ones who clip the corners of their beard. What they are, is they are marginalized. They are at the outside of the desert. And if you take that, and the fact that when he talks about circumcision, he’s clearly also talking metaphorically, because even actually says that when I say that the Jews are uncircumcised, I mean that they are  עַרְלֵי־לֵֽב , they are uncircumcised of heart. So what’s fascinating to me, is we’ve established in a sense that part of this dialogue has to do with manhood, here we have a situation where you are on the outside, you are on the borders, or over the side of the borders. And whether it’s literal, or figurative. He’s talking about I had never thought about circumcision in terms of rounding the corner, so to speak. But here we have all of these metaphors, again, that to me, are stimulating and kind of fascinating and started me maybe it was because last week we were talking about such sexually graphic things. But but the point is that there that he puts it in the same context, and it has to do with removing or making holy, this outer outer boundary fascinating to me.

Adam Mintz  24:12

That is interesting. So the boundary becomes a sign of holiness. It’s not that the boundary is holy, but the boundary becomes a sign of holiness. Now, why is that? So, I think that what holiness is, is it separates the holy from the non holy, it’s about boundaries. Because the minute that you go too far, it’s not holy anymore. It’s mundane. It’s regular. So, holiness is about establishing boundaries. I’ll give you an example. You walk into a shul. People act differently in shul than they do outside of shul and therefore you can be having a certain conversation when you’re walking Walking to shul, and then your walk into the building, you stop having that conversation. And you might say to the person having the conversation with this isn’t appropriate for shul. That’s a boundary of holiness.

Geoffrey Stern  25:13

I think also, and I agree with what you just said. But I think also there’s always a very close line between holy and profane between what is holy, and what is Parush/Seperate and not holy. And I think we can’t kind of understand this in total, because clearly, for instance, in circumcision, the Orla is rejected. It’s the corner, if you will, that’s thrown away. And clearly, the people that he’s referring to in the desert are outcasts. But again, it just sensitized me. And I don’t think we’re going to have answers, and I don’t think we’re going to be able to connect all the dots. But I do think that I want to establish it’s a rich area of research that I don’t think has been done. Let’s move on to the tzitzit, the Arbah Kanfot. In Deuteronomy 22: 12. It says, You shall make tassels on the four corners of the garment which cover you. So here, it doesn’t use Arbah Pinot, it doesn’t use Arbah Pe’ot, it says Arba Kenafot (wings) it uses a different word. But I feel we have a license to relate it again, because it’s clear that it is those four corners. And I think what we’re dealing with is less something that is literally but more visual, something that is based on imagery based on really a core kind of conceptual notion of what these corners are and what the rounding is, In Deuteronomy 23: 1 it says, No householder, shall take his father’s former wife, as his own wife, so as to remove his father’s garment כְּנַ֥ף אָבִֽיו . So here, again, it’s that outer perimeter that is female, but it belongs to the man, I’m making a little bit of a stretch here. But I mean, that’s how I kind of I’m starting to read this. And, and before I discuss it, let’s go to the real Kanafim (wings) that kind kanafayim, if you think in terms of and we have studied this before the Charubim, that have their wings spread out, it uses the same word as it uses for the four corners of the garment,  פֹּרְשֵׂ֨י כְנָפַ֜יִם  and they spread their wings, over the, the ark. They are and they have been facing each other. So really getting back to what you were discussing before about corners or sides. In the temple, it many times were fear refers to the sides of the temple. The west side is the לִפְאַת־יָ֔ם  the the other side is לִפְאַ֛ת קֵ֥דְמָה  so we’re talking about a very symmetrical square temple, whether it’s the Mishkan or the temple, the Mikdash itself, and we are having these Kenafim (wings/corners)  on top of this square ark. And they’re facing each other. And we also have in in the use of מִפְּאַ֣ת פָּנָ֔יו the face it just made me think of the Cherubim totally differently as this again, this dialectic between this square Ark and this square temple and the kenafim… the arba kanfot somehow neutralizing it somehow embellishing it somehow making it more female and male. These I think are I couldn’t find anyone else who was really looking in this direction. But I do think it’s a very you know, when we talk about the iconography of Judaism of ancient Judaism, even the fill in them, which are these strange boxes that are we put on the the Talmud in the Babylonian Talmud says it’s a halacha L’Moshe MiSinai, that they have to be square. The Jerusalem Talmud it’s in our notes says that square is something that doesn’t ever appear in nature. One of the Midrashim that I saw is that the tefillin are called ‘Batim”… they’re called houses. And we dwelt upon this before “Veshechanti Betocham” I will have my presence within you. Why does it say Betocham in you and not betocho “in it” and this Midrash say because God dwelt Shechan” in the square of the Mem-Sofit ם  ,

Adam Mintz  30:41

Whoa  Who says that. that’s great.

Geoffrey Stern  30:43

So I found it in a Chabad commentary that quoted it from somewhere that I couldn’t find. But it definitely said, the mem in Petocham is in the square temple. And in the batim of the tefillin. , And of course, what we do with the tefillin, I have a picture here. I had to go to images of someone who compares it’s not actually tefillin, it’s the case of tefillin with the hakafot, l’havdil that the Muslims do around the Kabba, their square shrine. And in his commentary, he says, and if you consider wrapping the retsua (strap) of the tefillin around your arm, you are in a sense making that hakafa. You are rounding the square. I have a picture from the Cairo Geniza. Of tefillin, that were found that have the base square in accordance with the Halacha, l’moshe m’sinai but the middle part is conical. and could be taken as phallic symbol, I, you know, again, you have to look at the images. And we need someone to take this further. But I was in a place called Angkor Wat in Cambodia. And I couldn’t get out of my mind that all of the temples were based on this kind of Lotus (Linga) motif where the middle part was coming straight up. And on the four corners was either a square that later became part of this Lotus motif around it the birth of the Linga. But again, there was this sense of the middle was a male and the around it was female. I think we’re coming to the end of our time.

Adam Mintz  32:36

But I think what you’re pointing out is something that’s really interesting. We don’t usually do this. But what you’re really pointing out is that it’s all about images. Right?

Geoffrey Stern  32:45

Yeah. I mean, if you look at the images, I have pictures of circling around a Chuppa, and there too, it’s based on maybe on Jeremiah that says נְקֵבָ֖ה תְּס֥וֹבֵֽב גָּֽבֶר, that a woman goes around or rounds the man, I have pictures of that square talit which is also that based on that Arba Kanfot  and of Hasidim dancing around it. It to me what I thought of, and I’m going to end here because we are running out of time, is a movie with Richard Dreyfus in it called Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Adam Mintz  33:27

I know that movie,

Geoffrey Stern  33:28

I don’t think we’re talking about influences. I don’t think that anything happened in Cambodia and Buddhism, was directly affected or came from the same source as what we have. But I do think that maybe there’s something here here clearly, a phallic image is something that is kind of universal. And there’s something that kind of unites us with the iconography of the world, and helping us to understand some of the iconography that we have in the Torah. But clearly, I challenge anyone who disagrees with any of the conclusions or maybe the ideas that I’m throwing out to deny that there isn’t something with this. squaring the circle circling the square, turning the corner, there’s a thread there. There’s a trend there, which I find fascinating.

Adam Mintz  34:30

I think that’s great. This was a great this was a great topic today. I think there were so many things to think about the images, the squares, the circles, and it really gives us something to wonder about as we enjoy this wonderful partnership. So Shabbat Shalom. Happy L’ag B’Omer, and we look forward to seeing everybody next Thursday night.

Geoffrey Stern  34:51

Shabbat Shalom. We’ll see you all next week.

Sefaria Source Sheet:

rounding the corner | Sefaria

Parshat Emor – We explore the source for the Jewish tradition to grow beards and Peyot (side curls) and the prohibition to shave the corners of the beard.

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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!


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