Tekhelet in the Tallit?
Spotlight on... Halachah
By Rabbi Peretz Rodman
Twice daily, in the third paragraph of the Shema, we recite the Torah’s requirement of a strand of tekhelet (a blue dye) in the fringes at the corners of one’s tallit: ‘Ve-natenu ‘al tsitsit ha-kanaf petil tekhelet.’ – ‘And they shall place upon the fringes of each corner a thread of tekhelet’. For centuries, however, this rule was not observed because no one knew the source of the dye.
Now, after over a hundred years of research, scientists have the definitive solution to the mystery of tekhelet. This, in its turn, has thrown up many new questions: When should respect for tradition stifle innovation? What if the ‘innovation’ is actually the revival of an older tradition? Who would favour reverence for continuity over the performance of a mitzvah? Jews have faced these dilemmas for a few decades now. How should Masorti Jews respond?
The Talmudic sages insisted that tekhelet is a not a hue. After all, there were other dyes that matched the color so well that the Talmud records an argument over whether any difference between the real and the copy could be discerned – but the copy was still considered a fake. Rather, tekhelet is the product of a process that begins with the ‘blood’ of a certain sea creature.
The blue dye industry in the Mediterranean died out in late antiquity; Jews and others could no longer identify the species from which the dye was produced. Efforts to revive the production of tekhelet by a Hasidic rebbe from Radzin, Poland, in the 1870s led to the production of a blue dye from squid ink, but Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog’s 1913 doctoral dissertation (in London) dispelled the misconception that the Radziner blue reproduced our ancestors’ tekhelet. He identified the murex trunculus sea mollusk as the proper source of the dye, but he could not explain why that dye was purple, rather than the blue described in Talmudic literature as comparable to the colour of the sea and the sky.
Now, after the chance discovery of the effect of sunlight on the raw dye, turning it blue, the original tekhelet not only can be made but is being made. Sets of tzitzit with a strand dyed tekhelet are readily available.
Since permission to dispense with tekhelet applies only if it is unavailable (Mishnah Menaḥot 4:1), why do observant Jews not all now wear the required tekhelet in their tzitzit?
Major halachic authorities, responding to the Radziner initiative, ruled that after the loss of the living tradition, only when Messiah comes will we know again how to produce tekhelet. That was the view of the great halachic authority, Rabbi Joseph Baer Soloveitchik – who died before the recent discoveries. Although many have argued that if Soloveitchik and others had known what we now know, they would have required the use of tekhelet, reverence for their rulings combines with the basic conservative tendencies of Orthodoxy to block the adoption of the ‘new’ tekhelet. Others report that leading Orthodox rabbis wear tekhelet themselves in private but won’t impose the considerable cost on their followers and their large families.
Masorti Jews should share none of that hesitancy. We recognize that science and scholarship bring us valid new insights that can and should affect our understanding and practice of mitzvot. We value fidelity to halachic principle over the maintenance of recent tradition. We should be wearing tekhelet.
Rabbi Peretz Rodman is head of the Masorti Bet Din in Israel, and is a Jerusalem-based writer, translator and teacher