A Blue Tallit as a Red Herring

Numbers 13:1-15:14

By Peretz Rodman

Published June 27, 2003, issue of June 27, 2003.
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Ever since Sinai, Moses has been promulgating laws. A midrash informs us that Korah, the rebel leader from next week’s Torah portion, has a plan: If even just a few of those regulations, whose intricate details are assumed to be weighted with significance, can be made to appear capricious and nonsensical, the people may begin to suspect that Moses is manipulating them in order to enjoy the perquisites of power. An Enron-in-the-wilderness scandal could be manufactured, and new management could be installed. Korah and his associates would be only too happy to step in.

The first of these attempts to sow doubt about the lawgiver’s probity focuses on the last passage in this week’s portion, which comes just before the Korah story. (Midrashic reading assumes that no detail is insignificant. Even juxtaposed passages about very different subjects are understood to be somehow related.) In that passage, familiar as the final paragraph of the Sh’ma liturgy, the Israelites are enjoined to place fringes (tzitzit) at the corners of their garments, and in those fringes to include a strand dyed with the rare and expensive sky-blue dye tekhelet.

This was no off-the-shelf dye. Strands dyed with tekhelet appear in the garments of the high priest, and the same dye is used for some of the cloth appurtenances of the traveling Tabernacle. We find it among the extravagances of the legendary King Ahasuerus in the Book of Esther: “hangings of white cotton and blue wool [tekhelet], caught up by cords of fine linen and purple wool to silver rods.”

The high cost of the dye reflects the difficulties of its production: A particular species of mollusk had to be fished from the Mediterranean in large numbers, and a tiny droplet of dye had to be extracted from a gland in each one. This liquid was mixed with materials that would counteract its acidity and was exposed to light in shallow pans to adjust the color from purple to blue. Only then could batches of raw wool be dyed, carded and spun into strands to form the blue cord that would stand out among all the undyed white cords in the tzitzit.

Korah’s plan is devious. His first trick question to Moses is this: “What if one were to have an entire garment dyed tekhelet? Would it still have to have tzitzit?” The notion is preposterous: Who but an ancient sultan of Brunei could — and would — have a garment made at such an astronomical cost? But hypothetical test cases often require a stretch of the imagination.

Moses, we understand, must weigh this as a matter of law. The Torah, whose provisions are to be observed by the simple folk too, and not just the wealthy elites, requires only the minimum: one strand of tekhelet in the decorative fringe. That fringe was an ornamental detail that, like the expensive dye, served among neighboring peoples as a characteristic of the costume of the priestly caste and other elites. Among the Israelites, however, the Torah tried to inculcate the noblesse oblige sentiment of being “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” so some of the lesser accoutrements of nobility were included as part of the dress code for everyone.

Could an individual, even with the best of intentions, ignore the modest common standard when he or she had the wherewithal to make a splashy fashion statement (explained, of course, as spiritual zeal)? Why, one could no more allow that than an officer can allow a soldier to appear in a made-to-order dress uniform of fine silk or a team captain could allow one of his players to have his jersey number highlighted in little light bulbs. Moses has been put on the defensive, and our midrash never informs us whether he succeeds in thinking of the appropriate snappy retort. The biblical account, though, assures us that Korah’s plan fails.

Korah’s challenge highlights for us the true nature of the mitzvah of tzitzit. His very question rests on the assumption that the essence of this mitzvah is in the blue color of that contrasting strand, for which other strands are merely the setting. Otherwise what sense is there to his hypothetical scenario? A careful reading of Numbers 15 confirms that point.

For lack of available dye, Jews have upheld only half of the Torah’s provisions for a millennium and a half, placing only white strands in their tzitzit. That practice was allowed by the rabbinic sages if one could not obtain the proper blue dye. In the past two decades, however, a century and more of efforts to reconstruct the process and produce tekhelet have borne fruit, and we can now once again observe this precept in full.

Rabbi Peretz Rodman edits the “Daily Life and Practice” section of MyJewishLearning.com and serves as associate director of the Jerusalem-based Ta-Shma: Pluralistic Jewish Learning (www.tashma.org).

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