Passing on Jewish Tradition Via a Blue String
When my father offered to weave blue techelet threads onto my tallit, I was so surprised that I said no. It took me several minutes to re-consider my reflexive reaction, but it took me another year until I picked up the phone and asked him if he would, indeed, tie the blue threads on to the tassels, or tzitzit, of my tallit [prayer shawl]. Once again he surprised me: my strictly-Orthodox father, Gershon Glausiusz, took the bus to the town of Bnei B’rak, bought the threads, and several weeks later, sat down and quietly wove in the greenish-blue threads into the fringes of my tallit, in accordance with the instructions of Maimonides.
I was so moved by this act of love and acceptance that I did not even ask why he had offered to do it. Fortunately, my ever-curious four-year-old daughter asked him. My father laughed and said, “Good question! Because your mother wants it.” Later, he explained how he himself had learned how to weave the blue threads, on the advice of Rabbi Yissochor Dov (Beresh) Finklestein, the rabbi of the small synagogue-in-a-house, or shtibl, that we had attended as children growing up in North West London. Then I realized that in inheriting the tradition, I had become an unlikely feminist follower of a practice revived in Poland in the late 19th century.
Rebbe Finklestein, who came to London in 1937 from Poland1, was a follower of the Radziner Rebbe, Gershon Henoch Leiner of the Polish town of Radzyń. The Radziner Rebbe, who died in 1890, was known to his followers as the Ba’al HaTecheiles, “the master of techelet,” the blue threads that the Torah, in a well-known passage recited in the third paragraph of the Shema, instructs the Israelites to “make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a thread of blue (ptil techelet) to the fringe at each corner.” (Numbers 15:38)
The Radziner Rebbe, my father told me, had traveled to Italy to research the dye, concluding that the common cuttlefish was a source of the cobalt blue. According to the Talmud, however, the source of the blue dye was a sea snail caught along the Mediterranean coast from Haifa to the Ladder of Tyre, “a steep road cut in steps” that formed part of the coastal road connecting the territory of Acre with that of Tyre in Lebanon. In 2013, chemical analysis by Dr. Na‘ama Sukenik of the Israel Antiquities Authority revealed that the source of a blue dye on 2000-year-old fragments of fabric found in the Wadi Murabba‘at caves, south of Qumran in the Judean desert, was indeed a snail: Murex trunculus (Hexaplex trunculus), a marine mollusk with a gland that secretes blue-tinted mucus.
The true source of the blue dye was unknown for centuries, however: a reference in the 8th century CE Midrash Tanhuma notes forlornly that “now we have no techelet, only white.” Instead, Jews wove a black stripe into the fabric of the tallit to represent techelet. Even so, the Radziner Rebbe was convinced that he had found a source, and he and his chassidim began wearing the blue fringes. When Rebbe Finklestein gave my father a spare set of techelet, my father asked the Rebbe for advice on how to weave them onto the fringes of his tallit. “He said, ‘Look it up in the Rambam,’” my father recalled. “So I did.”
The book that my father consulted was Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, or “Yad HaChazakah,” the “Book of the Strong Hand,” where he found detailed instructions on how to tie techelet, and he followed them. When he showed his handiwork to the Rebbe, “he was delighted,” my father said, “because it looked like his.”
Growing up in the 1970’s in the Rebbe’s shtibl — a vibrant community that, every Simchat Torah, drew people from miles around — I did not expect that I would ever chant from the Torah as my father did, with great kavana [intention]. I certainly did not intend to wear a tallit. Decades later, in 2004, I did learn to leyn the Torah, within the embrace of the Conservative West Side Minyan on New York’s Upper West Side. Then, and now, it is my father’s beautiful chanting that inspires me. When I bought my own purple-hued Gabrieli tallit in Jerusalem in 2009, I experienced the same sense of safety and comfort when I wrapped myself in it as I had felt as a child, sheltered beneath my father’s tallit in shul during the Birkat Cohanim, the priestly blessing.
I did not know then that I myself would shelter my own twins, born in late December 2010, beneath my tallit, or that I would wrap my daughter in the folds of it during her Simchat Bat, her naming ceremony for newborn girls, at Ansche Chesed in New York. These are the moments when I feel about as close as I can to a sense of the divine presence, or shechina. As the Midrash tells us, “Rabbi Hezekiah taught: When the children of Israel are wrapped in their prayer-shawls, let them not think that they are clothed in [ordinary] blue. Rather let the children of Israel look upon the prayer shawls as though the glory of the [divine] presence were covering them.”
As my father taught me, the menorah, the ark and the table in the mishkan—the mobile tabernacle that the Israelites carried through the wilderness—were always covered with techelet-dyed wool. Techelet, my father said, “is a reminder of the mishkan: without that idea, techelet is not understood. It was the visible presence of Hashem in the midst of the people of Israel, because it covered the mishkan when it traveled.” In the same way, I’ll always have this reminder of my father, wherever my travels take me. As he said, handing me my newly-blue-tasseled tallit, “Wear it in good health for many many years, long after I have gone.”