Out of the Blue / Parashat Shelach Lecha

Yakov Z. Meyer
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Yakov Z. Meyer

In the final passage of this week’s Torah reading, God commands the Children of Israel to tie p’teel techelet ‏(a thread of blue‏) onto their garments: “And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that ye go not about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go astray” ‏(Numbers 15:39‏).

The desired actions associated with the blue thread are described in three verbs: look, remember and do. As the Talmud explains in its commentary: “Looking leads to remembering and remembering leads to action” ‏(Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Menachot, p. 43b‏). The sensory stimulus created by the thread’s sky-blue color ostensibly sparks a mental process involving memory, which then leads to action. The tzitzit ‏(ritual fringes, attached to the garment’s four corners‏) constitute a reminder for the person wearing them, every day. Without the tzitzit, says the Torah, a person will follow his heart and eyes and will forget his obligations.

Although the commandment associated with the tzitzit does not initially seem to have any major, intrinsic importance, the Talmud’s Tractate Menachot offers the following unusual explanation: “Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai says that every person who promptly performs this commandment is privileged to welcome the shechina ‏(divine presence‏). In this passage, it is written, ‘that ye may look upon it [or, him].’ And elsewhere in the Torah, it is written, ‘Thou shalt fear the Lord thy God; him shalt thou serve’ [Deuteronomy 10:20].”

The commandment thus seems to be a mnemonic device, rather than something with inherent value. Why is a person who ties a thread of blue to the corners of his garment “privileged to welcome the shechina”? To understand the meaning of Rabbi Simeon Bar Yochai’s unusual declaration, one must pay special attention to another homily that appears on the same Talmud page: “As it has been learned in the braita [passage not included in the original Mishnah], Rabbi Meir would say: Why is techelet ‏(sky blue‏), different from other colors? Because it resembles the color of the sea, whose color resembles the color of the sky, whose color in turn resembles the color of the kissei hakavod ‏(divine throne‏), as it is written, ‘and there was under his feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the like of the very heaven for clearness’ [Exodus 24:10] and as it is written, ‘the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone’ [Ezekiel 1:26].”

Seeking to explain why sky blue was chosen over all the other colors as the proper hue for the ritual fringes, Rabbi Meir creates a chain of associations. The first links are connected by sensory imagination: The sky blue of the thread resembles the color of the sea, while the color of the sea resembles that of the sky. The next link in the chain − the association between the sky’s color and that of the divine throne − derives not from the actual sight of the throne, which is hidden, but rather from juxtaposed descriptions of images in two biblical verses: the first from Exodus and the second from Ezekiel.

Exodus depicts the scene in which Moses, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu and 70 elders see the God of Israel. But rather than describing the Creator’s actual appearance, the Torah mentions what his feet stand on: “and there was under his feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the like of the very heaven for clearness” ‏(Exod. 24:10‏). In the first chapter of Ezekiel, called ma’asseh merkava (“the work of the chariot”), the prophet describes the animals that bear God’s chariot, above which is the sky: “And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone; and upon the likeness of the throne was a likeness as the appearance of a man upon it above” ‏(Ezek. 1:26‏).

Exodus teaches that the sky’s color resembles that of a sapphire, while Ezekiel teaches that the divine throne’s appearance is like the “appearance of a sapphire stone.” The juxtaposition of these verses in Rabbi Meir’s explanation is intended to extend the chain of color-oriented associations beyond the limits of what the human eye can see, and through the image of the sapphire, to create a connection between the sky and the divine throne.

Rabbi Meir seeks to explain why sky blue is chosen over the other colors, but why does he describe its uniqueness via a chain of associations? Not only is the manner in which the latter are presented unusual, it is difficult to understand the associative links he chooses. Why, for example, is it relevant to establish a resemblance between the color of the thread − and that of the sky or divine throne? After all, a person is required to wear fringes on the corners of his garment for one express purpose only: “that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord.”

A solution to the confusion resulting from the commentaries of rabbis Simeon Bar Yochai and Meir can be found elsewhere in the Yerushalmi Talmud, where their two interpretations are combined in one context: “Rabbi Meir taught: The text does not read ur’item ota [“You will see her” − the objective feminine-case pronoun ota can be translated as “it” or “her”]; instead, it reads ur’item oto [“You will see him”]. Thus, when a person performs the commandment of fringes, it is as if he is welcoming the divine presence [which is of feminine gender]. The color of the thread of blue resembles the color of the sea, the color of the sea, resembles the color of the sky, the color of the sky resembles the color of the divine throne, and the color of the divine throne resembles the color of the sapphire stone, as it is written, ‘Then I looked, and, behold, upon the firmament that was over the head of the cherubim, there appeared above them as it were a sapphire stone, as the appearance of the likeness of a throne’ [Ezek. 10:1]” ‏(Yerushalmi Talmud, Tractate Berachot, ch. 1, section 2).

If the intention of the words “that ye may look upon it, and remember” had been that a person should be reminded of the commandments when looking at the tzitzit, the gender of the object to be looked upon would have been feminine ‏(ur’item ota‏) instead of what appears in the text ‏(ur’item oto). What is the Torah’s intention in issuing the injunction, “And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it”? In the Talmud, Rabbi Meir is quoted as stating that when a person does this − he sees God.

The opportunity to see the Almighty is made possible through the above-mentioned chain of associative links. A person looks at the thread of blue, which permits a vision of the sea, which in turn enables him to see the sky. As described in the juxtaposition of the two verses from Exodus and Ezekiel, he gradually ascends the chain and sees the sapphire, which enables him to glimpse the divine throne. This process takes place when he performs the commandment; it is not a reward that he will receive for performing it, rather an integral part of the act of looking at the thread.

It is clear why, in the Babylonian Talmud, the rather daring homily in the Yerushalmi Talmud is broken down into two seemingly innocuous explications relating to the commandment’s reward and the uniqueness of sky blue over all the other colors respectively.

Fulfilling the biblical commandment involving the fringes, explains Rabbi Meir, enables every Jew to have an intensive mystical, sensory experience of welcoming the divine presence each and every day. This is a far-reaching reduction of the commandment. The fringes are in essence transformed from a mnemonic device into a means of personal communication, intended to enable a person to encounter his God.

Tzitziot traditionally have light blue tassles.