Monthly Archives: March 2017

Some Kind of Blue? Tradition, Tekhelet, and the Rav

by Rabbi Aryeh Klapper

The color of an object can be defined by the wavelengths of light that it reflects, which means that objects really have no color at all.  Identical reflected lightwaves can then hit human retinas and generate wholly different mental experiences.  Wittgenstein thought that our capacity to communicate about color at all was miraculous.  Regardless, there is no way to convey subtleties of color reliably through pure language.

For this reason, halakhic treatments of color are heavily based on practical tradition.  Which colors create niddah and which don’t is learned by show and tell, not by reading ArtScroll.

All this by way of introduction to the topic of tekhelet, the dye of uncertain color (sky-blue? sea-green? wine-dark like the Homeric ocean?)  that was used in the High Priest’s garments and that we have a mitzvah to place on our tzitzit.  The fundamental halakhic difficulty with tekhelet is that it disappeared from history for a millennium.  In “Two Types of Tradition” (שעורים לזכר אבא מרי ז”ל כרך א), the Rav made famous a family tradition about his great-grandfather the Beit Halevi’s response to the Radziner Rebbe’s attempt to recover tekhelet in the late nineteenth century.

ידוע מה שאירע

בין זקני הגאון רבי יוסף דוב הלוי ובין האדמו”ר הגאון מראדזין

,בנוגע לתכלת שבציצית

.שהרבי מראדזין חידשה וציוה לכל חסידיו להטיל תכלת בציציותיהן

האדמו”ר ניסה להוכיח על יסוד הרבה ראיות

.כי הצבע הזה הוא באמת התכלת

רב יוסף דוב טען כנגד ואמר

שאין ראיות וסברות יכולות להוכיח שום דבר

.במילי דשייכי למסורת של שאל אביך ויגדך

:שם אין הסברה מכריעה כי אם המסורה עצמה

.כך ראו אבות וכך היו נוהגים וכך צריכים לנהוג הבנים

It is well known what happened

between my ancestor the Gaon Rav Yosef Dov Halevi and the ADMOR Gaon from Radzin

with regard to the tekhelet in tzitzit,

that the Rebbe from Radzin renewed it and ordered all his chasidim to put tekhelet among their tzitzit. The ADMOR tried to demonstrate on the basis of many proofs

that this dye is in truth the (halakhic) tekhelet.

Rav Yosef Dov countered that proofs and rational arguments cannot demonstrate anything

with regard to matters that affiliate with the tradition of Ask your father and he will tell it to you.

In such matters, reason is not decisive, but rather the tradition itself:

This is what the fathers saw, and so they practiced, and so the children must practice.

 The Rav understood the Beit HaLevi to be sealing the issue of tekhelet off from the realm of argument and discussion.  What is not clear is exactly what aspect of tekhelet is off-limits to reason and evidence.

I always thought the issue was color; how could we possibly know that we had matched the Torah’s intent or Chazal’s practice?  The discovery of ancient tekhelet textiles would not help with that, as surely even a colorfast dye will change significantly over a thousand years.  The fascinating disputes about how best to restore medieval paintings suffice to demonstrate this.

But rereading the Rav’s essay this week, it seemed more likely that he had in mind the identity of the chilazon, the creature from which the dye is produced.  But this made his claim much harder to accept – why shouldn’t archaeological or chemical evidence be sufficient to identify ancient dye works, and then the chilazon?

The Rav makes the identity of the chilazon a quasi-halakhah l’Mosheh miSinai, and analogizes identifying the chilazon to identifying the etrog as the pri eitz hadar required by Vayikra 23:40.  Let us accept the analogy for the sake of argument.  If the identity of the etrog were lost for a thousand years, there would be a reasonable basis for claiming that it could not be restored on the basis of arguments from texts, no matter how clever or clear.  But if we found an ancient repository of palm, willow, and myrtle branches, and together with them the right quantity of one and only one species of fruit, would that not be sufficient grounds to reconnect us with the original tradition?

Proponents of contemporary tekhelet make this argument, with a shiur by Rav Herschel Schachter providing far and away the most coherent and compelling version I have heard or seen.  But Rav Schachter adds a wrinkle.  As part of the ongoing debate over his tekhelet, the Radziner published on p. 13 of the introduction to his Ein HaTekhelet a letter that he described as being an authorized representation of the Beit Halevi’s position.  That letter seems to undermine the Soloveitchik family tradition. 

הגאבד”ק בריסק דליטא שיחיה

מסר כל טעמו ונימוקו בדבר מיאונו במצות התכלת

לאחד ממיודעינו

:שיכתוב ויאמר לנו משמו בזה הלשון

,כמע”ל לא ביאר בדבריו מה זאת מצא אחר שנשכח

,אם מציאת הדג או הוצאת צבעו

,ורק אחרי אשר כמע”ל יברר זאת, היינו האם היה בזה דבר הנשכח והוא מצאה

.אז נהיה מחויבים לשמוע אליו וללבשו

,אכן אם נאמר כי  הדג היה במציאות

,וגם הוצאת צבעו היה ידוע בכל זמן מהזמנים שעברו עלינו מעת שפסקה התכלת בישראל

,ועל כל זה לא לבשוהו אבותינו ואבות אבותינו

הרי הוא כאילו יש לנו קבלה ומסורה מאבותינו

כי זה הדג וצבעו איננו החלזון והתכלת

,אף שהוא בכל הסימנים שסמנו חז”ל

.כי אפילו נרבה כחול ראיות, לא יועילו נגד הקבלה והמסורה

ורק אחרי אשר יברר לנו כי דג זה או מלאכת צבעו נפסק ונשכח מציאתו או ידיעתו בשום זמן מהזמנים ונפסקה בזה הקבלה, אז יהיה לנו דברי ההלכה לראיה

.ע”כ דבריו שיחיה

The Gaon Av Beit Din of Brisk in Lithuania, may he live,

gave over all his reasons and rationales in the matter of his eschewing the mitzvah of tekhelet

to one of our intimates,

so that he would write and say to us in his name, as follows:

Your Honor did not explain in his words what it is that he found after it had been forgotten.

whether it is the finding of the fish or of the way to extract its dye,

and it is only after Your Honor explains this,

namely whether there was something here that was lost and that he found,

that we will be obligated to heed him and to wear it.

However, if we say that this fish was in existence,

and the extraction of its dye was known in all the times that have passed over us from the time that tekhelet ceased to be in Israel,

and that despite all this it was not worn by our fathers and our fathers’ fathers,

that would be as if we had a received tradition from our ancestors

that this fish and its dye are not the chilazon and the tekhelet

even if it fits all the identifying characteristics given by Chazal,

and even if we multiplied proofs like sand,

they would not prevail against a received tradition

Only after it became clear to us that this fish or the craft of making its dye had its existence or knowledge ceased and forgotten at some time and this interrupted the reception,

then we would use the words of the halakhah as proofs.

Rav Schachter reads this letter as saying that empirical evidence is perfectly sufficient in the absence of a positive tradition, but cannot overcome a negative tradition.  In this case the negative tradition was that no known creature and manufacturing process could yield tekhelet.  Rav Schachter then cites Rav Elyashiv as finding the Radziner’s letter a more plausible account of the Beit HaLevi’s position than the Rav’s report, and this seems clearly to be his own opinion, even though the Rav’s report is confirmed by other branches of the Soloveitchik family.

Now the whole point of “Two Types of Tradition” is that students can challenge their teachers’ intellectual traditions but must simply receive their practical traditions.  Rav Schachter implicitly points out that this metatradition of the Rav is grounded in intellect, and therefore can be challenged and even rejected by his students.

I suggest that metatraditions by their nature as abstractions are always grounded in intellect rather than pure reception, and therefore can never have unchallenged authority.  A claim of authority on the basis of tradition is therefore never self-sufficient.  It can succeed only if there is a shared prior metatradition about the authority of tradition, and that metatradition will be accountable to the ordinary intellectual processes of Torah.

Even without Beit HaLevi’s authority, however, I find the argument that color requires a live tradition to be powerful.  Furthermore, Beit HaLevi seems to have been quite right in doubting that the Radziner had properly identified the chilazon with the cuttlefish, and I remain unconvinced by the partisans of murex trunculus (with the caveat that Rav Schachter argues that neither precision of color nor of mollusk are necessary).  The barriers to reconstructing lapsed traditions such as tekhelet should not be impassable, but they can and should be quite high.

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The Message of the Keruvim

This week’s alumni Dvar Torah is by Rabbi Shaul Epstein

Hashem commands Moshe to create Keruvim on top of the cover to the Ark of the Covenant. The verses state that these Keruvim “shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings… two beings with faces and wings that will face each other.” (Exodus 25:20)

Having beings with faces and wings in the Mishkan seems to contradict Judaism’s strong theological and halakhic condemnation of the use or creation of graven images. This problem is intensified if one accepts Rashi’s opinion that all the commands related to the Mishkan came after the building of the Golden Calf and its subsequent punishment. Why would G-d command the creation of Keruvim if similar images had led the Jewish people to commit one of their gravest national sins?   

Even if one assumes against Rashi that the Torah is in chronological order, the Jewish people had just heard on Mount Sinai the commandment “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image” (Exodus 20:4)!  And if that was not clear enough, the first set of commandments Moshe receives after the revelation at Mount Sinai include the prohibition  “… you shall not make any gods of silver, nor shall you make for yourselves any gods of gold.” (20:20)

The Midrash (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Yishmael parasha 10) cited by Rashi on this second verse clearly picks up on this tension:

?אלהי כסף ואלהי זהב – למה נאמר

– לפי שהוא אומר ועשית שנים כרובים זהב, (אמר) הריני עושה ארבעה –

…תלמוד לומר אלהי זהב – אם הוספת על שנים, הרי הם כאלהי זהב

לא תעשו לכם – שלא תאמר: הואיל ונתנה תורה רשות לעשות בבית המקדש, הריני עושה בבתי כנסיות ובבתי מדרשות – תלמוד לומר לא תעשו לכם

Gods of silver and gods of gold– why was this said?

Since it is written (Exodus 25:18) And you shall make two golden cherubs, one might say “I shall make four!” –

To this end it is written “gods of gold” – If you make more than two, they are considered “gods of gold”…

you shall not make for yourselves

So that you not say: “Since the Torah permitted the making (of cherubs) in the Temple, I shall do the same in synagogues and in houses of study” – i

It is therefore, written: You shall not make for yourselves.

According to this halachic Midrash, these first commandments after the Revelation at Mount Sinai anticipate our concerns.  But why does the Torah create those concerns, and why are two cherubs okay when four would not be?

Chizkuni, echoing Midrash Lekach Tov (quoted in Torah Sheleimah), considers this an example of a biblical prohibition with explicit exceptions.  Famous examples of this paradigm include the mixing of wool and linen in Tzitzit despite the general injunction against mixing those fabrics (shatnez), as well as the prohibition of a man marrying his brother’s wife being overridden by the mitzvah of yibbum when the brother dies childless.  Rashbam (Exodus 20:20) and Abarbanel (25:10) both explain that no contradiction exists as the keruvim were not intended for worship, while the prohibition only centers on creating foreign gods.  Dr. Alexander Klein of Bar Ilan University suggests that according to Maimonides, the absolute prohibition of creating images was a decree to prevent people from coming to worship them.  It was a סייג לתורה, a decree that serves a protection from violating another prohibition.  Therefore, states Dr. Klein, since there is no innate prohibition of making images, the Torah can allow their creation in carefuly controlled ways in the Mishkan.

All these explanations provide ways to work around the apparent contradiction,  but  they avoid a larger question: Why would G-d create such a tension in the holiest center of Jewish service?  He could have commanded the Mishkan to exist without any Keruvim, thus avoiding the problem all together.

I would like to humbly suggest that facing such a contradiction in the Mishkan provides us a model for confronting the many other theological challenges we face daily. We would have much simpler lives if things were black and white and we had clear lines and paths drawn for us. Due to many circumstances mostly connected to the imperfection of this world, we live with much grey area and thus need to have exceptions and apparent inconsistencies as part of our daily existence. Seeing the Keruvim in the Mishkan, while recognizing the general prohibition of such images, teach us that sometimes appropriate tension exists within our service to the Divine.

This idea is highlighted specifically through the message and apparent purpose of the Keruvim. While there are numerous opinions regarding what these Keruvim beings might represent (children, angels, male/female to name a few), they all center on some aspect of the relationship between the Jewish people and Hashem. As stated at the end of the section describing the Keruvim (25:22)

וְנוֹעַדְתִּי לְךָ, שָׁם, וְדִבַּרְתִּי אִתְּךָ מֵעַל הַכַּפֹּרֶת מִבֵּין שְׁנֵי הַכְּרֻבִים, אֲשֶׁר עַל-אֲרוֹן הָעֵדֻת–אֵת כָּל-אֲשֶׁר אֲצַוֶּה אוֹתְךָ, אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

There I will meet with you, and I will impart to you—from above the cover, from between the two cherubim that are on top of the Ark of the Pact—all that I will command you concerning the Israelite people.

At the location where direct communication emanates from Hashem to Moshe and Bnai Yisrael, we see what the relationship represents through the Keruvim and we recognize that this relationship, based on love, will sometimes create discomfort, but will remain strong so long as we stay committed to maintaining this important connection.
Rabbi Shaul Epstein (SBM 2003) currently serves as a Rabbinic Coordinator for Buckeye Kosher in Columbus OH and as the Midwest Representative for KVH Kosher.

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