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September 23, 2014 / 28 Elul, 5774
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Tekhelet Continued: the Long Version

techelet

The quickest way to lose your audience is by going on too long. Gifted speakers know this. And bloggers know it, too.

That’s why I don’t always say everything I want to say in a blog. That’s how it was with my recent piece, Tekhelet: A Choice or an Imperative. I found I had a surprising number of things I wanted say about the subject which is goofy, considering my manager at Kars4Kids, had not been convinced I should attend the Tekhelet conference or write about it in the first place. What does the search for tekhelet have to do with car donation or educating children??

But I have my ways of making the connection to whatever it is I want to write about. (Nyuh uh uh). Here, it wasn’t even especially difficult for me to find the appropriate angle. Kars4Kids is about helping kids fulfill their talents and dreams. Kars4Kids gives children the opportunity to make the most of their God-given gifts.

Finding Blue

The search for Tekhelet seems to me then, almost a match made in heaven in terms of the similarity of the two goalposts—the finding of the blue against helping children to find themselves.

Finding Tekhelet is about fulfilling an ancient mitzvah that was there the whole time. It was only the tekhelet that had gone missing. And here were Ari Greenspan and Baruch Sterman, Joel Guberman, and Rav Tavger, brave Jews with curiosity and excitement, who may not have known if they’d ever get there—if they’d ever find that elusive blue—but were undaunted in retaining their childlike fervor for the hunt and the mystery.

It’s a beautiful thing in and of itself.

So what if I, Varda Epstein, remain unconvinced that the correct thing to do is for men to adopt the wearing of thread dyed with the murex trunculus?

Rich, Glorious, Essential

I can still appreciate the beauty of the hunt and the desire to bring something back to our people: something rich and glorious and essential, too.

But back to brevity and losing one’s audience. I was forced to cut much of what I had wanted to say in my original piece but now I feel that in making my piece readable, I might have cheated my readers or perhaps myself, by stifling my own voice.

Part of my problem with the search for Tekhelet is the focus. I alluded to this in my original piece but cut out the longer explanation in my final draft. Here is the part I left out:

“I keep thinking: first let’s wear clothes. Then we can worry what color they are.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am an anomaly. I’m a Haredi woman who lives in a Modern Orthodox community. Very few, if any, women in my town are careful to wear socks, as I do, in the hottest months of the year. I cover my hair. All of it. I cover my collarbone, my elbows, my knees and feet. I wear skirts and dresses, not pants.

My Focus

This is an important focus for me as a religiously observant woman—this business of covering up. And so I come up against my own judgmental nature when I see people in my community getting excited about whether or not to wear a blue thread when so many of my female friends wear pants and sleeveless and don’t cover their hair.

Dressing as I do seems basic to me. As basic as Adam and Eve, the snake and the apple*. As basic as losing the right to live in the Garden of Eden and knowing the shame inherent in public nudity: perhaps the earliest example of epistemological particularism in which you know something but you don’t know how you know it.

The focus on tekhelet then, seems from my particular viewpoint, misplaced.”

I’d like to flesh that out a bit, if you’ll excuse the pun. What is the standard for dress in the National Religious community? Or isn’t there one at all?

A Model?

Is it up to the individual woman? Is it up to her husband? Is there a model for her to emulate, for instance, the wife of the town rabbi (in Efrat this would be Vicky Riskin, for example)?

And shouldn’t this be a primary focus and all nicely hashed out and set in community stone, so to speak?

I stand back and watch and keep my mouth shut. But I don’t understand the fuss about the blue thread when the community appears to be so conflicted about the right and the wrong way to dress. They appear to think we have infinite choice in this area. Isn’t covering nudity also a biblical commandment? Do we not have a mesora here?

A Bore

I realize I am comparing apples and pears (there’s that fruit again), but I can’t help but step back and watch the spectacle and think: one mitzvah is groovy and fun, the other is “meh” and just so 19th century Eastern European and stifling. “Let’s do the tekhelet hunt because dressing modestly? Oh, what a bore.”

Then there is the issue of lost mesora. In my correspondence with Ari Greenspan, he told me, “You really don’t want to go there.”

A Terrible Loss

He gave me stuff to read to show me that my idea of “mesora” is not necessarily the Torah view of mesora. But for me it comes down to respecting a loss. A terrible loss, but a loss all the same. The mesora for tekhelet is LOST. Period. It’s not coming back. There’s no one to stand up and say, “Oh, I remember. THAT’S the sea creature. THAT’S the process. THAT’S the color.”

That man who remembers these details does not exist.

So we’re stuck with a sad state of affairs. One we can mourn. A loss we can say is part of our sad history as a people. It’s a loss we should note for the generations to come, but a loss all the same.

Overwhelming Evidence

Finally, I would like to state for the record that the body of evidence presented at the conference was overwhelmingly persuasive. If I believed that one could restore this mesora (or any mesora at all), it would definitely be all about the murex trunculus AND NOT THE RADZYNER TEKHELET, which I am convinced is inorganic Prussian blue in which cuttlefish ink was clearly incidental to the process.

The murex trunculus fits the entire scenario as laid out by the sages, up to and including the fact that on exposure to light, the purple it produces turns sky blue (tekhelet). No other sea creature or color fits the bill like the murex trunculus. This one is it. That’s all folks.

Still and all, I am not rushing out to buy tekhelet for my sons and husband.

Endlessly Fascinating

The funny thing is, as I continue to talk it over with my husband, who did not attend the conference, the closer he is to pondering a purchase of tekhelet strings for himself and our sons. It’s certainly an endlessly fascinating topic.

Stay tuned.

*Or whatever fruit that was—I’ll let you all hash that out in private.

About the Author: Blogger and mother of 12 Varda Meyers Epstein is a third-generation Pittsburgher who made aliyah at age 18 and never looked back. A proud settler who lives in the biblical Judean heartland, Varda serves as the communications writer for the nonprofit car donation program, Kars for Kids.


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4 Responses to “Tekhelet Continued: the Long Version”

  1. Look forward to reading this. Personally, I do not think the source of the color is important whatever the khillazon was. Looking at the murex sea snail the actual pigment is chemically dibroindigo which can be found in a number of substances including indigo. And it all can produce a range of color from almost black to red, or purple to sky blue. ‘Farming’ murex snails might work, but is it necessary to deplete a certain species when it is actually the color that is important. I have tzitzit that are completely murex based blue—very expensive—as well as those with a sky blue shamash that is not so expensive but every Jew deserves to wear t’kheilet.

  2. Mois Navon says:

    While mesora is an essential part of the way we determine practical halacha, it is not the only way. Furthermore, we are not to simply bemoan our losses and accept them but rather we are bidden to restore and repair anything we can – is this not what teshuva is all about, is this not what tikkun olam is all about. I have written on the issue of mesora, especially as it relates to the hillazon and tekhelet in the following article:
    http://www.divreinavon.com/pdf/HistoryMesorahNignaz.pdf
    also available in my book on tekhelet:
    https://www.createspace.com/4597533

  3. Yes. Ari showed me your pdf file on the subject. Here was my response to him (your words in quotes):
    'Commenting on the this conflict, R.Tikochinsky explains: “Therefore it is understood
    that only during the time of the Temple it was found in abundance, following which it
    was nignaz, not that it was stored away completely, but that it was found less
    frequently.”'

    But eventually it was lost altogether, or you wouldn't have had to search for it or prove to the world that this is it.

    'The Radvaz too explains that, “it is possible that the hillazon exists but we do not recognize it or how to trap it.”'

    Because we no longer have the mesora.

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