Photo Credit: Courtesy, Ptil Tekhelet
Tekhelet tying methods on display at the Ptil Tekhelet conference.

In “Two Types of Tradition”, Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik asserts that while students can challenge their teachers’ intellectual traditions, they must simply receive their practical traditions. He then cites a family tradition about the authority of traditions from his namesake great-grandfather the Beit Halevi:  

“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. The Rebbe from Radzin renewed it and ordered all his chasidim to put tekhelet among their tzitzit. He 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.” 


Rav Solovetichik understands the Beit HaLevi to be using the authority of tradition to remove the issue of tekhelet from the realm of argument and discussion. The identity of the chilazon-creature that is the source of tekhelet becomes a quasi-halakhah l’Mosheh miSinai, analogous 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?   Therefore, the discovery of ancient dye works with particular shells should be enough to establish the identity of the chilazon (although one might counter that the dye works produced not tekhelet, but rather argaman). 

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.  Rav Schachter further rings into the discussion a letter (p. 13 of the introduction to Eyn HaTekhelet) that seems to undermine the Soloveitchik family tradition.    

“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. 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. We would bring proofs from the words of the halakhah only after it became clear to us that the existence or knowledge of this fish or the craft of making its dye had creased and forgotten at some time, and this had interrupted the reception.   

Rav Schachter compellingly reads this letter as saying that empirical evidence is perfectly sufficient to recover a lost halakhah, so long as there is no tradition opposing the reconstruction.  He cites Rav Elyashiv as finding the Radziner’s letter a more plausible account of the Beit HaLevi’s position than Rav Soloveitchik’s report, and this seems clearly to be his own opinion. 

By challenging, and in practice rejecting, his teacher Rav Soloveitchik’s tradition about the authority of tradition, Rav Schachter implicitly points out that such meta-traditions are always intellectual rather than practical.  They must therefore must be subject to challenge and even rejection by students. 

Bottom line: One can claim with regard to specific halakhic issues that a tradition is binding even though it is not intellectually or spiritually compelling. But that claim itself must be accountable to the ordinary intellectual processes of Torah. 



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Rabbi Aryeh Klapper, a musmach of Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) is dean of the Center for Modern Torah Leadership, which develops creative, rigorous, and humane halachic scholars and scholarship. Much of his popular and academic writing is archived at