kosher bookworm

Color blue in our religious tradition


Rabbi Abraham Twersky once stated: “Color is an emotional experience. Techeiles [blue] is the emotional reminder of the bond between ourselves and G-d and how we get closer to G-d with Ahavas Hashem, the love of G-d, the love of Torah and Mitzvos.” 

Rabbi Berel Wein goes further: “There is no unanimity in current rabbinic opinion regarding this question of the reintroduction of techeiles into Jewish life and practice, though as an empiric observation, the use of techeiles continues to spread widely throughout the Jewish people. One thing is certain: techeiles has  become a living issue and has left the exclusivity of the study hall and entered into the everyday life of tens of thousands of Jews the world over.”

With an excerpt from The Jewish Ethic of Personal Responsibility, a book by Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, we will further explore the focus in this week’s parsha on the mitzvah of tzitzis and techeiles, and why the color blue is of such significance in the observance of our faith.

Rabbi Pruzansky, eastern regional vice-president and senior rabbinic fellow at the Coalition for Jewish Values and a member of the board of the Beth Din of America, is spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck and formerly of Congregation Etz Chaim in Kew Gardens Hills.

White and Azure, By Rabbi Steven Pruzansky

“And you shall place on the corner fringe an azure thread [techelet]. And it shall be fringes for you, and you will look at it and remember all of G-d’s mitzvoth and you shall do them…” (15:38–39)

The mitzva of tzitzit carries with it a majestic message through its azure thread, as noted above. The one thread is inserted to underscore that its color is similar to that of the sea, and the sea to the sky, and the sky to the divine throne of glory.

Of course, if the symbolism is so awe- inspiring, then why have any white threads at all? Why not make the tzitzit completely white? Furthermore, the halacha is that the absence of any azure thread does not invalidate the white, nor does the absence of white invalidate the azure. The garment can contain threads of one or the other or both. If so, and if for centuries we have worn tzitzit without the azure thread (until most recently), then how important is it?

Rav Yaakov Ariel explained that the azure thread only has significance in the presence of the white, as its primary purpose is to serve as a contrast to the white. The white is this world, and life becomes oppressive and meaningless without the techelet, the azure thread. We have to bring images of the divine throne of glory into this world, the world of the white, or our world will be empty, vapid and colorless.

The Netziv expounds on this verse that there are typologies in Jewish life — the man of the spirit and the man of action. The man of the spirit is inclined to matters of Torah, the life of the intellect and divine service, while the man of action is inclined to developing, conquering and perfecting the world. But one should never think that these two are polar opposites that are inherently antagonistic toward each other. The man of action also has to learn Torah and observe the mitzvot, even as he engages in worldly affairs, otherwise he is all white with no contrasting azure. The man of action has to infuse the white with the azure; all of his mundane affairs have to be inspired and guided by thoughts of the divine throne of glory.

By the same token, the man of the spirit also has to do mitzvot, to welcome guests and perform acts of kindness for his fellow man, and work, and fight, and be part of the world. Otherwise, he is all azure — such was the garment of Korach, which brought catastrophe upon the Jewish people. Most of the tzitzit threads are white because we do not live in the sea or the sky but in the real world. At the same time, this world is sanctified by our meritorious deeds, which can be traced to the divine throne and define us as servants of G-d.

This dichotomy of the man of spirit and the man of action is one of the pressing issues of modern Jewish life, and striking a balance is very personal – there is no universal playbook. It is easier to wear the talit than it is to exemplify the life of the talit, the correct mixture of white and blue. The tableau on which that perfect image is constructed is the land of Israel, and so the spies, according to the various opinions, were either all white — materialistic and fearful — or all azure — too spiritual and otherworldly. The flag of modern Israel — white background with azure stripes — evokes this ideal, the attempt to build G-d’s kingdom on earth.

That can only happen when each person finds the proper balance of white and azure, of spirit and action, in his or her own life and devotes the necessary energies to serving G-d in every way.