My mother is an incredibly talented artist. For many years now, she has used her talents for the sake of chiddur mitzvah – beautifying the mitzvah – of tallit. She painted her first tallit for the occasion of my Bat Mitzvah. It was purple flowers on white silk, a simple, but lovely design. Over the years, she has made many more tallitot in addition to the chuppahs for the weddings of all three of her daughters and the ketubahs as well. I personally own 25 unique and beautiful tallitot and many more are in the hands of friends, colleagues, and congregants.
In recent months, my mother decided to make a tallit for the new cantor in her congregation. He asked her whether she would make a p’til t’cheilet. In Numbers 15:38-39 we read: “The Eternal One spoke to Moses saying, “Speak to the people of Israel, and bid them that they make fringes in the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a thread of blue; And it shall be to you for a fringe, that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Eternal One, and do them…”
Have you ever seen a tallit with a string of blue in the tzitzit? They are rarely seen here in the United States. The process for producing the correct dye has been lost to the generations. In ancient times, purple and blue dyes were hard to come by and extremely valuable. The dyes became the colors of royalty. The Romans ruled that only royalty could wear garments colored with these pigments and that the colors themselves could only be made in imperial dye houses. The Jewish industry for creating the proper dyes for tallitot was driven underground and eventually lost.
In recent years, archeological and chemical research has yielded an answer to the question of how to produce the dyes and there are several groups in Israel that are making them. We cannot be entirely sure, however that these are indeed the correct colors. In addition the pre-dyed strings are exorbitantly expensive ($70 for a set of strings). The expense is justified considering the labor involved in properly preparing the dyes and also considering that t’cheilet is supposed to be rare and valuable.
My mother’s cantor said that he did not need “real” techelet. He asked her to color the string with regular blue dye. Is this blue sufficient? It will certainly cause others to ask the question and learn about the commandment to wear t’cheilet. It will help the cantor himself to be inspired by the blue color and its association with sky and water, with holiness and majesty. But it is not “true” t’cheilet.
According to http://tekhelet.com, true techeilet comes from Murex trunculus, a type of snail. Although it produces a purplish dye, instead of blue, leading many to believe that this was not the correct animal, the dye, when exposed to uv rays (as found abundantly in the mediteranean sun) develops into a beautiful sky blue. There is a decent amount of archeological and chemical evidence to suggest that this may indeed be the true source for techeilet. According to the Talmud and the website tekhelet.com, “The dye’s color was “similar to the sky and sea,” it was steadfast, extracted from the snail while still alive, and was indistinguishable from a dye of vegetable origin, called kala ilan (indigo). “ Indistinguishable? If you can’t tell the difference, wouldn’t it be better to use the dye from the vegetable source?
Blue was important. It was the color of royalty because it was beautiful and rare, because it was the color of an infinite sky and the vast sea. Blue obtained from rare snails was even more precious. The Talmud tells us that the snails could only be found every 70 years, that the dye needed to be extracted from live snails, that it was rare and valuable. So, if we dye our tzitzit with ordinary blue dye, we get the color, but nothing else, not the value, not the intention, not the miracle of the dye itself. This was a dye that appeared clear until it soaked into the wool and was exposed to the sunlight. It’s transformation into blue was itself almost magical, and certainly inspiring to all who witnessed it.
If we buy this techeilet, however, we are not witness to its creation. We spend the money, but end up with string that looks to us, just blue. It has a sense of wonder because of its source, but we cannot really know whether it was made from snails or from chemical dyes. We wouldn’t know the difference. What about using the vegetable dye that is molecularly identical? Would that be close enough?
Is it the letter of the law, or merely its color?