Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Techelet Controversy, or: I Can't Understand Why People Won't Wear Techelet

During my shiur on Parshat Shelach, I mentioned the mitzvah of Techelet, which, from the text of the Torah represents an integral part of fulfilling the commandment of tzitzit. Today, as many people are aware, there's a great debate about the identity of the organism that produces the enzyme from which we can manufacture authentic Techelet. The fine folks at the Techelet Institute believe that they have identified the source as a Murex snail, and now produce tzitzit strings from that snail. Others question whether that snail is the correct organism, and reject the notion of wearing blue strings today.
Full disclosure: I wear Techelet on my tallit. I do this for a simple reason. I have no idea whether the Techelet people are correct or not. When I read (and listen to) their arguments, they sound convincing. And then, when I read the opposing view, it sounds convincing. I'm not equipped to decide who's right. But, as someone in the Eim Habanim Semeichah shiur recently asked me, there's a much simpler way to look at things.
He wondered: If I took my regular white tzitzit strings, and colored them with a blue magic marker, would they still be kosher? The answer is yes, without a doubt. That's a clearly acknowledged point in the halachic literature. The Mishnah Berurah writes that it's a hiddur - a beautification of the mitzvah - to have either white strings, or to have strings that match the color of the garment. Clearly, colored strings are not problematic. This being the case, if there's no halachic downside, I simply fail to understand why someone would resist using strings that might be a fulfillment of a Torah commandment. People wear wool tzitzit in the summertime, sweating through the heat because according to a major opinion in the Rishonim, only wool garments fulfill the Torah obligation to have tzitzit. But many, if not most of those very same people refuse to wear a blue string on their tzitzit. Why? I simply have no idea.
I recently listened to a shiur given by Rav Reisman on Techelet, which was powerful, if not convincing. He spent an hour generally explaining the problematic aspects of identifying the Murex as the original chilazon. Personally, I found many of his arguments less than compelling. But his approach and his level of respect for the people who advocate Techelet was refreshing and inspiring. He's ninety-nine (one hundred?) percent sure that the Murex isn't the chilazon. I'm not so sure. I then listened to a rather passionate (and convincing) response from Rav Aryeh Lebowitz. It's also worthwhile to read the response from Dr. Sternman as well. (Both links also appear in the notes to Rav Reisman's shiur on YUTorah.)
As I listened to Rav Reisman's shiur, his arguments raised another issue about psak halachah in my mind. I'll admit it - I've got skin in the game. I wear Techelet, so I want the Murex to be the chilazon. So, as I listened to his arguments, I immediately began to question his arguments, poke holes in his logic, and find fault where I could. But he also, even before analyzing the issue, has a predilection towards the position that the Murex is not the chilazon. Can we really imagine Rav Reisman, a leading figure in the American Chareidi world, rejecting the accepted Daas Torah and deciding on his own that he's going to wear techelet? I don't know him personally, but I doubt it. And if he did, he'd pay a heavy price for doing so. So that fact, in and of itself, clouds his ability to make an absolutely objective analysis of the facts.
This is not a criticism of Rav Reisman personally. It's also not an anti-chareidi thing. (Rav Aviner also came out against wearing Techelet.) When we make decisions about issues, we all have skin in the game. We bring a set of values and attitudes that color our perception of the facts. I want the Techelet to be real, so I find one set of arguments convincing. Rav Reisman has a strong sense of fealty to Gedolim who rejected the Murex, so his predilection is to see the other side. It's not a good or bad thing. It's just there, and I think it's important to point out that this phenomenon exists everywhere. (The reminds me of a recent clip that I saw from the Daily Show about the Wisconsin Supreme Court justices who couldn't agree about whether one member of the Supreme Court put a choke hold on another fellow justice.)
Returning to Techelet, I still have yet to hear a satisfying answer to my underlying question: At the end of the day, there's everything to gain and nothing to lose. If you wear Techelet and when Moshiach finally arrives he tells us that the Murex is the correct and proper source for Techelet, then you've fulfilled a positive Torah commandment. If it ends up not being the real thing, then you've lost nothing. I simply don't understand why Jews - and many of them - who care deeply about meticulous Mitzvah observance, ignore this argument. And I have yet to hear a convincing response that has moved me in the least.
I'll do it when the Gedolim do it? I just don't get it.


  1. it is also very expensive, making it unaffordable to some (many?). Ptil Tekhelet even uses this argument on their website in favor of the Murex being the real source of tekhelet

  2. Yes, techeles may be expensive; but, surely it is less costly than a silver atara, which is very popular. Techeles is a safek d'oraisa. In contrast, having a silver atara is not a specific mitzvah (though it may fufill "zeh kaili v'anvahu"); however, the Aruch Ha'Shulchan says that a silver atara is not worthwhile ("aino cadai," Orach Chayim, 8:10).

  3. Neil:

    AHS: to clarify, his reason is that the ikar is atifat ha-guf, not adorning the head; he brings a minhag to make an atarah on the head and in the middle, but disapproves of that as well. He says in closing "וכן נכון לעשות שלא יהיה בהטלית רק צמר, ומה לכסף וזהב בטלית?"

    It's about $65 more per set than plain white. It is a big difference... but thinking about it, if one can afford it, I hear R' Spolter's argument. What about getting a $50 "plain" 4 minim instead of $120 mehudar and applying that to safek d'orayta? (Assuming one didn't have money to spare)

  4. we seem to be a society of chumros. We are machmir and worry about any possible shitah. So why here for techelet, so we seem to be meikil? I have asked Rabbonim this question and they just shrug their shoulders.

  5. There are a number of serious Halachic issues regarding wearing techeles, the most important is how many strings to put on. There are 3 opinions 1,2,or,4. Which one do you follow and why? The problem is that if you put on too many string of techeles you may make things worse and not fulfill the mitzva of white. The fact is that techeles strings do not count as white.

    See this post of mine for more info:

  6. "The problem is that if you put on too many string of techeles you may make things worse and not fulfill the mitzva of white. The fact is that techeles strings do not count as white."

    Where is the source for this statement?

  7. bluke - how is this any different from the different ways of tying the knots? Which position is correct? Or are some valid and others not?

    Rav Spolter - what about the Radziner position? Yes it's accepted by less but actually worn by more. (Both because it's cheaper and it's been picked up as a minhag by many Breslev chassidim in Israel.)

  8. Akiva, I'm not an expert on the actual species. Personally, from what i can tell, most of the major experts on the issue rejected the radziner's techelet, including Rav Goren. But at least they're wearing something, which in my mind is far, far better than wearing nothing at all.

  9. Here's a paper from a Radziner professor from Cleveland whom I stayed by once for Shabbos.

  10. "If you wear Techelet and when Moshiach finally arrives he tells us that the Murex is the correct and proper source for Techelet, then you've fulfilled a positive Torah commandment. "

    To me, this really gets my goat.
    2 years ago, I understand not wearing techelet. We went through this before with the cuddle Fish. Why go through it again? However now... after nearly 2,000 years of having no clue what Techelet might be, Gd gives us not 1, but 2 archeological finds telling us without a doubt, where techelet comes from. Not only that, but He gives us the exact shade and color of techelet. This piece of techelet was sitting in a University storage room for the past 40 years. It could have been revealed at any time, but Gd chose now to let us see it, and know about it.... And people want to wait for Mashiach?

    If we keep rejecting the things Gd gives us, Moshiach won't be coming! Why wait for Mashiach when we can have these things today? What better way to prove that we are worthy for the Mashiach than to demand it with our actions?

  11. Akiva,

    You are correct that there are something like 10 different shitos how to tie techeles. However, it is not מעכב. You are יוצא בדיעבד whichever shita you follow. However, with the wrong number of strings, you are not even יוצא בדיעבד (e.g. if you put on 4 techeles strings according to the Raavad)

  12. The acharonim point out that techeles cannot serve as white from the first mishna/gemara in perek hatecheles. The gemera comments that Rebbe holds that Techeles and Lavan are מעכב. In other words, if you have 8 strings of Lavan or 8 strings of Techeles you are not יוצא the mitzva. You are only יוצא tzitzis if you have both lavan and techeles. The chachamim argue that the 2 are not מעכב and that if you only have lavan or only techeles (according to most Rishonim against the Rambam) you are יוצא that 1 מין.

    The acharonim point out that you see clearly from here that techeles cannot serve as Lavan, otherwise according to Rebbe why is לבן מעכב תכלת and you are not יוצא with 8 strings of תכלת? Let some of the strings of techeles simply serve as לבן. The fact that Rebbe says it is מעכב proves that techeles cannot serve as lavan.

  13. I just spent some time learning Tos, Rambam and Raavad on the number of techelet strings and thr winding method. Both are subject to multi-way machloket. Hiw did you decide what to do?

  14. Bluke: I checked your blog post. I'm not sure which Achronim you're referring to. There are really two separate mitzvot going on here. One is the mitzvah of Tzitzit - which requires eight strings. The question that the Mishnah Berurah addresses in סימן ט' סעיף ז is whether a person can wear these strings on a linen garment, which is permitted if there's real techelet. No one today uses linen. It's all wool. So you end up having eight strings no matter what, and, as the Mishnah states, they're not me'akev each other.

    Yitz: I followed the opinion of the Chinuch. Truth be told, I found the question of how to tie one of the most confusing aspects of tying the techelet, and I think that's why I waited three years to do it. Why did I pick the Chinuch? Not really sure, but he's very explicit about how to tie, and I found the idea of chulyot compelling. Truth be told, "how" to tie is important, but all based on minhag, kaballah, etc. To me, just wearing the things is much more important.

  15. What about the question of how many strings of techelet, which is the subject of an apparent stirah in the midreshei halachah, and an additional layer of machloket Rishonim? My reaction on reading the midrashim (Shelach and Tetzei) is that the one-string version seems to read more consistently. Raavad and Gra posken one, but Tosafot, two. Rambam holds half, and apparently says anything else interferes with the requirement of non-techelet strings!

    I'm having a hard time deciding, and the $50 bias against Tosafot/R Schachter doesn't help.

  16. Rabbi Reisman's comments are very similar to a certain rav in Toronto who made the same claims. I believe that Rabbi Shlomo Teitelbaum's sefer is a must read, and once someone reads it, they will have a very difficult time rejecting the Murex.


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