It was taught in a baraita, Rabbi Meir used to say, why is tekhelet singled out from all the colors?
Because tekhelet is similar to the sea,
and the sea is similar to the firmament,
and the firmament is similar to the throne of Glory,
as it is said (Exodus 24:10), “and there was under His feet the like of a paved work of sapphire stone, and the like of the very heaven for clearness,” and it is written (Ezekiel 1:26), “a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone.”
This exposition of Rabbi Meir is often repeated, but remains obscure. Why should tekhelet remind us of the heavenly throne? And even if it does, why not just say so, without the associational chain of tekhelet-sea-sky-throne?
Before answering these questions, it may help to revisit the underlying Biblical verses. Numbers 15:38 commands Moses, “Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes in the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of tekhelet.” The next verse gives an apparent reason for the commandment: “that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them; and that ye go not about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you go astray” (15:39) How do the tzitzit, with their single thread of tekhelet, accomplish this end?
According to Rabbi Meir, we might suggest that tzitzit remind us not to sin because the color of tekhelet reminds us of God’s throne, so to speak.
Interestingly, Rabbi Meir’s statement appears in other contexts, and in those contexts it seems clear that he is not simply suggesting that the color affinity allows tzitzit to serve as a good reminder of God, i.e. a reminder not to sin. For example, the Jerusalem Talmud recounts this statement of Rabbi Meir on the context of the first Mishnah in tractate Berakhot, which discusses the earliest time for saying the morning shema (the sages say, when it is light enough to distinguish tekhelet from white. Rabbi Eliezer says, tekhelet from green). Rabbi Meir derives from a grammatical peculiarity in verse 39 that “everyone who fulfills the commandment of tzitzit it is as if he greets the shekhinah,” before he presents a slightly modified version of his chain of associations – here, tekhelet – sea – grass – sky – throne – sapphire.
Tzitzit are not just a reminder of a watchful God, but wearing them is also, in some way, its own spiritual experience, like greeting God.
So tekhelet helps us experience God in the world. Still, why does Rabbi Meir use a long chain of associations to make his point? Why tell us that tekhelet resembles the sea, which resembles grass (does it?) which resembles the sky, which resembles Sapphire, which resembles God’s throne, and not just say, “tekhelet is blue, as is God’s throne (per the verse in Exodus that says the throne looks like the sky)”?
One answer may be that it is precisely this associational chain that is the type of thinking that allows humans to see the divine in the world. We cannot look for exact likenesses, but if we open to subtle connections we may see more.
Perhaps the real answer is more prosaic, though: This associational way of describing color similarity made perfect sense in the ancient world.
Philologists have noted that color descriptions are rare in ancient works, and tend to enter the lexicon in the same order cross-culturally. First black and white, then red, then yellow/green. Blue comes last. Nineteenth century German philologist Lazarus Geiger wrote of Vedic hymns: “These hymns, of more than ten thousand lines, are brimming with descriptions of the heavens. Scarcely any subject is evoked more frequently. The sun and reddening dawn’s play of color, day and night, cloud and lightning, the air and ether, all these are unfolded before us, again and again … but there is one thing no one would ever learn from these ancient songs … and that is that the sky is blue.”
The same holds true of Jewish texts: there is no word for “blue” in the Bible or Rabbinic literature according to the standard dictionaries of each, and the root that means “blue” in modern hebrew, k.ch.l., referred only to the dark cosmetic kohl.
When I first read that someone said there was no “blue” in the Bible, I asked my resident cohort of facebook nerds, “what about tekhelet? Doesn’t that prove that the Bible has a word for blue?” Not really, they convinced me. Tekhelet is a particular dye. Though today we would call it “blue” (and tekhelet means light blue in Modern Hebrew), the Biblical word refers to wool dyed with a particular compound, not to the color per se. (Similar to how “turquoise” first meant a particular stone, and only later came to be an adjective referring to anything of the same color as that stone.)
If this is right, Rabbi Meir might have described the colors of tekhelet, of the sky, of the sea, and of sapphire associationally because the substances were in fact reminiscent of each other – but not in a way that could be easily subsumed in one adjective. Blue doesn’t occur all that often in nature. (If you are wondering, “what about the sky?” I highly recommend this podcast.), so blue-ish things are best described with reference to each other.
If Rabbi Meir’s descriptive chain has a practical rather than mystical purpose, does it mean anything for us today? Now that we have a word and concept of “blue,” and many, many (mostly synthetically colored) items that fit that description, can we learn anything from Rabbi Meir’s explanation? I hope so. We would do well to maintain the ability, in our saturated world, to look at a single blue thread and think of the sea, the sky, and the throne. The skill of being open to subtle and associational connections is as relevant as ever.