Shelach: The Color Sublime

“Speak to the children of Israel and bid them that they make fringes (tzitzit) on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of each corner a thread of blue (tekhelet). And it shall be for you as a fringe (tzitzit), that you may look upon it and remember all the commandments of G-d, and do them; and that ye go not about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go astray” (Numbers 15:38-39).

When temptation is pitted against obligation, even if one’s very purpose hangs in the balance, one tends to “forget” oneself.  To aid in this struggle that is life itself, God bids man to avail himself of a reminder – tzitzit.  Rabbi Judah Bar Eliezer (Riva 15:39) notes that the tzitzit knotted on one’s garment is like a string knotted to one’s finger as a reminder to perform a given task.

As an illustration of just how effective this reminder is, the Talmud (Menachot 44a) tells the story of a young man climbing into bed with a beautiful woman, only to have his tzitzit remind him that he was meant for greater things.  Evidently there is something far more profound to this “reminder” than simply a knot on one’s finger.

A closer look at the tzitzit reveals that it is not merely a fringe composed of strings and knots but includes a thread of blue (tekhelet).  This thread, teaches Nachmanides (15:38), is the very essence of the reminder, evoking an awareness of God Himself, as stated in the Talmud:

“Rabbi Meir used to say: How is tekhelet different from all other colors?  Because tekhelet is like the sea, and the sea is like the sky, and the sky is like [God’s] throne of glory” (Menachot 43b).

The import of Rabbi Meir’s question, notes Rashi, is: “why did God choose specifically tekhelet for the commandment of tzitzit?”  Rabbi Meir responds to his own question with a progression of three similes: sea, sky, throne.  Ultimately, tekhelet is unique in its similitude to God’s throne of glory.

But if all Rabbi Meir wanted to teach was that tekhelet reminds one of the God’s throne, why did he employ the intermediary stages of “sea” and “sky”?  Rashi (Sotah 17a) explains that the color at each stage is merely similar to the next in succession.  Thus tekhelet is closer in color to the sea than to the sky, the sky being yet closer in resemblance to the color of the throne than both the sea and tekhelet.  If so, why not simply use a color which more closely approximates the color of the throne itself or at least the sky, as opposed to a color reminiscent of the sea?

The answer, I suggest, is that Rabbi Meir is not as concerned about the similitude of colors as he is about the progression of similitudes –  indeed, the word “color” is absent in all the comparisons.  Rabbi Meir is conveying the notion that tekhelet, as a color, is not to be appreciated in and of itself but rather as a symbol of the sublime in nature (i.e., the sea and the sky), which is, in turn, to be appreciated as a reflection of the Creator – His throne being a symbol of his sublime exaltedness.

I use here the term “sublime” in the sense that Kant defined it in his treatise on aesthetics, “The Critique of Judgment”.  For Kant, the aesthetic experience is one wherein we judge some thing or some phenomenon as either “Beautiful” or “Sublime”.  “The Beautiful in nature is connected with the form of the object, which consists in having boundaries.”  The classic example is a flower, which can be apprehended in its totality.  “The Sublime, on the other hand, is to be found in a formless object, so far as … boundlessness is represented, and yet its totality is also present to thought.”  This would refer to things like, for example, the sea and the sky.

Kant explains that whereas the apprehension of a beautiful object brings one to a feeling of “positive pleasure”, encountering the sublime engenders a feeling of “admiration or respect, which rather deserves to be called negative pleasure.”  The reason for this dichotomy is that the Beautiful conforms to the concepts of our understanding, whereas the Sublime, by its sheer magnitude, forces our imagination into overload.  That is, in striving to comprehend the object that – for its seemingly infinite greatness – is beyond our ability to grasp, we bring ourselves toward infinity, to an intellectual state which is, in itself, sublime.

One does not, however, achieve an appreciation of the sublime by simply looking at the infinitely large in nature.  Rather, writes Kant, the idea of infinity comes about in our estimating the unfathomably great – “by means of progression” – one thing being bigger than that which preceded it, until we reach that which the mind can simply not grasp as it is infinite.

Here we are reminded of Rabbi Meir’s progression.  The sea is something that Kant would describe as “mathematically sublime” – overwhelming in its proportions.  But then even the sea’s dimensions pale in comparison to the expansiveness of the sky.  The feeling brought about by contemplating these sublime elements in nature brings one directly into contact with infinity, denoted in the Talmud as God’s “throne of glory”.  Thus, the idea of infinity comes about by our estimating the unfathomably great in succession – one thing being bigger than that which preceded it, until we reach that which the mind can simply not grasp as it is infinite.

The thread of tekhelet itself is not, of course, sublime; but, as the initial object of contemplation in the progression toward the infinite, it symbolizes the Sublime.  The notion of progression to the Sublime is elaborated in another version of Rabbi Meir’s statement in which other various natural elements are inserted in the progression from tekhelet to the infinite.  Interestingly, this version concludes with the observation that when people look at their tzitzit, “they should not imagine they are wearing tekhelet, but rather … they should look upon their tzitzit as if the divine presence was upon them” (Midrash Tehillim 90:18).

The tekhelet thread serves as “reminder” of the sublime, evoking the emotions of perceiving the sublime, of perceiving the infinite, of perceiving the divine.  And clearly it is this “reminder” that man requires when confronted by the daunting temptations of the beautiful in this world.  In this sense, tekhelet is the color Sublime.

As a post-script, it is important to realize that just as the Sublime can inspire one with awe of the divine, the Beautiful, though often a snare, can also serve as a path to God.  When pursued within the framework of His commandments, the Beautiful leads to the divine; when prompted by the lusting of “your own heart and your own eyes” it leads astray.  Appropriately, the story of the young man and the beautiful woman culminates not when he left her boudoir, but in their lawful union within the framework of God’s law.  The Talmud concludes:

“The sheets that she had spread for him in a forbidden way, she now spread for him in a permitted way – this is his reward in this world, and in the world to come, I cannot even estimate it.”

About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at