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Jeremy England
Former- MIT-physics-prof-turned-rav in Israel

The Unmagical Temple: Azure Strings

Why is tkhelet (azure) the key to everything else when it comes to bringing the Torah back to its full life? Of course the story of tkhelet is inspiring: the rabbinic knowledge regarding which mollusk this dye for priestly fabrics was extracted from was lost long ago, but recent studies of our sages’ teachings, combined with empirical observation and experimentation, have determined with clarity which creature should be used. Still, tkhelet only forms one part of the many-faceted mikdash (temple); what makes it such a powerful symbol?

The Torah commands that tzitit (ritual tassels) be worn on all four-cornered garments, and that each tassel must include one ptil tkhelet (azure string). In sefer bamidbar (the Book of Numbers) we read that when one sees the tzitit the result should be uzekhartem et kol mitzvot hashem veasitem otam (then you shall remember all hashem‘s commandments and do them). This is a remarkable bit of prophetic insight, for the Torah clearly appreciates how the modern story of tkhelet serves as a more general model for how to wake the Torah from its diasporic hybernation. Knowledge can be lost, but that’s no excuse to give up and forget about a large part of what the Torah enjoins upon us just because we may currently lack some of the needed expertise. The verse emphasizes that we should be aiming to remember and do all of the commandments. The story here is meant to be a repeatable one: following the example of tkhelet, we are encouraged to confront other challenges encountered restoring the mikdash by being practical, reasonable, and empirical, trying to make the best decision the data and sources suggest.

The sages built a deeper emphasis of this interpretation into their commentary on the tkhelet. Rabbi Meir is quoted in Menachot 43b saying that the color should remind one of the sea, which in turn should remind one of the sky, which in turn should remind of the heavenly throne of glory.  What’s so striking is how this triad parallels statements in sefer dvarim (the Book of Deuteronomy) that Moshe makes about the Torah itself: the Torah is not “in heaven,” not “far away…over the sea,” and not “wondrous to you.” This is a remarkable set of claims coming from Moshe, who himself ascended to the heavens and brought a whole nation far over a sea with signs and wonders, all in order to give them the Torah. What we are being taught by this comment on the tkhelet, then, is: don’t relate to the Torah as though you can’t touch it unless you still have Moshe to reveal the perfect truth. Moshe and that kind of relationship to hashem are out of the picture now. This is precisely the sense in which tzitzit mean to remind us to remember all the mitzvot and do them: lo bashamayim hi! (it is not in heaven [but rather, here on earth, in our hands!]). Imperfect knowledge is not an excuse to shrink from doing hundreds of hashem’s commands until the fantasized arrival of a magical end to history. We are supposed to take hold of each mitzva in the here and now, study, come up with a reasonable solution, and do it!

About the Author
Jeremy England is physicist, biologist, and machine learning researcher who also has received ordination as an orthodox rabbi. Previously a physics professor at MIT, he now resides in Israel and loves exploring the Torah’s commentaries on scientific reasoning.
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