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Techelet: Inquiry From a Student Learning in Israel for the Year

The following question arrived from a student:

“I am learning in an Israeli yeshiva where most if not all of the rebbeim wear techelet on their tzitzit. May I or even must I wear techelet on my tzitzit?” While the topic of techelet is vast, we present a brief overview.

 

Reasons for the Techelet

Techelet appears three times in the Torah. 1) It is woven in the Mishkan’s curtains. 2) Techelet is included in the bigdei kohen gadol. 3) Men must place techelet on tzitzit. This list sheds light on a reason behind techelet.

Megillat Esther (8:15) describes Mordechai as going forth in royal clothes, including techelet. This description reflects the ancient practice of royal garments incorporating techelet. Including techelet in the kohen gadol’s garments is due to his eminent stature. Similarly, weaving techelet into the curtains of the Mishkan is most fitting for the palace of the King of Kings.

However, why does Hashem mandate every Jewish male to wear techelet in his tzitzit? An answer is that we are Hashem’s children (Devarim 14:1). As princes, each Jew is royalty. Tzitzit/techelet staves off sin (see Bamidbar 15:39 and Menahot 44a) by reminding us that we are of royal stature and therefore too important to sin!

The Gemara (Menahot 43b) also indicates how techelet steers us away from sin. It states that “the color of techelet is similar to the sea, the sea is similar in color to the sky, and the sky’s color is similar to that of the Divine Throne.” Techelet brings to mind Hashem’s presence, bringing forth yet another powerful reminder to remain on the Torah path.

 

The Loss of Techelet

Despite the powerful messages expressed by techelet, its use stopped due to Roman oppression. The Romans executed anyone other than royalty who wore techelet on his garments. This severe pressure for many centuries contributed to the disappearance of techelet for more than a millennium (at least since the eighth century C.E.).

 

Modern-Day Attempts to Revive the Techelet

In modern times there have been three significant efforts to renew techelet use. Secular researchers identified the snail known as the Murex trunculus as the techelet source. They draw solid evidence from the fact that hundreds of yards of Murex trunculus shells were found near dyeing vats (with some techelet color in nearby pottery!) along Israel’s northern coast (the Gemara’s—Megillah 6a—stated location for techelet). However, the dye from this snail yields only purple color, and the Gemara insists that the color of techelet is blue! Secular scholars regarded the Talmud to be incorrect. Of course, we Jews utterly reject such an assertion and search for an alternative resolution.

The Radziner Rebbe (late 19th century) famously extracted dye from the cuttlefish to color the techelet. While Radziner and Breslover chasidim wear such techelet until today, most Torah scholars reject this identification. Among the problems with the Radziner’s identification is that the Gemara (Menahot 42b and 44a) mentions the term hilazon as the source of the techelet, and hilazon is commonly assumed to mean a snail. Moreover, Menahot 43a describes techelet as a steadfast and everlasting dye, but the Radziner’s techelet is said to fade in the wash. However, the incredible energy and insights the Radziner developed in techelet play a highly significant role in arriving at an accurate identification.

Israel’s second Ashkenazic chief rabbi, Rav Yitzhak Herzog, made a valiant effort to identify the techelet in the 1910s. He insisted that the techelet comes from a snail and was very inclined to accept the Murex trunculus identification if not for its yielding only a purple color. Rav Herzog’s writings on the topic also constitute a significant advance.

The big breakthrough came in the 1980s when Israeli chemists accidentally discovered that exposing the dye extract from the Murex trunculus to sunlight transforms purple to blue. The color transformation may be observed in a wonderful video made by Dr. Baruch Sterman (“How was Tekhelet Rediscovered: Techeiles Yom Iyun 2021”). The mystery of the techelet seems finally resolved!

In the 1990s, the Ptil Techelet organization began to produce the Murex techelet commercially and make it available to Jews worldwide. Israel’s Rav Eliyahu Tavger formed Ptil Techelet along with three American olim (two of them from Teaneck!), Dr. Sterman, Dr. Ari Zivotovsky and Dr. Ari Greenspan.

While considerable evidence supports the Murex trunculus identification, some questions remain. For example, the Gemara (Menahot 44a) states that the hilazon appears once in 70 years, but the Murex trunculus does not appear cyclically. In addition, Menahot 42b describes the making of techelet, and it does not mention exposure to sunlight.

 

Reaction of the Poskim

There has been a mixed reaction from poskim to the “Murex techelet.” Some leading poskim have endorsed the techelet and even mandated its use. The most enthusiastic supporter has been Rav Hershel Schachter (Ginat Egoz 2:16-18). While Rav Schachter concedes that the identification of techelet is in doubt (safek), he argues that one is nonetheless obligated to wear the techelet. He compares the situation to a man who only has access to tefillin, which is only possibly kosher. In such a case, he is undoubtedly obligated to wear such tefillin (while omitting the bracha) due to the rule of safek d’oraita l’humra—one must be strict concerning a doubt regarding Torah law (Mishna Berura 39:26).

While other gedolim such as Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg and Rav Yisrael Belsky agree with Rav Schachter, many if not most gedolim do not endorse its use. These gedolim include Rav Yosef Shalom Eliashiv (Kovetz Teshuvot 1:2) and Rav Asher Weiss (Teshuvot Minchat Asher 2:2-5). I understand them as arguing that we cannot renew a lost mesorah (tradition) based on a safek.

A similar range of views exists among Sephardic poskim. Rav Meir Mazouz endorses its use, but Rav Yitzhak Yosef (Yalkut Yosef Orah Haim 9:2) expresses reservations. He writes that its identity has not been proven conclusively, and many gedolim do not wear it.

 

Conclusion

I began to wear the new techelet in 1997 upon discovering Rav Schachter’s endorsement. However, a few years later I stopped since most poskim had not accepted it. Nonetheless, I maintain an open mind, especially since it seems that the “Murex techelet” is slowly gaining traction and becoming more widely accepted.

Whether Sephardic or Ashkenazic, I tell students that the decision remains theirs to place Murex techelet on their tzitzit. If they wish to wear it, they may rely on Rav Schachter and the other gedolim who support his view. On the other hand, it is also acceptable not to wear the Murex techelet since most gedolim (for now) do not endorse its use.

Stay alert for new developments in this fascinating field in the coming years and decades!


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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