June 12, 2024
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The Great Techeilet Debate

Perhaps one of the greatest debates since we were thrown unceremoniously out of Eretz Yisrael is about a part of the Torah that seemingly only Orthodox Jews know about: techeilet. These bright blue strings were once an integral part of the mitzvah of tzitzit that almost everyone in Eretz Yisroel kept, until they just didn’t. Not only did the mitzvah of techeilet end abruptly, but after the Churban Beit Hamikdash the specific means and the methods to create the dye were also lost with time.

According to the Talmud, techeilet was produced from a marine creature known as the Chilazon. The Tosefta says that this sea animal is the only source of the dye—meaning that no other method is kosher for making techeilet tzitzit strings.

For many generations of scholars it was nothing more than an intellectual exercise in learning until about 130 years ago, when techeilet moved into the realm of potential practice. Because of this, the debate became fierier and focused on two main issues: what exactly was the Chilazon, and more importantly, if there is any mesorah (tradition) that allows us to wear techeilet.

Recently, Rafael Jason Hecht, known as “Rafi,” the owner of BlueFringes.com and a very popular techeilet group on Facebook, entered the debate. He has become one of the most outspoken proponents, spending an insane amount of time compiling videos and sources that “prove” that not only is there a mesorah for techeilet, but that we are obligated to do the mitzvah as described in the Torah.

Hecht says he got interested in techeilet when he was only 12 years old when “someone returned from Eretz Yisrael and wore techielet.” He was very confused at the time, rightly so, having been told that no one would wear techeilet until the Moshiach came. Even though he did not start to wear techeilet at that time, partially because his father told him they didn’t have that tradition, he kept the idea in the back of his mind for a future when those with “famous names” would wear them.

Four years ago Hecht went to Eretz Yisrael and decided to take the plunge. He bought a tallit gadol with techeilet on it—but says he didn’t put it on right away, as he wanted to do his own “research” and find what gedolim were saying about it.

He then spoke to Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb of the Orthodox Union, who told him, “I can’t tell you what to do but there are numerous rabbanim from all sectors who do wear it. Go on to tekhelet.com for more information. But with all due respect to your father, I don’t think it is a lack of kibud av for you to wear techeilet even if he does not.”

Hecht soon started wearing them.

Even so, Hecht is very honest about the problems in his quest to spread the mitzvah. He understands that Orthodox Jews are particularly conservative about “any visual drastic change” and that many have also heard that there is “no mesorah” in techeilet. He doesn’t see this as an issue and points out that even if there wasn’t a mesorah, there are tons of things that Orthodox Jews do that are new and unique that our parents didn’t do, from eating turkey to the newer types of klaf (parchment) of sifrei Torah that are stronger and thinner than those of previous generations.

Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, zt”l, the former posek of the Orthodox Union and rosh yeshiva of Torah Vaados, had a very unique relationship with tzitzit and is mentioned frequently as a famous wearer of techeilet. “R’ Yisroel Belsky,zt”l, once told Rabbi Eliyahu Farrell of the OU that with solid evidence, it’s “k’ilu there is a mesorah,” says Hecht.

Hecht believes that Rabbi Belsky didn’t publicize that he wore them, and even kept them hidden under his kapote, because he didn’t “want to be associated with a political party” and that talking too much about it would “put himself on a limb that would cause more harm than good.”

“At the same time he was using a bit of shikul hadaat (common sense) to arrive at his conclusion, and told others that if they didn’t arrive at it, they didn’t need to wear it,” claims Hecht. “The result is that he has family members like his nephew, R’ Yisroel Barkin, publicly wearing techeilet, and family members who are actually rabidly anti-techeilet. While some might view that as concerning, it can be seen as a beautiful thing as this is a true milchama shel Torah.”

He’s pretty sure, however, that the mesorah, and most of the science, is on his side. He believes that the Chilazon, meaning snail, has been “mentioned by Rishonim such as Rashi who writes ‘limtza’ in a number of places, Tanchum Yerushalmi, R’ Avrohom ben HaRambam, and even a girsa of the Yerushalmi in Brachot quoted by the Raavya translating “misheyakir bein techeilet lekarti to bein purfirin leprisinan.”

In fact, both of the last two words are Greek: prisinos meaning green even today, and purfirin by extension referring to techeilet. “Not only that, but it seems to imply that this is derived from the pupura/purfira, the creature that Greeks even today have a “mesorah” as being the murex species of snail,” Hecht informed us.

Also, according to some, “Techeilet being blue makes sense as it’s to be the exact color as kala ilan, the source we aren’t to wear, from an aspect of honesty/dishonesty. Kala ilan has been translated by the Aruch as “indik,” which is known as indigo, and the Aruch HaShalem writes it as ‘blue-green.’”

 

Resources From Rafi Hecht

Ptil Tekhelet is the organization that started this process, so I would reference their library, which has over 800 pieces on tekhelet.com, as well as their YouTube channel. There’s also a chabura based in Lakewood with a website called Techeiles.org with lots of rabbinic resources. I also created a website called bluefringes.com that features a comprehensive list of tying methods, gedolim wearing techeilet, and archaeological and rabbinic sources as well. We didn’t touch on this aspect, but from a scientific standpoint there’s Dr. Israel Ziderman’s website tekhelet.info, which contains his pieces related to his findings, as well as interesting email correspondences. Last, if someone should be so unfortunate as to be using Facebook, I created and presently run a techeilet group that has lively dialogue and activity.

In terms of textual resources in English, there’s “Sefer Levush HaAron” by Meir Hellman, there’s “Threads of Reason” by Mois Navon, and there’s “Living Halacha 2: The Laws of Tzitzis” by R’ Gershon Meltzer, which has a 50-60 page chapter at the end just on techeilet. For Hebrew, there’s Klil Tekhelet by R’ Eliyahu Tavger.

The above can all be purchased from Amazon or from your local sefarim store. There’s also MiSheyakir from Ptil Tekhelet’s website, which has a collection of articles on techeilet. There’s also “The Rarest Blue” by Rabbi Baruch Sterman about the entire story of how techeilet was lost and found.

I’ll also add that there’s an important comprehensive sefer called “HaTecheiles” by Rabbi Menachem Burnstein of Puah Fertility, written in 1988, which was some years before Ptil Tekhelet even came into existence, let alone sold strings for this mitzvah, which can be obtained only by contacting them directly for a sefer at [email protected].

A full interview with Rafi Hecht can be found on The Jewish Link’s YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GnutRO7UGwE.

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