Placing Techelet in One’s Tzitzit

[Be-Ahavah U-Be-Emunah – Ki Tzetzei 5773 – translated by R. Blumberg]


Question: Should one include the modern sky-blue “Techelet” strings, created with dye from the murex snail, in one's Tzitzit?

Answer: For more than a thousand years we have not had Techelet, so it is clear that such a halachic innovation must be effected by the great Torah luminaries of the generation. Yet we see with our own eyes that almost all the great Rabbis of our generation do not place Techelet in their Tzitzit. Thus the Halachah has been decided, and if someone conducts himself publicly counter to their practice, that constitutes arrogance, in other words, religious arrogance as though he is smarter and more righteous than they. Thus, I shall not clarify whether to add Techelet or not, but rather why the great Torah luminaries reject it.

From their lengthy deliberations, one can discern three main avenues of rejection:

1. The precedent of a thousand years.  2. Unwillingness to rely on proofs to re-institute a tradition.  3.  The weakness of the proofs that have been offered.

1. When the Radziner Rebbe first identified a particular animal, the cuttlefish, as the source of Techelet, he quoted the halachic response of the Ha-Gaon Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik of Brisk, the “Beit Ha-Levi”, who had written that if the murex snail had been known, and the means of production of its dye had been known the entire time that the Jewish People had ceased to use Techelet, yet they still had not added it to their Tzitzit, then it is as though this constitutes a tradition that this was not the same snail that our sages spoke about.

And even if we bring as many proofs as the sands of the sea, it will not help against the practical conduct of the Jewish People.

Ha-Gaon Ha-Rav Avraham Shapira quoted the Beit Ha-Levi in a letter of his that was

included in Rav Harari's “Laws of the Seder Night” (Letter #1), and he added there that the very fact that the murex snail was known but was not used to make Techelet proves that it is not the Techelet of the Torah. It could not possibly be that the proper snail existed and Jews would fail to do all they could to search for it and investigate it so as not to nullify the Mitzvah of Techelet from the Torah. Only if practically speaking no Techelet dye existed would there be cause to clarify and to look for the right one. He concluded by saying that his basis was our Sages' words, “Israel, if they are not prophets, still descended from prophets, and it cannot be that the holiness of the Torah would fail to enlighten them to keep the Mitzvah as commanded.

Ha-Gaon Ha-Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv likewise quoted the Beit Ha-Levi regarding the contemporary use of the murex snail, and he further noted that the Radziner Rebbe's identification did not achieve acceptance, nor did that of Ha-Gaon Ha-Rav Yitzchak Isaac Ha-Levi Herzog. How then do we know, he concluded, that the present identification will not be rejected, as were its predecessors? (Kovetz Teshuvot 2:1).

2. Ha-Gaon Ha-Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik quoted the words of his great-grandfather, the Beit Ha-Levi, in a slightly different manner:

“Since the tradition about identifying Techelet ended, since for many generations we have not know what the 'Chilazon' [snail] of our sages refers to, then even if we succeeded in restoring this information through technical, scientific proofs and clear phenomena, that information still could not enter our tradition, and it is impossible for us to pass legal rulings based on this information without a halachic tradition.” (Nefesh Ha-Rav, pp. 52-53)

In other words, it is impossible to reconstitute a lost tradition regarding a Mitzvah object or a sin object, via proofs, but only via a continuing tradition of those who saw it with their own eyes.

It's a little like those matters whose rulings are based on expert testimony, as with torts, as opposed to those rulings that need eyewitness, as with capital crimes or the validity of a marriage.

The wording of Beit Ha-Levi quoted above is more strict than that of the Radziner Rebbe.

For the latter, there is no rejection in principle of various proofs. All the same they are rejected due to the weight of the years in which it was not used, that constituting a "negative tradition". Had the murex snail disappeared for a thousand years, there would be room for proofs.

Yet Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik holds that even then, if murex had disappeared, it would still be impossible to rely on proofs, because a tradition is required.

3. The proofs about the new identification are far from final. In the Mishnah and amongst our medieval Sages we find seven identifying markers for what constitutes the snail associated with Techelet.

a. It has a shell (Shabbat 75a)

b. The dye has to be produced from a living snail (ibid.)

c. It emerges from the sea once in seventy years, in other words, rarely (Menachot 44a).

d. It's similar to a fish (ibid).

e. Mediterranean House Geckos bite it and it dies (Sifri, Zot HaBeracha 13).

f. Its color is as black as ink (Rambam, Hilchot Tzitzit 2:2).

If we now investigate the recently identified murex snail we find the following:

a. It has a shell.

b. With a lot of snails, you do have to produce the dye immediately. Yet precisely with murex you can dry it and then produce the dye much later.

c. Murex does not come out of the sea. Rather, it remains attached to the sea floor.

Likewise, it is not rare, but is found in all the Mediterranean sea ports by the ton, for use as food.

d. It does not look like a fish.

e. Its shell is hard and house geckos cannot crack it. A hammer is required for that.

f. The dye that emerges from it is transparent (the sun just blackens it).

g. The snail is not black but white.

Those who support identifying it with Techelet try to answer all of these questions, but the identification cannot be called certain.

As a rule, we must realize that all scientific hypotheses have the stamp of doubt on them. New facts are liable to be discovered that will change the hypothesis, and any man of science who frames a theory first states cautiously, “according to the present state of our knowledge...”

Let us therefore conclude by quoting Ha-Gaon Rabbi Yehoshua of Kutna in his response to the Radziner Rebbe:

“It's been rejected for a hundred years, and the wording in Arizal agrees with this, that

there is no Techelet except when the Temple is standing. It has been concealed by Heaven.”