Menachot 43: Missing No Longer!

By: rabbi jay kelman |

Our generation has been blessed with the renewal of two mitzvot that had, for all intents and purposes, lay dormant for centuries. 

It is our generation that merited the ingathering of the exiles from the four corners of the earth and the reestablishment of a Jewish state. For the first time in close to 2,000 years, we are sovereign in our own land, affording us the opportunity to become a “light unto the nations” (Yishayahu 49:6) and “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Shemot 19:16). We are witness to many nations marveling at the amazing accomplishments of this tiny state, bestowing the blessing of the Torah as they exclaim, “How wise and understanding are these people!” (Devarim 4:6). While this mitzvah was theoretically applicable throughout the ages, practically speaking, it was of little significance.[1]

At approximately the same time that the latent Zionist yearning of the Jewish people began to manifest, Rav Gershon Henoch Leiner, the Radziner Rebbe, began his lifelong search for the chilazon that would allow for the manufacture of techelet, knowledge of which had been lost many centuries before. While the techelet we use today comes from the murex trunculus snail and not the squid he thought it did (though Radziner chassidim, unsurprisingly, continue to wear techelet from the squid), he laid the groundwork for its proper identification and thousand of Jews worldwide attach techelet to their tzitzit, thereby fully fulfilling a biblical mitzvah that had lain dormant for so long[2].

While one is only required to wear tzitzit if one is wearing a four-cornered garment—something there is no requirement to do—the mitzvah of tzitzit is so beloved (and easy to do) that Jews the world over go out of their way to buy a special four-cornered garment just so they can fulfill this mitzvah. And no wonder! 

Similar to the mitzvah to dwell in the land of Israel, the mitzvah of tzitzit is “equal to all other mitzvot” (Menachot 43b). While living in Israel gives one the opportunity to fulfill so many mitzvot that can only be fulfilled in that special land, it is the mitzvah of tzitzit that serves as the inspiration to keep those mitzvot. Literally wrapped up in mitzvot, we have a constant reminder of our responsibilities. 

Yet without the techelet much of the power and purpose of the mitzvah is lost. “Rav Meir used to say: Mah nishtana, how is techelet different from all other colours? Because the [colour] techelet is like the sea, and the sea is similar to the sky, and the sky is similar to the seat of glory [of G-d]” (Menachot 43b). 

So central is the techelet to the mitzvah of tzitzit that the Gemara quotes the opinion of Rebbe Yehuda Hanassi that absent the techelet, one cannot fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit. White strings alone just won’t do. And if one cannot fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzit, then there is no reason to wear them[3]. And in fact the Ba’al Hamaor, whose commentary is printed in all standard editions of the Talmud, never wore tzitzit, following as he did the view of Rebbe[4].

Yet the universally accepted view is that of our Sages, recorded in the Mishna by Rebbe himself: “The [lack of] techelet does not inhibit the [wearing of] lavan, white; the lack of white does not inhibit the wearing of techelet[5]” (Menachot 38a).

While we associate techelet with tzitzit, it was also needed for the garments of the kohen gadol. This is not coincidental. The wearing of the techelet is our constant reminder that we are all part of a “mamlechet kohanim, a kingdom of priests”, tasked with carrying G-d’s message to the world, and with running after peace and seeking of peace. May we merit to act so, and may we merit seeing the high priest adorned in techelet as the Temple Mount becomes, as Yishayahu (56:7) prophesized, “a place of prayer for all nations.” 

 

[1] The many great rabbinic figures who made Israel their home in the 16th century—luminaries such as Rav Yosef Karo, Rav Yitzchak Luria (The Ari), Rav Shlomo Alkabetz, Rav Moshe Di Trani (The Mabit)—did have dreams of imminent redemption. The Shulchan Aruch was written as the constitution of the “emerging” Jewish state. Sadly, the state was stillborn, and it would be another 300 years before (many more) masses of Jews would emigrate to the Land of Israel. 

[2] If you have not done so already, I highly recommend you visit the website of Ptil Techelet here.

[3] One can very well argue that it would be prohibited to wear a four-cornered garment as doing so puts one in violation of a positive command. Even if one were to argue that absent techelet, one just loses the ability to perform the mitzvah—but not the right to wear such clothing—there would be no reason to wear a tallit, as such is worn for the solitary purpose of fulfilling a mitzvah. 

[4] The comments of the Ba’al Hamaor, many of which are critical of the Rif, are printed beneath the commentary of the latter, next to those of the Ramban, who defends the Rif in his Milchamot Hashem. The discussion regarding tzitzit takes place in Masechet Shabbat, page 12 of the Rif, and while the Baal Hamaor never explicitly says that he never wore tzitzit, the Ramban does assert that.  

Having just completed parshat Breisheet, it is worth noting his comment that he divided his commentary—which he called Hamaor, meaning light—into two parts. As he puts it, “hamaor hagadol lemeselet nezikin v’nashim, v’hamaor hakatan l’memshelet moed”. The difficult Mishnaic orders of Nashim and Nezikin require hamaor hagadol, the light of the sun, to illuminate the text, whereas the easier order of Moed requires only hamaor hakatan, the light of the moon. Most appropriate for someone who lived in the city of Lunel, in Southern France.

[5] Rav Herschel Schachter is of the view that the heter, allowance, to wear tzitzit without techelet was only in a time and place where techelet was unavailable. But if one has the opportunity to wear techelet, and one does not do so, one is in violation of a positive Torah commandment if one were to wear a four-cornered garment with white fringes only.