And whenever God sits upon His Throne of Glory He immediately thinks of the blue thread of the fringes worn by Israel, and bestows upon them blessings.
— footnote in Soncino edition, Chullin 89a
Does the color sapphire [sapir] somehow remind God of tekhelet [the blue of ritual fringes]? Or are the blues and God’s thoughts linked some other way? Are blessings contingent on the fringes? The process or causality described here is obscure to me. But I think the image can still inform this thread exploring tzitzit and “light” (minor) commandments. The key seems to be the importance of connection.
Connecting with God…
Rabbi Ari Kahn explores the concept of “light” commandments in the context of parahsat Eikev (Deut. 7:12-11:25). “Eikev,” meaning “follow” or “heed,” can also be read as “heel.” (This same pun appears when Esau and Jacob [Yaakov], who has hold of his brother’s eikev in Gen. 25:26). So, Rashi reads the opening verse with that connotation:
וְהָיָה עֵקֶב תִּשְׁמְעוּן, אֵת הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים הָאֵלֶּה,
And it shall come to pass because you heed [תִּשְׁמְעוּן עֵקֶב], to these ordinances (Deut. 7:12)
והיה עקב תשמעון – אם המצות הקלות שאדם דש בעקביו תשמעון:
Rashi — “And it will be because you heed“: “If you heed the ‘light’ commandments that a person tramples with their heel [בעקביו].”
As noted in previous posts, Kahn explores a number of readings of the concept of “light” commandment: some centering around reward, others involving intention. He paraphrases a teaching from Rabbi Menachem Twersky (1730-1797), linking the word ‘mitzvah‘ [commandment] to ‘b’tzavta‘ [togetherness]:
Every mitzva fulfilled is a point of connection between He who commands and we who are commended and who acquiesce. The result of fulfilling a mitzva is togetherness – what we have referred to elsewhere as ‘a rendezvous with God’….it is impossible to have a rendezvous of one.
— Rabbi Ari Kahn, posted at Emor Project
…and the World
Rabbi Elizabeth Richman, of Jewish United for Justice, also views tzitzit as a form of connection. Taking R. Meir’s teaching on tekhelet and the Throne of Glory as her starting point, Richman asks why R. Meir doesn’t just link tzitzit and the Throne: “Why do we first need to think of the ocean and the sky?”
Rabbi Meir is alluding to the intimate connection between our religious actions and the real world. Our relationship with the Divine must also encompass a relationship with the world that surrounds us….
Ours are stories about slavery, poverty, immigration, environmental degradation, suffering, and, in many cases, redemption. Our stories can help us to see the stories of others and to act in ways that will bring about redemptive endings. As the Rabbis imply in their teaching about tzitzit and its place in the Shema,** when we look around we are challenged to make empathic connections between ourselves and the world around us. These connections obligate us to act.
The color blue that reminds us of ocean, sky, and God’s throne also reminds of this connection. The particular shade of blue to be used in tzitzit is called tekhelet. Ramban (Nahmanides) suggests that tekhelet was chosen because its spelling is very close to the word takhlit, which means purpose or goal.
The relationship between the two words summarizes the Talmud’s teaching on tzitzit. The purpose of our religious rituals is to truly see and engage with the world and its people. This engagement with the world leads us into relationship with the Divine. Only then, as the end of Parashat Shelach tells us, we will be holy to our God.
— Elizabeth Richman, posted on My Jewish Learning (also appear an the American Jewish World Service)
Commandments of Lights
In exploring the concept of “light” commandment, I ran across several authors citing Maimonides’ examples of “light” mitzvah, from his commentary to the Mishnah:
כגון שמחת הרגל ולמידת לשון קודש
“being joyful on [pilgrimage] festivals and learning the Holy language”
Elsewhere, however, in another oft-cited teaching, Maimonides writes about the importance of lighting Chanukah candles:
The command of Chanukah lights is very precious. One who lacks the money to buy lights should sell something, or if necessary borrow, so as to be able to fulfill the mitzvah.
— Maimonides (1135-1204), Hilkhot Megila ve-Chanuka 4:12
Should one be forced to choose between Chanukah and Shabbat candles, due to extreme poverty, however, he rules on the side of Shabbat:
The Shabbat light takes priority because it symbolises shalom bayit, domestic peace. And great is peace because the entire Torah was given in order to make peace in the world.
— ibid, 4:14
**The Torah portion Shelach (Numbers 13:1 – 15:40) includes the last paragraph of the Shema. Recited morning and evening, Numbers 15:37-40 has a prominent place in many Jewish teachings:
וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה, אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר
And the LORD spoke unto Moses, saying:
לח דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, וְעָשׂוּ לָהֶם צִיצִת עַל-כַּנְפֵי בִגְדֵיהֶם, לְדֹרֹתָם; וְנָתְנוּ עַל-צִיצִת הַכָּנָף, פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת. 38
‘Speak unto the children of Israel, and bid them that they make them throughout their generations fringes in the corners of their garments, and that they put with the fringe of each corner a thread of blue.
לט וְהָיָה לָכֶם, לְצִיצִת, וּרְאִיתֶם אֹתוֹ וּזְכַרְתֶּם אֶת-כָּל-מִצְוֹת יְהוָה, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם; וְלֹא-תָתוּרוּ אַחֲרֵי לְבַבְכֶם, וְאַחֲרֵי עֵינֵיכֶם, אֲשֶׁר-אַתֶּם זֹנִים, אַחֲרֵיהֶם. 39
And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that ye may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the LORD, and do them; and that ye go not about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which ye use to go astray;
מ לְמַעַן תִּזְכְּרוּ, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֶת-כָּל-מִצְוֹתָי; וִהְיִיתֶם קְדֹשִׁים, לֵאלֹהֵיכֶם. 40
that ye may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy unto your God.
Ezekiel 1:26 (from Mechon-Mamre):
And above the firmament that was over their heads was the likeness of a throne, as the appearance of a sapphire stone [אֶבֶן-סַפִּיר]; and upon the likeness of the throne was a likeness as the appearance of a man upon it above.
It has been taught: R. Meir used to say: Why is blue [תכלת] specified from all the varieties of colours? Because blue resembles [the colour of] the sea, and the sea resembles [the colour of] heaven, and heaven resembles [the colour of] the Throne of Glory, as it is said: And they saw the God of Israel and there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone [לבנת הספיר], and as it were the very heaven for clearness (Exod. 24:10) and it is written: The likeness of a throne as the appearance of a sapphire stone [אֶבֶן-סַפִּיר] (Ezek 1:26).
— Sotah 17a (also: Menachot 43b and Chullin 89a)
See also “Purposely Blue“
As part of NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month), a cousin of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), “A Song Every Day” plans thirty daily posts with some connection to the number 30. This post follows a thread begun with the 30-day grace period on attaching tzitzit to a four-cornered garment.