Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Blue Thread

A friend of mine just returned from a trip to Israel where he attended an OU convention. He told me that he had the pleasure of meeting Rabbi Hershel Schachter. He noticed that Rabbi Schachter's Talis contained Techeiles, the blue thread mandated by the Torah as part of the fulfillment of the Mitzvah for men of wearing Tzitzis on four cornered clothing. When my friend asked him about it, he answered: Why not?

The problem with Techeiles is that we have lost the Mesorah on it. We no longer know for certain where the Chilazon is or how to identify it. The Chilazon is the marine creature that is the source of that all important ‘blue’ dye that is used to make the Techeiles. And that is key. One may not simply use any dye to color the Techeiles. It must come from the Chilazon.

Several years ago, some people discovered what they truly believed to be the Chilazon. But that was not the first time this has happened. Long before this discovery there was another discovery of a different marine creature – a fish – that could be used to make the blue dye of Techeiles – the so called Radziner Techeiles named af the the Radziner Rebbe who advocated its use. Many people specifically Radziner Chasidm started to wear that Techiles on their Tzitzis. Some still do. But the theory that this fish was the actual Chilazon has since been pretty much debunked by some pretty hard Halachic evidence.

This new Techieles however has not been debunked. In fact it has passed all the tests that debunked the Radziner Techeiles. Rabbi Chaim Twerski of the Hebrew Theological College wrote a very convincing article at the time advocating its use. He reasoned that since this Techieles passes all the Halachic tests and that there is nothing wrong with wearing colored Tzitzis in any case, why not use it?

And - if it really is the Techieles we are then now able to fulfill that Mitzvah. In the unlikely case that it isn’t, nothing will be lost as the Tzitzis are valid even if one or more of the threads are colored any color in the rainbow.

This attitude, which on the surface seems to make a great deal of sense, has been adopted by many people, from right to left. I often see Techeiles on the Tzitzis of many of the most religiously knowledgeable people I know.

I had considered buying such Tzitzis myself, but was reluctant to do so. So I asked my Rebbe, Rav Ahron Soloveichik about it. He told me in no uncertain terms not to wear them. He said the Mesorah was lost. And no matter how strong the evidence is that this new marine creature is the Chilazon, we have no way of knowing for sure. The Mesorah has been lost and we must act on the presumption that we do not have Techeiles today.

The question still remains, why not wear it anyway - what is lost? Even if it isn’t Techeiles, what’s the harm in wearing it? What if it Techeiles? Shouldn’t we wear it on that possibility - and thereby at least possibly fulfil that Mitzvah? I neglected to ask this question to Rav Ahron, but I believe the answer is that if Klal Yisroel takes this on as a whole we may be perpetuating an error.

Which brings me back to Rav Schachter. He is a Talmid Muvhak of the Rav, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik - Rav Ahron’s brother. I am fairly certain that Rav Ahron told me the position of the house of Brisk of which the Rav is of course a member. As such I hardly think he would have disagreed with his brother on this issue.

Is Rav Schachter breaking with his mentor on this? Or did the Rav have a different view of it than Rav Ahron? I ask this with the utmost respect an even admiration for him.