Lavan and Tekhelet According to Rabbanan

  • Rav Moshe Taragin


By Rav Moshe Taragin



Shiur #13: Lavan and Tekhelet According to Rabbanan



The first mishna in the fourth perek of Menachot determines that two components of tzitzit operate independent of each other.  Ideally tzitzit should contain both white stands as well as tekhelet strands.  If either cannot be located, the mitzva can still be performed with the lone alternate colored stands.  As the mishna states, the tekhelet and the white strands are not me’akeiv one another; although they ideally complement each other, the absence of one does not subvert the implementation of the other. 


In fact, throughout the past two millennia – as tekhelet disappeared – tzitzit were fashioned solely from white strands based upon this mishna. The mishna compares tzitzit to tefillin, which also includes two independent components.  If either tefillin shel yad or shel rosh is missing, the other unit can be worn independently; the two mitzvot are unrelated. Based on this comparison, it would appear that tzitzit should follow a similar pattern. The blue tekhelet strands and the white strands are in no way related to each other.  The gemara does cite an opinion of Rebbi that the two colors ARE INDEED me’akeiv, but almost all Rishonim rule in favor of the majority opinion of the Rabbanan and we would expect complete independence of the two. 


It appears that at least two Rishonim may have disagreed with this approach.  Most prominently, the Rambam develops what appears to be a novel approach regarding the interplay between the two colors. The first departure of the Rambam is in counting the two colors as ONE mitzva among the list of 613 (see Mitzvat Asei 14).  If they were truly independent, we would expect them to be classified as separate mitzvot.  In fact, the Ramban (in his comments to Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, shoresh 11) invokes the precedent of tefillin, in which the two components are independent and the Rambam himself LISTS them as separate mitzvot.  Tzitzit should similarly be listed as two mitzvot!


There were various attempts to explain the Rambam’s opinion, most notably that of the Rivash (siman 137), who claims that EVEN THOUGH the two are independent, since only one ACT is necessary to place the clothing on the body, only one mitzva is counted.  In contrast, the mitzvah of tefillin requires two separate ACTS of donning and therefore merits two different “listings.”  In effect, the Rivash explains that the Rambam maintained the complete independence of the two colors but nonetheless counted them as one mitzva because of a different factor. 


It is possible, however, that the Rambam’s collapsing of tzitzit into one mitzva indicates a more STRUCTURAL RELATIONSHIP between these two colors; they may not be as independent as we thought. When describing the makeup of the eight strands of tzitzit (4 strings folded and thereby doubled into 8), the Rambam claims that all strings are white except for half a string, which is dyed tekhelet.  The logical view (the one adopted by Rashi and Tosafot) assigns 2 strings (4 folded “heads”) to tekhelet and 2 strings to white color. But the Rambam basically eliminates tekhelet from the composition save for a half a string which is dyed tekhelet. 


Evidently, the Rambam views the tekchelet and white strands as unequal.  Essentially, tzitzit is composed of white strands. In fact, the short description of tzitzit in Parashat Ki Tetzei does not even mention tekhelet.  However, by referring to tzitzit as “gedilim,” the Torah demands a braided effect achieved by wrapping the strings within a string. According to the Rambam, the tekhelet is necessary merely to wrap the base, white tzitzit. In fact, the only tekhelet reference in Parashat Shelach describes this blue strand as a “peti’:” “Ve-natnu al tzizit ha-kanaf” (place upon the corner tzizit) “petil tekhelet." The qualification of tekhelet as a “petil” as well as the reference to tzitzit WITHOUT tekhelet each reinforce the Rambam’s position that tekhelet SERVES the white strands in achieving the braiding effect.


This obviously has many halakhic ramifications, chief among them the limitation of tekhelet to half a string (ultimately 1 out of 8 folded heads).  Since the tekhelet is not actually an integrated part of tzitzit per se but merely the wrapping element, no more than half a tekhelet string is required – the size necessary to wrap the remaining 7 heads! In fact, unlike many Rishonim, who wrapped their tzitzit with a mixture of white and tekhelet strands, the Rambam demanded wrapping almost exclusively with tekhelet. 


Ultimately, then tekhelet and white strands are not completely independent.  Indeed, the mitzva can proceed without tekhelet, but if tekhelet is present, it is meant to produce a braiding effect of gedilim upon the white stranded tzitzit.  This would also explain the Rambam’s condensing tekhelet and white strands into one counted mitzva. If they were COMPLETELY INDEPENDENT THEY SHOULD, as the Ramban noted, BE COUNTED AS TWO MITZVOT. Since the tekhelet serves to reconstitute the white strands from strings into a braid, it is ultimately integrated into the same counted mitzva. 


This explanation of the Rambam is offered by several commentators and can be found in the Mishkenot Yaakov (siman 13) and in the shiurim of the Rav zt”l (contained in a sefer published by Mossad Rav Kook and edited by Rav Yair Kahn in 2004). 


Perhaps Rashi also agreed that even though tekhelet and white strands may be WORN independently, there is still a relationship between the two and they are not entirely independent. Rashi claims that in the absence of tekhelet, 4 strands of complete white should be included in the tzitzit (the customary practice). Tosafot disagreed and claimed that only 2 white strands are necessary.  In many respects, Tosafot’s logic is more compelling; the two mitzvot of tekhelet and white strands are COMPLETELY INDEPENDENT.  Although typically 2 strings of tekhelet and 2 white strings are included (according to most Rishonim who disagree with the Rambam’s novel approach), in the absence of the 2 tekhelet strings, only 2 white strings should be supplied. Why should an additional 2 white strings be supplied in place of tekhelet? 


One explanation of Rashi suggests that the 2 extra white strings REPLACE the 2 original tekhelet strings and serve as “symbolic” tekhelet strands.  Tzitzit demands an interplay between two contrasting sets of 2 strings braided together into one woven entity of gedil.  If tekhelet is extinct, we still require 2 strings to play the functionary role of tekhelet – even if they don’t contain the original and ideal color of tekhelet.  In fact, the gemara in Menachot (38b) searches for the author of the position that tekhelet and white strands are not me’akeiv. Even though the original mishna asserted this as the standard opinion of the “Rabbanan,” the gemara searches for an actual author. It concludes that R. Yochanan ben Nuri authored this opinion and it cites his original language: “If no tekhelet can be discovered, PLACE WHITE STRANDS.“  This language suggests that:


1)    2 ADDITIONAL STRANDS are necessary. Indeed, Rashi derived his unique position of 4 white strands from this syntax.

2)    The additional white strands play the functional role of tekhelet even though they aren’t dyed tekhelet. 


Ultimately, Rashi was unwilling to imagine tzitzit without the dynamic of tekhelet interacting with white strands.  Even in the absence of ACTUAL tekhelet, virtual tekhelet strings are necessary. 


This position of Rashi leads to an interesting application. The gemara in Menachot suggests that if 2 strands are damaged, they can be “rescued” by the other 2 strands. If the tekhelet become shortened but the white strands remain fully intact, the tzitzit are still valid. Similarly, if the white strands are cut but the tekhelet remain intact, the tzitzit are valid. This halakha – known as gardumim - would seem to fit perfectly with Rebbi’s opinion. Since the two sets of 2 strings are me’akev each other and since tzitzit is a composite of the two, a flaw in one can be compensated for by the other.  Even though one component of the larger whole is compromised, since the tandem unit is whole, the overall structure is still solid.  According to the Rabbanan, the halakha of gardumim would seem irrelevant.  The white and tekhelet strands are unrelated and independent.  If one set is damaged, the status of the alternate and independent set cannot compensate.  Yet the gemara appears to cite the law of gardumim even though it rules like the Rabbanan!!


Many Rishonim wrestle with this issue, but Tosafot in Menachot (38b) claim that Rashi’s model of tzitzit would allow for gardumim. Even without tekhelet, we need 2 white strands to represent tekhelet. Ultimately, while the COLOR of tekhelet is not me’akev (according to the Rabbanan), the structure of 2 sets of 2 strings IS me’akev. Since these 2 sets are me’akev, they form one larger whole and entail one indivisible mitzva. Hence, a flaw in one set can be compensated for by the integrity of the other set. 


Ultimately, Rashi didn’t agree with the Rambam in viewing the tekhelet as the wrapping for the white strands. Functionally, each operates as the basis of tzitzit. However, tzitzit must be built upon 2 sets of 2 strings.  Even in the absence of the ideal colors, this structure is maintained.  Both Rashi and the Rambam were unwilling to grant tekhelet and white strands absolute independence.