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1. The Setup

A discussion on Facebook made me realize that my own attitude toward halakhah is quite different than Rav Hershel Schachter’s. If I thought there was only one right approach, I’d bet against myself, but since there isn’t…

Here’s the context.

Both Rav Hershel Schacter and I wear tzitzis made with a dye obtained from the banded dye-murex (Hexaplex trunculus), a sea snail, under the belief that it is — or at least very likely is — the tekheiles dye.

But we tie it in very different ways. And I realized that the beginnings of the pragmatic question of how to tie one’s tzitzis was balancing on fundamental questions of how halakhah works. And thus this discussion will run a whole gamut of levels, from “Top to Bottom”.

What makes the question of what to do with tekheiles is an interesting case, because there was no possibility of doing this mitzvah from sometime during the period of the ge’onim through today. No rishon or acharon could have made a practical ruling, although many wrote opinions, and no ruling was ever accepted by a community and made standard. This is a topic for which there is far more autonomy about what to do than usual.

There are two open questions: How many strings should be made of tekheiles, and how should they be tied? The number of strings could be:

  • Rambam: 1/2 (one of the 8 ends seen in the tassel)
  • Raavad: 1 (2 of 8)
  • Rashi and Tosafos: 2 (4 of 8)

Now why wouldn’t you just tie it the way everyone else does? Well, that is indeed one option. We make 5 knots, to follow the Tanchuma (parashas Qorach, quoted by Rashi and Tosafos). The Tanchuma says that tzitzis is a mnemonic for the 613 mitzvos because the gematria of tzitzis (600), plus the 8 strings, plus the 5 knots totals 613. The  gemara says one should make chulios, groups of windings, and that either there should be 7 to 13 of them, or that each group should have 7 to 13 windings (being the opinion of the Raavad, who cites Rav Natrunai Gaon). And how does one define the beginning and end of a chuliah — if it’s with knots, the gemara would require 8 to 14 knots, unlike the Sifri’s 5! The Mordechai says we’re all ignoring these questions today only because chulios are only an issue when wearing tekheiles.

Which means that for the tekheiles wearer, there is a gemara open to multiple interpretations that many rishonim believed contradicts the Tanchumathat common practice is based on.

Getting the number of blue strings right is a valid vs. invalid issue (in other words the number of blue vs white strings is me’aqeiv). But adding to the general autonomy, this is not true of tying style. Various sources may argue over the best way to tie, or even might require this or that to fulfil the mitzvah lekhat-chilah (ab initio). But there is a very broad range of tying strategies that would fulfill the mitzvah even if one erred on the lekhat-chilah (a/k/a you would be yotzei bedi’eved, post facto [“bedi’avad” for the grammatical purist]).

2. Rav Hershel Schachter’s Approach

Rav Hershel Shahter uses on each corner 2 blue strings, 4 of the 8 ends that emerge from the tzitzis tassel.  This is to fulfill Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam, who generally define the baseline for Ashkenazim.

He then ties these strings in 7 chulios of 7 windings. This way one fulfills both opinions as to what the gemara’s 7-to-13 windings are. The first three and last three windings are white, again, like Rashi and Tosafos. (Even though the source for a 7 winding chuliah, the Raavad, would have one white, one blue, one white… and so on for the 7 windings of the chuliah.) There is a gap on either side of the tekheiles windings, between them and the white windings, to fulfill the opinion of the Baal haItur who holds this is required.

If you notice, Rav Hershel Schachter’s goal is to fulfill the as many elements of the mitzvah as recommended by as many rishonim as possible, even though the result is a position that none of those rishonim would advise.

3. How I Saw Things

Admittedly I too combine opinions, but to an entirely different goal.

My first goal was to preserve the comments about how tzitzis server their description in the Torah as being a mnemonic device to “remember all My mitzvos and do the, and you will not veer to follow your hearts or follow yours eyes.”

According to Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch (Collected Writings Vol III), it is quite significant that the Rambam has the eighth string in particular be tekheiles. Blue is the primary color at the top of the spectrum, the color of the sky. Unlike the earthy red (אדום – אדמה), tekheiles is a sky blue that appeals to going beyond creation. Much the way 8 is used in halakhah to represent going beyond this world, created in a week . Thus a beris is in the 8th day,. Sukkos has 70 cows total among its mussaf offerings to represent the 70 nations. But the 8th day, Shemini Atzeres, when G-d asks to stay one more day “your parting is ‘difficult’ for Me”, only has one — for the Jewish People.

Rav Aryeh Kaplan noted a parallel between the 7, 8, 11 and 13 windings between the knots of Ashkenazi custom and the 39 melakhos for Shabbos:  The first 11 melakhos (Shabbos 7:2) describe the steps necessary to grow wheat, turn it into flour, and make the show-bread. The next 13 are about preparing the cloth of the curtains of the Mishkan, from the wool to the dying to the weaving and sowing. Seven melakhos relate to preparing hides into leather, and the last 8 are simply “none of the above.”

These 39 melakhos are described in the Mishnah as “arba’im chaseir achas — 40 missing one.” As are the 39 lashes maximum meted out by beis din for violating a prohibition (with witnesses, warning, etc…) And those lashes come in 13 groups of 3. Thus, RAK gives motive for one grouping of windings, and the laws of makkos imply meaning to chulios groups in threes.

Rabbi Kaplan explained: 40 represents creation — the 10 Divine utterances during the week of creation each had 4 aspects (which would take a detour into Qabbalah). And thus the world was reborn with 40 days of rain in the days of Noach. The Torah was given in three groups of 40, the spies were sent for 40 days, and because of our sin — those 40 days in which we should have been born as a people became 40 years. There is a special status of a fetus after 40 days.

“Forty missing one” is human creativity. We can rest on Shabbos from acts that parallel those of creating the world. Except for creation yeish mei’ayin, ex nihilo, something-from-nothing. Humans cannot do that (we have to obey the physical laws of conservation), so we cannot rest from it.

The Beis Yoseif writes that the 5 knots are so that when we look down and see the front corners, or when we take those corners when saying Shema (and yes, the Shulchan Arukh says to take only 2, not 4) — we see 10 knots corresponding to the 10 Sefiros.

I wanted all that in my tzitzis. The 8th string, the threes, the 7-8-11-13, the gematria of 613.

But ein dorshin taamei hamitzvos — we do not rule halakhah from the lessons we take from mitzvos.

And yet, there is another, halachic factor… There is established practice for fulfilling the half of the mitzvah of wearing lavan, the white strings. (Yes, it can be fulfilled independently; neither half of the mitzvah is dependent on the other half.) And while I’m pretty sure that the banded dye-murex is the chilazon, I am not actually certain of the fact that I am using the right dye from the right source. So, I see a strong motive to do as little alteration to the mitzvah I should be doing either way.

4. The Meta-Issue

A related issue to that last point: There are established rulings, settled halakhah, about lavan. However, the disputes about what to do with techeiles have not been practical long enough to have such decisions.

As we saw, Rav Hershel Schachter takes that to mean one should try to be safe, and follow as many of the opinions as one can.

Whereas I am more concerned with following the accepted pesaq about lavan, and for the open question — choosing a pesaq that I find meaningful on a hashkafic level.

The question is: What is pesaq?

If the rabbi’s role is to find the halachic Truth, then the rules of pesaq are the means of finding what that Truth is. Either to maximize our chance of finding the One Right Answer, or rules that define what “sure enough” of an possibility is to require following it.

Which would explain R Hershel Schachter’s approach.

It is also consistent with the Brisker tendency not to treat accepted practice (“mimetic tradition”) as a significant factor in deciding practice. After all, “everyone does it” doesn’t really make something more likely to be right.

“… And if everyone jumped off the Empire State Building, would you jump too?”

– Stereotypical Mom

The Arukh haShulchan (OC 34:6 onward) discusses a parallel question. For around a millennium, there were two accepted ways to tie tefillin — the arrangements now called “Rashi” and “Rabbeinu Tam”. The Rambam (who holds like Rashi) and Rabbeinu Tam even had conflicting traditions about what was found in R Hai Gaon’s tefillin. So, Rav Yechiel Michl haLevi Epstein writes:

ו: אל יפלא בעיניך דכיון שתפילין של רש”י פסול לרבינו תם, ושל רבינו תם פסול לרש”י, ואם כן איך אפשר שגאוני עולם וחסידי הדורות וכלל ישראל בכמה זמנים לא יקיימו מצות תפילין, וברכתן היתה לבטלה חס ושלום? ולכן אף שבחיבורים מן דינים והלכות אינו ראוי לכתוב דברים הנאמרים בלחישה…

6: Don’t perceive it as surprising that since Rashi’s tefillin are invalid according to Rabbinu Tam, and of Rabbeinu Tam invalid according to Rashi. And if so how could it be that the greats of the world and the pious of generations and the Jewish community in a number of eras didn’t fulfill the mitzvah of tefillin, their berakhos were for naught [and thus prohibited], G-d forbid!
Therefore, even though in collections of law and halakhah it is inappropriate to write things which are said in whispers…

Okay, I’m skipping the Arukh haShulchan’s detour into Qabbalah. He writes that the resolution of the halakhah according to Rashi required the publication of the Zohar, which made public knowledge of a “medrash ne’elam — a hidden medrash.” Which is why R’ Yechiel Michl Epstein believes the difference between the two possibilities is al pi Qabbalah. His conclusion on our topic (se’if 9) is:

ונמצא דלפי זה שניהם אמת לפי כוונת התורה. אלא דבזמן הזה יותר נכון כרש”י, מפני הטעמים שאמרנו.

And so it turns out according to this that both are true according to the intent of the Torah. Just that in our [pre-messianic] days, doing like Rashi is more correct, for the reasons we gave.

According to this position, pesaq isn’t about determining which side is more true, but rather which side is more relevant. It is not a truth-finding mission but a legal-interpretation one. Compare to Rashi (Kesuvos 57a, “הא קמ”ל”), who also says that in a true machloqes, both sides are true, but one captures the aspect of the Truth that is more applicable to the given situation.:

דהיכא דאשכחן אמוראי דפליגי אהדדי כל חד אליבא דנפשיה ותרי אמוראי אחריני דפליגי בפלוגתא דהנך אמוראי ואית לן לפרושי מילתא בתרי לישני חדא מינייהו מיפלגי תרי אמוראי אליבא דנפשייהו שכל אחד אומר סברא שלו כגון רבי יוחנן ורבי יהושע ואינך תרי אמוראי [אליבא דחד] לא מיפלגי אלא אמרי חדא מלתא וחדא מן לישנא מיפלגי תרי אמוראי אליבא דחד כגון רב דימי ורבין ומשויא מלתא דתרי אמוראי קמאי חדא מלתא שבקינן ההיא לישנא דמיפלגי תרי אמוראי אליבא דחד ונקטינן ההיא דמיפלגי תרי אמוראי אליבא דנפשייהו דכי פליגי תרי אליבא דחד מר אמר הכי אמר פלוני ומר אמר הכי אמר פלוני חד מינייהו משקר אבל כי פליגי תרי אמוראי בדין או באיסור והיתר כל חד אמר הכי מיסתבר טעמא אין כאן שקר כל חד וחד סברא דידיה קאמר מר יהיב טעמא להיתירא ומר יהיב טעמא לאיסורא מר מדמי מילתא למילתא הכי ומר מדמי ליה בעניינא אחרינא ואיכא למימר אלו ואלו דברי אלהים חיים הם זימנין דשייך האי טעמא וזימנין דשייך האי טעמא שהטעם מתהפך לפי שינוי הדברים בשינוי מועט:

When a debate revolves around the attribution of a doctrine to a particular individual, there is only room for one truth. However, when two amoraim enter into a halachic dispute, each arguing the halachic merits of his view, each drawing upon comparisons to establish the authenticity of his perspective, there is no absolute truth and falsehood. About such issues one can declare that both represent the view of the living God. On some occasions one perspective will prove more authentic, and under other circumstances the other view will appear to be more compelling. The effectiveness of particular rationales shift as conditions of their application change even if only subtly.

5. Brisk and Telz, Redux

One other element before we bring all this theory to practice, a topic I covered at greater length in Widen Your Tent, sec. i.4, “Analyzing Gemara”, an earlier form of which is available online in an article I wrote, for Kol haMevaseir, “Brisk and Telz“.

They say that Brisk asks the scientist’s “Vos?” (What?), and Telz asks the philosopher’s “Far vos?” (Why?). I was fortunate to end up in Rav Dovid Lifshitz zt”l’s shiur, where we learned to see the gemara through the methofology Rav Shimon Shkop developed in Telz. On my own desperate search for a more meaningful avodat Hashem, worship of God, I found it much more easily in the latter.

In Brisk, halakhah is its own baseline reality. They don’t simply avoid the “far vos?” they don’t think the question is meaningful. There is no earlier set of givens that one would use to give a philosophical explanation to a halachic ruling.

In fact, if taken to its extreme, Brisker reasoning wouldn’t have one wear murex dyed strings altogether! Because to be convinced from scientific evidence that we identified the chilazon and tekheiles would mean placing science logically prior to halakhah. As Rav Schachter himself records (Nefesh haRav pp 52-54) in the name of Rav YB Soloveitchik. The Beis haLeivi refused to adopt Radziner tekheiles not because he disagreed with the argument, but because he held that zoological findings can’t change practice. Only a mesoretic proof would be worth considering.

So there is this second distinction as to whether aggadic points are even issues to discuss.

My desire to preserve the symbology of various aggadic works follows the precedent as described in the Arukh haShulchan, that Rashi tefillin was finally chosen over Rabbei Tam’s because according to the Zohar it is more appropriate for our era.

6. Taking that Down to Practice

Brisk is looking for an unknown truth. And I believe this underlies Rav Hershel Schachter’s decisions on how to tie — he is maximizing the number of positions by which he fulfilled the commandment.

That’s a fine approach as a stringency. For example, Briskers do not use community eiruvin. If they did so as a matter of halakhah, they would be questioning the entire concept of pesaq. There is a strong consensus among Ashkenazim to allow utlizing a community eruv. Some believe that Brisk actually doesn’t believe in a hard pesaq since the days of the gemara. As the Rambam put it (introduction to the Yad), “רב אשי ורבינא סוף הוראה — Rav Ashi and Ravina [the compilers of the Talmud Bavli] are the end of [halachic] guidance.” Others understand them as taking on these “Brisker Chumeros” as just that, stringencies, acknowledgine that they are beyond the letter of the law.

Much like our parallel example from the Arukh haShulchan — the world rules like Rashi, and even those who wear Rabbei Tam tefillin in addition, consider their Rashi pair the baseline law and make sure to make the berakhah on the Rashi pair. If a Brisker were to time-travel to the days when the question was still open, he would instead feel a duty (whether as obligation or as law) to follow both sides. And yet we see this is not what our rishonim did — each wore the arrangement that fit their rationale.

Whereas the approach I outlined in the previous section would means is that the decided issue of how to wear the white strings is more “real” than any resolution of how to wear tzitzis with techeiles. One is binding pesaq, and the other is “these and those are the words of the living G-d”, with no “but the halakhah is like…”

I am therefore loathe to damage how I observe lavan more than necessary for a chance to fulfill the other half of the mitzvah, the tekheiles. Or even to tamper with the minhagim of that observance, like the number of windings. Choosing instead to fulfill the mitzvah of tekheiles in what is only its lekhat’chilah form according to the Chinukh or only according to Tosafos is fine — because until their is a pesaq, any position establish through normative halachic practice is equally valid.

Last, the aggadic points that likely are my emotional impetus to want to believe the above. There is a rule “שאין אנו דורשים טעמא דקרא – we do not expound [halakhah] based on the reasons of the verses.” But as we saw in the case of deciding in favor of Rashi’s tefillin because of a Zohar, the Arukh haShulchan limits the idea. We do not create law, pesaq, by overriding parts of halachic process, including precedent, to satisfy some symbolic / metaphysical point. But in this situation where there are multiple valid positions on the legal plane, we can and should find that position that we find most meaningful.

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