Shelach 5754

(Another version of this thought was included in Mesukim MiDevash for parashas Shelach, in the “Bemachashavah Techilah” column, pp 1-2. -micha)


Inherent Tension

Judaism sees man as a synthesis of two opposite concepts. On the one hand, man is a physical animal, on the other, he carries “the spark of the Divine.” As the Torah describes it:

Then G-d formed Man, dust of the ground and breathed into his countenance the breath of life.

Bereishis 2:7

Each of his parts pulls man in its direction. The physical man shares many of the needs of a creatures. He feels hunger, has sexual urges, wants comfort, heat when he is cold. He longs to satisfy his nerve endings.

We should be clear that the physical is not inherently evil. Shabbos would not be complete without three meals. Simchas Yom Tov, the joy of the holiday, is defined by the Torah by eating — by the holiday meal and partaking the Yom Tov sacrifices.

The spiritual man craves G-d and spirituality. He wants to be more than mere animal. Just as the physical man is not inherently evil, the spiritual man is not inherently good. Cult members too are striving to speak to G-d, to experience Him. As the Pesach Hagadah states, “In the beginning our ancestors were idol worshipers.” We take pride that they searched for G-d even though they reached the wrong conclusion.

While we are tempted to think of these two parts of our mind as complete opposites, they have one thing in common. They describe man as a creature, as a passive being pushed by the forces around it.

Every person is torn between these poles. We find ourselves pulled by the physical and the spiritual parts of our minds. The fact that there is a “self”, the one feeling this pulling, gives us a third piece to the human puzzle. There is a part of man that must do the deciding, that is endowed with the G-d given free will to choose his actions.

Since it is the “I” who is getting pulled by these two forces, the part involved with free-will must also be the seat of awareness. When we describe man as being “in the image of G-d”, we are describing this element of him. Aware, a decider of his fate, a creator.

Tzitzis as a Description Human Nature

R. SR Hirsch understands many aspects of this mitzvos to be osos, symbols Hashem uses to convey certain concepts and priorities to the core of each Jew. He finds the role and function of each of these components of the human condition alluded to in the mitzvah of tzitzis in two different ways: in the color of the strings in the tzitzis, and in their number. In “Collected Writings” (Volume III page. 126) Hirsch comments:

We find only three terms to encompass the colors of the spectrum: adom for red, yaroq for yellow and green, and tekheiles for blue and violet….

Red is the least refracted ray; it is the closest to the unbroken ray of light that is directly absorbed by matter. Red is light in its first fusion with the terrestrial element: adom, related to adamah [footstool, earth as man’s footstool — M.B.] Is this not again man, the image of G-d as reflected in physical, earthly matter: “vatichsareihu me’at mi’Elokim” (Tehillim. 8,6).

The next part of the spectrum is yellow-green: yaroq.

Blue-violet is at the end of the spectrum: techeiles.

The spectrum visible to our eye ends with the violet ray, techeiles, but additional magnitudes of light radiate unseen beyond the visible spectrum. Likewise, the blue expanse of the sky forms the end of the earth that is visible to us. And so techeiles is simply the bridge that leads thinking man from the visible, physical sphere of the terrestrial world, into the unseen sphere of heaven beyond….

Techeiles is the basic color of the sanctuary and of the High Priest’s vestments; the color blue-violet representing heaven and the things of heaven that were revealed to Israel… no other color was as appropriate as techeiles to signify G-d’s special relationship with Israel. A thread of techeiles color on our garments conferred upon all of us the insignia of our high-priestly calling, proclaiming all of us: “Anshei qodesh tihyun li — And you shall be holy men to Me” (Ex. 19, 6).

If we now turn our attention to the pisil techeiles on our tzitzith, we will not that it was precisely this thread of techeiles color that formed the krichos, the gidil, the thread wound around the other threads to make a cord. In other words, the vocation of the Jew, the Jewish awareness awakened by the Sanctuary, that power which is to prevail within us, must act to unite all our kindred forces within the bond of the Sanctuary of G-d’s law.

By wrapping a blue thread around the others we are demonstrating a fundamental principle. Physicality and mental exploration have great value, but only as tools. The end must be to strive to go beyond the spectrum, to reach to be closer to Hashem then we are today.

Elsewhere R. Hirsch explains the concepts symbolized by the numbers 6, 7, and 8. Dr. Isaac Levy includes this explanation in his English translation of Hirsch’s commentary to this week’s parshah (16:41):

The origin of this meaning is to be found in the work of the Creation. The visible material world created in six days received with the seventh day a day of remembrance of, and bond with its invisible L-rd and Creator, and thereby its completed consummation. Similarly the symbolism of the number seven in the Menora, in the Temple, in the Mussaf offerings, in the sprinklings of the blood on Yom Kippur, in the Festivals of Pessach and Succoth, in Sabbath, Schmita, Tumma etc. etc. The symbolism of the number eight: starting afresh on a higher level, an octave higher. The eighth day for Mila, Schmini Atzereth and Israel as the eighth of G-d’s Creations. With the creation of Israel G-d laid the groundwork for a fresh, higher mankind and a fresh higher world, for that shamayim chadashim and the `eretz chadashah for which Israel and its mission is to be the beginning and instrument (Is. LXV,17).

So that there are three elements in us. (a) our material sensuous bodies, like the rest of the created visible world = 6; (b) the breath of free will, invisible, coming from the Invisible One = 7; (c) the calling of Jew, coming from the historical choice of Israel = 8.

This too parallels the understanding of man that we have outlined. The six is physical, the seven represents free will, and the eight is man’s striving to be something more.

Tzitzis, worn so that “ye shall remember and do all My commandments”, is explained in this light.

These are the three elements out of which the tzitzis threads are woven. All these three elements are given to us, are woven into our being and are to be realized in completing our calling. But in these three energies two are to be the directing and ruling ones; the “six” in us is to subordinate itself to the seventh and eighth which are also given as part of us, and is to allow itself to be overcome, wound round, by the firm restraining bonds of duty…. Once the bodily sensuality has submitted itself to the bonds of duty through the Divine and Jewish elements, it becomes completely equal to its brother-energies, and like them, is to expand in free development within the limits of Jewish human duty.

The physical man finds expression, but only after he has been channeled and guided by G-d-like free-will and a drive to surpass nature. This is the essence of Hirsch’s vision of Torah im Derekh Eretz — Torah with the way of the world. Man’s goal is not to strive for spirituality to the exclusion of the physical, but rather to use the physical drives as tools for human growth.

In Hirschian thought, the complete human masters the art of six and seven, the physical and the mental. Notice that Hirsch calls the seven divine, not the eight of the spiritual creature. It is the free-will that makes man like G-d, merely being a passive resident of heaven pales by comparison.

According to the Rambam, it is the eighth string which is the techeiles. In this way the tzitzis instructs each Jew that he has the tools to strive for some thing beyond mere human. He must take his physical resources and divine intellect and apply it to the spiritual realm.

© 1995 The AishDas Society

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  1. I wonder how R Hirsch uses the Rambam’s shitta about the Techeiles being the eighth (or equally the first) thread, when he’s a daas yachid, the alternatives being four or two. Somehow, it bothers me that homiletics is so loose, there is so little accountability. But I guess that with the idea of ayin panim, one could say that the Rambam’s shitta was intended as one of the inherent possibilities of the Torah, so its symbolic portent matters, irrespective of the numerous and disparate alternatives.

  2. micha says:

    Unfortunately, while Collected Writings III is on Google books with massive previews, the page I needed pg 130, isn’t available. But now I’m home, opened the book, and can quote R’ Hirsch.

    He just spent pages discussing the meaning of 8 and of tekheiles. He then closes the subsection פתיל תכלת with a mention of the Rambam:

    In view of the foregoing, there is no need for future explanation to show that the interpretation of the רמב״ם, according to which only the eighth thread was of תכלת color, accords fully with the symbolic significance of both the number eight and the תכלת color.

    So he really just gives meaning to the Rambam’s shittah, rather than meaning to the mitzvah.

    As for your suggestion, it would imply a more ambitious project — to propose a meaning for tzitzis that shows how all three positions highlight different aspects of the mitzvah.

    However, I would take it in a different direction, and I believe in 19 Letters, Rav Hirsch does as well. Rav Hirsch criticizes Wissenschaft des Jundentums (Scientific Judaism, by which he means the dominant Reform variant) as being more of an alchemy than a science. In alchemy, one has a theory of how the world ought to work, and performs “experiments” based on that theory. In science, one starts with experiments to collect data, and from that forms a theory. Similarly, a real W-chaft would not be reshaping halakhah based on philosophy. Rather, it would take the data of pesaq and find a hashkafah that explains it. As Chazal say, “ein doreshin taama diqera — we do not learn out halakhah from the reasons behind the verses.” Halakhah drives aggadita, not the other way around

    R YB Soloveitchik who refers to his exercises in taamei hamitzvos as homiletics (as you do) would demote them even further. They aren’t theories about meaning that are consistent with the halakhah, they have no causal connection at all. Rather than being proposed reasons, they are lessons one can take from the experience.

    I am not sure I personally would go that far. But then, that’s just one man’s taste.

    Anyway… I would say that if multiple positions are equally viable on a halachic-legal level, then why not lean in the direction of the one you understand better aggadically?

    And that’s not just me, that’s every ruling we have based on the Zohar, as well as numerous specifically Chassidic rulings.

    You imply that the Rambam’s 1/2 string tekheiles isn’t all that viable from a legal process perspective when you call it a daas yachid. But once we get past the rishonim, the mechaber (Kesef Mishnah on Tzitzis 1:6 — although since the KM predates the SA, R Yosef Caro might still be counted as a rishon) and the Chasam Sofer (shu”t 1:1) hold like the Rambam.

    It would also seem the Gra would hold like either the Rambam or the Raavad, depending on how you resolve his comments on Safra deTsniuta (chr 5, “shiv’ah rehitin”) vs those on the Zohar, (Pinechas 228b).

    The Tif’eres Yisrael (Menachos 4:1) explicitly narrows the field down to those two opinions.

    And kayadua, Radzin also follows the Rambam.

    So, I would not say the book is closed. I don’t think it could be this soon after the dispute took on a pragmatic (halakhah lemaaseh) dimension. I don’t think we count opinions on theoretical statements. Maybe I’m wrong. Still the acharonim show willingness to salvage the Rambam from marginalized “daas yachid” status.

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