The end of Parashas Shelach instructs us in the mitzvah of tzitzis. “Speak to the Children of Israel, and instruct them that they make them fringes on the borders of their garments throughout their generations, and that they put upon the fringe of the borders a blue thread” (Bamidbar 15:38).

Reading the words of the Pasuk in their literal sense, it seems that the principle mitzvah of the Torah is to affix a blue thread (although the Gemara in Menachos 39A states that the white has more kedusha). The next Pasuk tells us that we are to look upon the tzitzis threads (or specifically at the techeiles thread), which will lead us to “remember all the commandments of Hashem, and perform them,” and assist us in refraining from straying after our hearts and our minds.

In fact, Chazal understand that the Pasuk teaches us two distinct mitzvos: one of wearing white strings, and another of the blue, techeiles, string. But can one part of the mitzvah be fulfilled without the other? How many techeiles strings need to be used in tying the tzitzis? And what is the status of techeiles today, which some wear on their tzitzis?

We will discuss these questions, and others, below.

Independent Obligation of Techeiles and Lavan

As noted in the Pasuk mentioned above, the Torah stipulates that the techeiles thread must be placed upon the tassels of tzitzis: “that they put upon the fringe of the borders a blue thread” (Bamidbar 15:38). This is the source for the obligation to add a blue string to the white strings of tzitzis.

The Gemara cites a dispute among Tana’im as to whether these two obligations, one of blue strings and the other of white strings, require one another. According to Rebbi (cited in Menachos 38a), the white strings and the techeiles strings can only be worn together; one without the other does not fulfill anything. This is the halachic ruling of the Ba’al Ha-Meor (Shabbos, 11b in pages of Rif).

According to this opinion, the obligations of techeiles and lavan (white) apply together, and it is forbidden to wear a four cornered garment unless one ties both to the corners of the garment. Wearing such a garment with white tzitzis alone on Shabbos will be violate the Shabbos prohibition of carrying those white strings in the public domain.

Yet, the Ba’al Ha-Meor explains that despite this basic position, there is a rabbinic mitzvah of wearing lavan strings, even in the absence of techeiles.

By contrast with this position, the great majority of rishonim rule the opinion of the Chachamim, as cited by the Mishnah (Menachos 38a), by which the two mitzvos may be fulfilled independently of one another. According to this opinion, affixing white strings to a four-cornered garment fulfills a full Torah obligation, even in the absence of techeiles.

The Obligation of Techeiles

The fact that the obligations of techeiles and lavan apply independently opens up the question of the extent to which we are obligated in the mitzvah of techeiles.

The other cases of parallel mitzvos mentioned in the same Mishnah, such as the two mitzvos of tefillin, can be helpful in understanding the relationship between the lavan and the techeiles. Although the two mitzvos of tefillin, one of the arm and the other of the head, are independent of one another, they are both fully obligatory. This will also be true of techeiles: while a full obligation, it is independent of the lavan.

The Rambam (Tzitzis 1:4) writes that the independence of the lavan and the techeiles applies specifically where a person has only one of the two types of tzitzis (techeiles or lavan). In this circumstance, the two mitzvos are indeed independent of one another, and one must fulfill whichever of them one is able to. As the Chinuch (386) elaborates, this applies in our times when techeiles is not available, but not in times when techeiles is available.

In a similar vein, the Sha’agas Aryeh (32) asks how it is permitted for us to wear white strings alone, for surely by so doing we transgress the Torah obligation of affixing techeiles to the tzitzis. He answers the question by explaining that since we don’t have techeiles today, it is permitted to wear lavan alone, and this does not constitute a transgression.

It is interesting to note the wording of the Penei Yehoshua (Bava Metzia 61b), who writes that the mitzvah of techeiles is a “mitzvah min ha-muvchar.” While techeiles is of course an obligation, the mitzvah of tzitzis is fulfilled even with white strings alone, while the superior mitzvah is fulfilled with the combination of white and blue strings. When we affix white strings alone to our four cornered garments, we are thus fulfilling one of the two parts of the mitzvah. In the words of Rashi (cited by the Ramban, Milchamos Hashem, Shabbos 12a): “The principle mitzvah is with techeiles and lavan, and one who fulfills lavan without techeiles does not have a complete mitzvah, but only one out of two.”

The Blue Dye of Techeiles

Do we have techeiles today? For more than a hundred years, the debate over identifying the true techeiles has been active in the Torah world, and in recent times many have started to wear a blue string as part of their tzitzis.

By way of introduction, we will outline the historical development of this research, together with its practical ramifications, until the current time.

The Gemara teaches that the source for techeiles, a blue dye, is a marine creature known as the chillazon, which translates as “snail” in Modern Hebrew (though see Rashi to Menachos 44a, where it appears that it is extracted from the earth). The Gemara also mentions a counterfeit dye from a plant called Kela-Ilan, known as Indigofera tinctoria, the ubiquitous source of blue dye in the ancient world.

The equivalence of color between these two sources teaches us that techeiles is, indeed, a blue hue. The Gemara writes that the color of the techeiles thread is similar to the sea, suggesting again a blue color, and a broad consensus of early authorities agrees that the color of techeiles is blue.

Beyond this, however, the identity of the chilazon from which the dye is extracted was lost at some point after the Roman exile of the Jews from the Land of Israel. It is clear that in Talmudic times, the techeiles dye was still in use. At some stage, it was lost.

Identifying the Techeiles Chilazon

In 1887, Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner, the Radziner Rebbe, researched the subject, trying to identify the chilazon species based on a number of criteria mentioned in the Gemara and other writings of the Sages. His conclusion was that the Sepia officinalis (common cuttlefish) met many of the criteria, and within a year Radziner chassidim began wearing tzitzis dyed with a colorant produced from this species. [Some Breslov Hasidim also adopted this custom, and continue to use this form of techeiles to this day.]

Rabbi Yitzhak Ha-Levi Herzog (1889–1959) rejected this identification, after showing, by means of chemical analysis, that the dye was none other than a well-known synthetic dye, “Prussian blue.” The dye is made by reacting iron sulfate with an organic material, in this case supplied by the cuttlefish.

As part of his doctoral research on the subject of techeiles, Rabbi Herzog placed great hopes on demonstrating that the Murex trunculus was the genuine snail chilazon. However, Rabbi Herzog failed to consistently achieve blue dye from the Murex trunculus, and he therefore abandoned this identification, suggesting an alternative: “If for the present all hope is to be abandoned of rediscovering the hillazon shel techeiles in some species of the genera Murex and Purpura, we could do worse than suggest the Janthina as a not improbable identification.”

In present times, however, the Murex trunculus (a sea snail also known as the Hexaplex trunculus, which is known to have been a common source of blue dye in the ancient world) has returned as the primary candidate for identification with the techeiles chilazon.

The Murex, as Rabbi Herzog pointed out, fulfills many of the Talmudic criteria, and Rabbi Herzog only rejected it on account of his inability to consistently obtain blue dye (sometimes the dye was purple) from the snail. In the 1980s, Otto Elsner, a chemist from the Shenkar College of Fibers in Israel, discovered that if a solution of the dye was exposed to sunlight, blue instead of purple was consistently produced.

In 1988 Rabbi Eliyahu Tavger dyed techeiles from Murex trunculus for the mitzvah (commandment) of tzitzis for the first time in over 1300 years. Based on his work, four years later the Ptil Techeiles Organization was founded to educate about the dye production process and to make the dye available for all who desire to use it.

It is important to note that Rabbi Herzog was not the first to suggest the Murex as the historical source of techeiles. The suggestion already appears in the writings of Rabbi Yair Chaim Bachrach, the renowned Chavas Yair (1638-1702), who writes (in this Mekor Chaim, Orach Chaim I:99) that the blue dye of techeiles is porphura, a word meaning “purple fish” in ancient Greek, and referring to the Murex. In academic research, the identification of techeiles with the Murex also predates the findings of Rabbi Herzog (see Ha-Techeiles p. 418-9).

Halachic Obligation?

Given that there seems to be at least a matter of doubt surrounding the identification of the techeiles as the Murex, is there an obligation to wear the modern-day techeiles?

Today, there are several rabbinic figures who support the use of techeiles as produced from the Murex, and many indeed have begun to tie a techeiles string upon their tzitzis. However, the majority of prominent rabbis remain unconvinced, and have declared that there is no obligation to affix the techeiles thread to tzitzis. These include Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv zt”l, Rav Moshe Sternbuch shlita, Rav Shlomo Miller shlita, and many others.

One of the most detailed responses against the practice of wearing techeiles is a teshuva of Rav Asher Weiss shlita, published in the second volume of his Shut Minchas Asher. Rav Weiss makes three basic arguments:

  1. The arguments presented by Murex supporters are not sufficient to constitute a halachic safek (a matter of doubt), since they are non-halachic in their nature.
  2. A straightforward reading of the statements of the Gemara and the Rambam concerning techeiles do not fit with the
  3. The Sifri, Midrash Rabba, Tanchuma, and the Arizal indicate that the use of techeiles will not return until the days of Mashiach.

A number of detailed responses have been written to Rav Weiss’s teshuva, In the present article we will not enter the complex debate around the use of the modern techeiles.

String Issues

The wearing of a techeiles string raises several issues that require clarification:

  1. The number of techeiles strings that must be used.
  2. Are the windings (kerichos) of techeiles, or of both lavan and techeiles?
  3. The number of chulyos (sets of windings), and the number of windings in the chulyos.
  4. The form of the chulyos.
  5. The knots and their relationship with the chulyos.

Of all these issues, the most crucial is undoubtedly the first: If a person used a smaller number of techeiles strings, he will not fulfill the mitzvah according to the opinion requiring more strings. The other matters mentioned are not essential for the fulfillment of the mitzvah, and are mainly questions of custom, or of fulfilling the mitzvah in the best possible manner.

We will therefore focus on the first issue alone.

There are three distinct opinions among rishonim concerning the ratio of white to techeiles strings:

  1. Raavad (Tzitzis 1:6) and the Aruch: One full string (when folded it becomes two of the eight) must be techeiles.
  2. Rashi and Tosafos (Menachos 38a): Two full strings (four of the eight) are techeiles.
  3. Rambam: Half of one string (when folded it is one of the eight strings) is techeiles.

One statement of the Sifri (Shelach 115) accords with the ruling of the Raavad: “How many strings must one place? Not less than three – this is the opinion of Beis Hillel. Beis Shamai say: Three [strings] of [white] wool and a fourth of techeilet. The halachah follows the opinion of Beis Shamai.”

However, another statement of the Sifri (Devarim 234) seems to uphold the opinion of Rashi: “How many strings are placed? Not less than three strings according to Beis Hillel. Beis Shamai say: Four strings of techeiles and four strings of white. The halachah follows the opinion of Beis Shamai.”

However, the Vilna Gaon writes that the correct version is that of the former Sifri, and amends the latter source to match it: “With three strings of white and a fourth of techeiles.” In keeping with this approach, the Vilna Gaon (glosses to Raya Mehemna, Pinchas 228) sides with the ruling of the Raavad, and many who wear the techeiles thread follow this ruling.

It is Permitted to Wear Safek Techeiles?

One of the potential issues that are brought up with regard to the modern techeiles is whether wearing a wrong color might detract from the fulfillment of the mitzvah of lavan. If the Murex is not the real chilazon, would affixing the blue thread affect one’s fulfillment of the mitzvah?

The Gemara (Menachos 40a) discusses the issue of wearing tzitzis on a linen garment. Given that the techeiles string must be made of wool (Yevamos 4b), placing them on a linen garment would constitute a forbidden blend of materials: shaatnez or kilayim However, since in so doing one is fulfilling the positive mitzvah of tzitzis, this overrides the negative injunction forbidding kilayim.

Nevertheless, the Gemara explains that a decree barring such garments was made in Yerushalayim, to ensure that people would not think that kilayim was permitted in other instances.

Rava bar Rav Chana raises a series of objections as to why the decree is unjustified, all of which Rava resolves. At one point, Rava explains that the decree was issued to ensure that one would not violate the prohibition of kilayim if he unwittingly wore kela ilan—an inauthentic (and far cheaper) version of techeiles, with the same color as the true dye – in place of techeiles. Doing so would mean a failure to fulfill the complete positive mitzvah necessary to override the prohibition.

To this, Rava bar Rav Chana exclaims: “but let [the kela ilan string] be considered like a white thread!” Meaning, the kela ilan string is a valid string for lavan, and so one is still fulfilling the mitzvah of tzitzis. This is true to the point that it can be used to override the prohibition of kilayim (though Rava responds that since one doesn’t need to use wool, the prohibition is not overridden).

The Chazon Ish (Orach Chayim 3:25) derives from this statement that it is permitted to use varying colors for the lavan stings, including that of kela ilan. There is no requirement that the white (meaning non-techeiles) strings be the color of the garment. According to the Rambam, who requires the lavan strings to be the same color as the garment, the Chazon Ish explains that that the strings that were to be techeiles could be any color at all – even kela ilan – where techeiles is unavailable.

From this analysis it is clear that if one unwittingly tied kela ilan in place of techeiles (on a non-linen tallis­—for a linen tallis it would be a problem of course) he would still be fulfilling the mitzvah of tzitzis. Similarly, if one employed a blue dye believed to be techeiles, even if it turned out to be inauthentic, he would have nevertheless fulfilled the mitzvah of tzitzis no less than if he had used only white strings.

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