Parashat Shlah

The Blue of the Ocean, the Sky, and the Tzitzit

Our relationship with the Divine must also encompass a relationship with the world that surrounds us.

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"Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make tzitzit for themselves on the corners of their garments through all the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the tzitzit of each corner. That shall be your tzitzit; look at it and recall all of God's commandments and observe them... Thus shall you be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your God.  I the Lord am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God… (Numbers 15: 38-41). "

Parashat Shlah concludes with these famous instructions to attach tzitzit (fringes) to the corners of our clothing as a reminder of and a directive to keep God's commandments. The instruction of tzitzit is seen as a reminder of the entirety of religious practice. Our Sages believed that it was so important that they incorporated it verbatim into the Shema, one of the most central prayers in Judaism.

Blue Resembles…

The Rabbis wondered why God commanded the inclusion of one blue thread among the white threads of the tzitzit. Tractate Menahot of the Babylonian Talmud reports Rabbi Meir asking "Why is blue different from all other colors?" and then answering, "Because blue resembles the sea, and the sea resembles sky, and the sky resembles God's Throne of Glory…as it is written: 'Above the sky over their heads was the semblance of a throne, like sapphire in appearance…'"

In other words, Rabbi Meir hypothesizes that the blue thread in tzitzit is meant to guide its wearers through a chain of associations beginning with immediate visualization of tzitzit and ending with the expansiveness of God. But why didn't Rabbi Meir simply say that the color blue reminds us of God's throne? Why do we first need to think of the ocean and the sky? 

Rabbi Meir is alluding to the intimate connection between our religious actions and the real world. Our relationship with the Divine must also encompass a relationship with the world that surrounds us: the ocean, the sky, and the rich variety of life that dwells in between. We must learn to truly see, and thereby to know, the full world that God has created, from the depths of the ocean to the heights of the sky and the vastness of earth.

A Reminder for Action

Indeed, we are not permitted to merely contemplate the world--we must be part of it. Immediately preceding Rabbi Meir's comment, the Talmud asks why we are told to look at tzitzit and remember God's commandments. The Talmud offers the answer that "seeing leads to remembering and remembering leads to doing."

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Elizabeth Richman

Elizabeth Richman is a rabbinical student at JTS.