Tzitzit, Parshat Shelakh teaches, are to be adorned by tekhelet, generally assumed to be a shade of blue. What does tekhelet represent? The Torah seems to be silent on the matter.
In seeking to decode its symbolism, it is worth noting that tekhelet makes two other prominent appearances in Chumash: it is used for the bigdei kehuna as well as the materials of the Mishkan. How might these additional functions contribute to our overall understanding of the meaning of tekhelet?
Our search for an answer begins with a consideration of other instances in Tanakh where we encounter this shade of blue. Megillat Esther famously includes two references to tekhelet. First, Achashveirosh features materials of “tekhelet” at his great feast (Esther 1:6). Later, we discover that Mordekhai, now second-to-the-king, “left the king’s presence in royal robes of blue [tekhelet] and white” (8:15). Both usages point to the same explanation for the significance of tekhelet: in ancient times, it was a dye of royalty.
One other biblical source clinches the point. In his sefer, Yechezkel describes the metaphorical betrayal of Ohalah, the northern Kingdom, of G-d, portraying her as having been unfaithful: “she lusted after her lovers, after the Assyrians, warriors clothed in blue [tekhelet], governors and prefects, horsemen mounted on steeds - all of them handsome young fellows” (23:6). Here too, it is evident that tekhelet is worn by governors and princes. It is, the clothing of kings.
Turning to the examples of the Mishkan and especially bigdei kehunah, Ramban posits the same thesis. Commenting on the Torah’s description of the priestly clothing as “for honor and glory” (Shemot 28:2), Ramban contends that
these clothing are the garb of monarchs, whose liking the kings wore at the time of the Torah… and [regarding] the tekhelet, even today no man would raise his hand to wear other than a gentile king. And it states, ‘Mordekhai left the king’s presence in royal robes of blue [tekhelet] and white’ (Esther 8:15).
For Ramban, the priests’ clothes - and, we may deduce from Ramban’s thesis, the Mishkan as well - were adorned with tekhelet, royal clothing that was fitting for divine service.
Armed with this insight, we may return to the tekhelet adorning the tzitzit. Tekhelet is a royal strand accompanying one’s garments, which reminds of us G-d, the King of Kings. This is also likely the meaning of the Gemara (Menakhot 43b) which teaches that the tekhelet ultimately resembles G-d’s throne of glory.
Having established this connection between tekhelet and royalty, there remain two contrasting explanations as to the precise meaning of the tekhelet. On one hand, the continuation of the verse in Shelakh, “look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge" (15:39) implies that the tekhelet serve as a reminder of G-d’s presence in our everyday lives, a constant reminder of sin’s allure. This interpretation is explicitly adopted by Ibn Ezra (to Bamidbar 15:38), and fits with the story told in the Gemara regarding a man who, on the cusp in engaging in illicit sexual relations, encountered his tzitzit and overcame temptation (Menakhot 44a). Along these lines, Menakhot 43b teaches that “everyone who has tefillin on his head and tefillin on his forearm and tzitzit on his clothes and a mezuzah at his entrance, it is all subject to a presumption that he will not sin, as it is said, and the three-fold cord will not easily be broken' (Kohelet 4:12).”
There is an alternative, however. The verse continues, “Thus you shall be reminded to observe all My commandments and to be holy to your G-d” (15:40). What does the Jews’ holiness have to do with tekhelet? Implicit in this verse is an alternative, namely that the symbolism of royalty attaches itself not to G-d but to ourselves. The tzitzit’s tekhelet, like that of any monarch, is intended to capture the royalty of the person, its wearer. Indeed, Sefer Hachinnukh’s understanding of the tekhelet supports this interpretation. He suggests that while the white strings symbolize the physical body, tekhelet, an ethereal blue, stands for the soul. On his reading, both the lavan and tekhelet represent the person, not Hashem.
Of course, as the Chinnukh’s comment itself implies, these two approaches are hardly contradictory. Tekhelet might well represent our status of royalty by way of our association with Hashem. Because we serve Him, we are elevated to the status of members of the royal family. Indeed, the midrash regularly compares Jews to royalty. In the words of the Gemara (Bava Metzia 113b), “Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel and Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Akiva all hold that all Israel are the children of kings.”
A Talmudic metaphor (Menakhot 43b) underscores the same point:
Greater is the punishment of [someone who does not wear] white than the punishment of [someone who does not wear] tekhelet. A parable: to what is the thing similar? To a king of flesh and blood who told two servants: to one he said, ‘Bring me a seal of clay’; and to one he said, ‘Bring me a seal of gold.’ And both of them sinned and did not bring [the seals]. To which is there a larger punishment? You would say, the one to which he said, ‘Bring me a seal of clay,’ and he did not bring it.
The white, suggests the Gemara, is the seal of clay. It represents the basics, the foundational component of the tzitzit. The tekhelet, on the other hand, is compared to gold. While less basic than clay - thus the disobedient servant is punished less severely - it is the beauty or adornment of the tzitzit.
The metaphor of the seal conveys a beautiful message regarding the tekhelet. By donning royal blue, we are like servants who associate ourselves with the king we serve. Of course, in our case, G-d is the King. But the tekhelet does not merely remind us of our lowly status as G-d’s servants. Instead, it suggests that our status is elevated through our service of the King. By worshipping G-d, we too become royalty.
This message, I believe, is a key one for every Jew to bear in mind. By serving G-d, we do not diminish ourselves. Quite the opposite: we elevate our characters. By bearing this message in mind, we can best live up to the ideals of tekhelet’s royal blue.