Parasha Shemini — Traditions Lost and Found

I’m pretty certain that the sages who are responsible for the text of the Torah scroll knew nothing about April Fools’ Day. But every once in a while, a person reading the Torah has to stop and wonder. For example, in the Book of Numbers there is an upside down pair of the Hebrew letter “nun” that frames the verses of the Priestly Blessing. Nobody knows why these letters are written upside down, but they have been faithfully copied from one Torah scroll to another from time immemorial. Is this an ancient scribal prank? One might also find small dots, called diacritical marks above certain letters in the Torah scroll. Although scholars can hazard some guesses about these strange demarcations, we don’t know for certain what they signify. They are simply part of Jewish scribal arts, faithfully copied from one scroll to the next freighted with the weight of tradition.

In this week’s reading of the Torah, which deals with kosher laws, we come across another example of one such scribal tradition. The Hebrew letter “vav” is written large in the word “Gachon”, which means belly. The entire verse reads, “You may not eat any creature that crawls upon its belly, for they are an abomination.” Yet, here we do know why the letter “vav” is writ large. According to tradition, this letter is the mid-point of all of the letters of the 600,000 letters in the Five Books of Moses. It is part of the scribal tradition to point this out by making the letter stand out from the letters around it.

As the most holy text in the Jewish tradition, the Torah has been passionately pored over by countless generations of scholars and rabbis. Each letter, each crown on each letter, is considered sacred. The early sages not only counted all the letters of the Torah, they also counted all of the words of the Torah, as well as all of the verses of the Torah. They discovered that the half way point with regard to words in the Torah occurs in Leviticus 10:16 with the word, darash, or “inquire”. The half way point in verses of the Torah is Leviticus 13:33, if you care to check it out. 

The Talmud tells us that Rav Yosef had a question about this. Is the letter “vav” the last letter of the first half of the Torah or the first letter in the last half of the Torah? Inquiring minds want to know! His fellow sages say, “Let’s bring a Torah scroll and let’s get counting!” Rav Yosef demurs. He and his fellow sages do not possess a reliable tradition of the exact spelling of all of the words of the Torah, he claims. Without knowledge of that tradition they could not be certain that the Torah scroll before them has exactly the same number of letters in it that the earliest sages had used in their reckoning of the mid letter of the Torah. The same is true when they want to find out whether the traditional middle verse of the Torah was the last verse of the first half or the first verse of the last half – or perhaps it was the verse that stood at the very mid-point of the Torah. The tradition as to how the earliest sages divided up the verses of the Torah has been lost.

When a Jewish tradition is lost, it is almost impossible to recover. Who knows how many Jewish traditions have been forgotten or lost over time? Like with any loss there is a sense of sadness and sorrow for what is gone. However, there is one ancient Jewish tradition that has been recovered in our own time. This is the tradition of the blue thread, or the petil techelet. The Torah instructs us that we should attach a blue thread to the fringes on each corner of our prayer shawl, our tallit. However, the tradition identifying the species of sea creature from which the blue dye was extracted had been lost for 2000 years. Josie Glausiuz, writing in The Forward, tells the story of its rediscovery, which in turn led to an amazing discovery of her own.

Josie Glausiuz grew up in London the daughter of strictly-Orthodox parents. Her father, Gershon Glausiusz, was a member of a small shul led by Rabbi Yissochar Finkelstein, who emigrated from Poland in 1937. Rabbi Finkelstein brought with him a tradition from his own teacher, the Radziner Rebbe. In 1887 The Radziner Rebbe set out from his small Polish town for Italy in search of the source of the dye used in ancient times to make the blue thread for the tallit. The Radziner Rebbe was convinced that he had discovered the source of the dye in the common cuttlefish. Certain that he had located the origin of this ancient color, he and his chassidim began wearing their tallit with the fringes of blue as commanded in the Torah. 

Definitive proof of the source of the blue dye was yet to be provided, however. In 2013, Dr. Na’ama Sukenik of the Israel Antiquities Authority presented her research on a 2,000 year old fabric that was found in the Murabba’at caves in the Judean desert. She concluded that the blue dye on the fabric came from the Murex trunculus, a marine mollusk with a gland that secretes blue-tinted substance. The mystery of the source of the blue dye – the techelet — had been definitively solved.

In the meantime, Josie Glausiusz was busy forging new Jewish traditions for her family. She never dreamed that, having grown up in an Orthodox shul in London she — a woman — would ever wear a tallit in synagogue. Yet as an adult she moved to New York City, joined a Conservative synagogue, and began to wear a tallit at services. Nor had Josie ever imagined that she would ever chant from the Torah in her synagogue as her father did. Yet, she learned to leyn Torah, inspired by her father’s beautiful chanting. Furthermore it had never crossed her mind that her Orthodox father would one day accept all of these new traditions. Yet one day Josie’s father took the bus to the town of Bnei B’rak in Israel, bought the threads, and several weeks later, sat down and quietly wove in the greenish-blue threads into the fringes of her tallit.

That is the story of how Josie Glausiusz, a modern feminist, inherited the lost tradition of the blue techelet, following a practice rediscovered in 19th century Poland. It is true that with the passing of time, some traditions fade away and often disappear. It is also true that with the passing of time, new traditions are created and take on profound meanings.

Shabbat Shalom