This is sort of a reverse Amram Gaon, where the first and last Chulyos are Techeiles, with one wind white before and after.
Bottom-line, his understanding is that the 7 Chulyos representing the 7 heavens should be the color blue, which is the color of the sky. That’s why he reverses the tying order.
Blue Sky and White Space
The gemara (Menachot 39a) states that the threads of the tzitzit should be bound together by a number of bands, each band composed of three windings of one thread around the others. Immediately afterwards, the gemara quotes a beraita that states:
One who minimizes should not use less than seven, and one who maximizes should not use more than thirteen. One who minimizes should not use less than seven – to parallel the seven Heavens. One who maximizes should not use more than thirteen – to parallel the seven Heavens and the six areas of space between them.
Most Rishonim understood that the beraita is discussing the number of bands needed to tie the threads together, and not the number of windings needed in each band. According to the beraita, the tassel should be tied together by no less than seven bands and no more than thirteen, each band made up of three windings.
The beraita explains its reasoning for the number seven by drawing a symbolic connection between the number of bands and the seven Heavens. The Rishonim quote another gemara (Menachot 43b) to explain this connection:
Tekhelet is similar to the [color of] the sea, and the sea is similar to the [color of] the sky.
Rashi explains our gemara:
Because the tekhelet is similar to the sea and the sea is similar to the sky, its arrangement [of the thirteen bands] is made similar to that of the Heavens.
Most of the ways of wrapping suggested by the Rishonim alternate between white and tekhelet bands. This is also connected to the symbolism mentioned in the beraita; there is a space between each of the Heavens, and the white windings symbolize these spaces, just as the tekhlet windings symbolize the Heavens themselves – hence the maximum number of thirteen bands.
The Rosh states:
Specifically when we possess tekhelet, we must be prudent regarding the number of windings, as the tekhelet is clearly recognizable in the windings and is similar to the Heavens, while the white parallels the space between each of the Heavens. Now, however, when we do not possess the tekhelet, we need not be concerned regarding the number of windings.
According to the Rosh, the method used for winding the threads is only significant when tekhelet is used and the symbolism is complete. If one cannot accurately create a symbolic reflection of the seven Heavens because of the absence of tekhelet, the number of bands is insignificant.
Given that the symbolism of tekhelet is of prime importance in the performance of the halakha, it should also impact on the way used for winding the threads. The Rosh’s way of winding the thread calls for alternating tekhelet and white bands, while the Rambam holds that only the tekhelet thread is used for the windings. The Rosh’s method allows us to recreate the symbolism of alternating Heavens and space described in the gemara, and would thus seem to be optimal.
But the method of winding ultimately suggested by the Rosh and Tosfot seems to violate this symbolism. Both the Rosh and the Tosfot hold that the first and last bands of the tassel should be wound specifically with white thread. Accordingly, a tzitzit with thirteen bands would inevitably have seven white bands and six tekhelet bands, upsetting the order of “Heavens” and “space” and destroying the symbolism recorded in the beraita!
This seeming contradiction to the original intention of the beraita is a result of the fact that both the Rosh and the Tosfot based their method on another beraita as well, which appears later on in the sugya in Menachot:
When he begins, he should being with white, so as to be similar to the color of the garment. When he concludes, it should be with white, because ma’alin ba-kodesh ve-ein moridin, we increase in holiness, and we do not detract from holiness.
It would seem that there is no way to bind the threads with thirteen bands while complying with the requirements of both beraittot; we can not maintain the symbolism of the first beraita while incorporating the requirements of the second. The Rosh and Tosfot were therefore forced to compromise between the two.
However, there may be an alternative method through which we can relieve the tension between these two apparently contradictory braittot. As noted above, the Rambam states that each band is wound with the tekhelet string, and the bands do not alternate between tekhelet and white, as the Rosh suggests. He therefore cannot explain the beraita calling to begin and conclude with white winding as demanding the creation of entirely white first and last bands. The Rambam must interpret the second beraita as referring merely to the first and last winding of the first and last bands respectively.
In light of the Rambam’s interpretation of the beraita, we can create a method that upholds the requirements of both beraittot and maintains the symbolism of the “Heavens” and “space.” If we combine the positions of the Rosh and the Rambam, the tzitzit should be bound by alternating seven bands of tekhelet and six bands of white threads, as required by the first beraita, while the principle of beginning and finishing with white should be upheld by winding the first winding of the first band and the last winding of the last band with a white thread.
The Holiness of the Tekhelet and the White
This method of winding is not simply a technical compromise intended to relieve the tension between the two beraittot. It expresses a fundamental conception of the mitzva of tzitzit and the relationship between the tekhelet and the white strings, the result of which is a Halakhically and spiritually coherent method. In order to fully understand the depth of the new method and the way in which it blends the spiritual ideas found in each of the beraittot, we must engage in an in-depth analysis of the sources themselves and the tension between them.
I believe that the difference between the beraittot is not simply the result of a Halakhic dispute. Rather, each of the beraittot represents a different approach to understanding the relationship between the tekhelet and the white threads.
The first beraita represents a position that considers the tekhelet to be the essential color of the symbolic meaning of mitzvat tzitzit. The tekhelet reminds the beholder of the Heavens, and the white threads are simply there to represent the space between the seven Heavens. The source of this understanding can be found in the words of R. Meir (Menachot 43b):
Meir says: How is tekhelet different from all other colors? For tekhelet is similar to the sea and the sea is similar to the sky, and the sky to the Throne of Glory, as it says, “And under His feet was the likeness of sapphire brickwork, and it was like the essence of the heaven in purity” (Shemot 24:10), and it says, “Like the appearance of sapphire stone, the image of the throne” (Yechezkel 1:26).
The idea expressed by the beraita, that the tekhelet represents the Heavens, is thus part of a broader understanding, according to which the tekhelet not only represents the Heavens, but the Divine throne itself. According to the beraita, the seven bands of tekhelet represent the seven Heavens, and the white bands represent the space between them. Although we might conclude that the tekhelet and the white strings are of equal importance, it is evident from the statement of R. Meir that the primary symbolism in tzitzit is that of the tekhelet. This is made even clearer later in the sugya, where R. Meir compares the white threads to a simple seal and the tekhelet threads to a golden seal. Thus, according to at least one view, there is a clear hierarchy between the tekhelet and the white, and the tekhelet is clearly dominant.
As opposed to the preeminence attributed to the tekhelet by the first beraita and R. Meir, the second beraita emphasizes the importance of the white threads; the first and last band (or, according to the Rambam, the first and last winding) of each tzitzit must be made of white threads. The reasoning for this is “ma’alin ba-kodesh ve-ein moridin” – the order of the actions taken when fulfilling mitzvot must have an ascending progression of importance. Therefore, one must finish the winding with a white thread, and not a tekhelet one. Clearly, the second beraita considers the white threads and their windings to be more important than the tekhelet threads and windings.
Thus, one trend of thought stresses the importance of the tekhelet, while the other prefers the white strings. Why does the second beraita stress the white strings over the symbolic tekhelet?
In order to resolve this, we must broaden our study and examine texts that do not directly relate to the sugya of tzitzit.
Daniel describes his vision of God in the following manner:
I beheld till thrones were placed, and one that was ancient of days did sit. His raiment was as white snow, and the hair of His head like pure wool; His throne was fiery flames and the wheels thereof burning fire (Daniel 7:9).
In this verse, Daniel describes God as “ancient of days,” garbed in pure white cloths, and white of hair. Daniel’s vision is the basis for the Zohar’s position that the level of revelation called “Atikta Kadisha” is characterized by the color white. According to the Zohar, other colors characterize lower levels of revelation. If so, white represents God in His most pure and revealed form, through which He guides and judges His creations.
The distinction created by the Zohar between white and other colors is rooted in the far more basic difference between white and tekhelet. The Zohar explains that tekhelet represents judgment, while white represents mercy. In that context, it seems that tekhelet represents a lower level of revelation, Sefirat Ha-Malchut, while white represents a higher level of revelation, Sefirat Ha-Chesed. Thus, the white strings are holier than those of tekhelet.
This mitzva of tzitzit includes blue and white, judgment and mercy, white fire that does not consume and blue that consumes and destroys… white from the right, blue from the left.
The Zohar explains that tekhelet is connected with judgment through its similarity to the roots of the words “achal” and “kala,” which mean “to consume” and “ceased.” In fact, the midrash (Sifrei, Bamidbar 115) also presents the tekhelet as having a negative connotation by noting the similarity to the word “kilayon,” “destruction.”
These are simple linguistic similarities; however, we do find verses in the Torah that seem to relate to the dual symbolism created by the tekhelet and the white.
And it shall be unto you for a fringe, that you may look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord and do them; and that you go not after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you use to go astray; that you may remember and do all My commandments, and be holy unto your God (Bamidbar 15:39-40).
Twice in three verses, we are commanded to remember and fulfill all the mitzvot. First, the negative result of forgetting the mitzvot is stressed:
Go not about after your own heart and your own eyes, after which you use to go astray…
In the second command, the Torah tells us to remember and uphold the mitzvot so that we can take part in the creation of a positive outcome:
That you may remember and do all my commandments and be holy unto your God.
According to the Zohar, it seems that these two dimensions of the mitzvot are symbolized by the different colors of the tzitzit. The tekhelet symbolizes the negative outcome created by violating the mitzvot, and the white represents the positive outcome of “be holy unto your God” that results from following them.
The Talmud tells a story of a man who once heard of a famous prostitute in a far away land. His desire overcame him, and he traveled to see her. The story develops in a not altogether surprising manner; at the last minute the man holds himself back from sinning, thanks to his careful observance of the mitzvah of tzitzit. But the story continues to an unexpected ending, which teaches us about the nature of human inclinations and the way Judaism relates to them. In the words of the gemara:
Once there was a man who was very careful in his observance of the mitzvah of tzitzit. He heard there was a prostitute in a distant town who accepted four hundred gold pieces for her services. He sent her four hundred gold pieces and made an appointment. When the appointed time came, he went and sat at her door…
“Enter,” she said, and he entered. She made him seven beds, six of silver and the seventh of gold, with a silver ladder between each bed, and to the top one, a golden ladder. She went up and sat unclothed on the uppermost bed, and he ascended to sit beside her. Suddenly the four fringes of his tzitzit brushed against his face and he slipped down and sat on the ground. She slipped down after him and sat beside him.
“By the Roman emperor,” she demanded, “I won’t let you leave until you tell me what blemish you saw in me!”
“By the service of G-d,” he replied, “never have I seen a woman as beautiful as you. But there is one mitzvah that G-d has commanded us called tzitzit, and regarding it, twice it is written ‘I am Hashem your G-d’ (Bamidbar 15:41), I am the G-d who will punish and the G-d who will reward, and [the four fringes of my tzitzit] will be as four witnesses against me.”
She said to him: “I won’t let you go until you tell me your name, the name of your city, the name of your Rabbi, and the name of the Beit Midrash where you study Torah.” He wrote it down and put it in her hand.
She then divided all her possessions – a third she gave to the kingdom, a third to the poor, and a third she kept for herself – except for her beds and bedding, and came to the Beit Midrash of Rabbi Chiya.
She said to him, “Rabbi, instruct me and I shall be a convert.”
He questioned her, “My daughter, might you have laid eyes on one of my students?” She showed him the note in her hand.
He said to her, “Go and enjoy your claim.”
The same beds which she had spread for him illicitly she now spread for him permissibly. (Menachot 42a)
At the end of the story the womene comes to the Beit Midrash of her not-quite-client and approaches his Rabbi, Rabbi Chiya, with the request to convert. Her request is greeted with suspicion and reservations about the purity of her motives. Indeed, Rabbi Chiya’s suspicion that she has “laid eyes on one of [his] students” is correct, but when he sees the note in her hand, he changes his mind and accepts her.
TecheletThough the gemara tells the story to demonstrate the power of tzitzit in changing a man’s heart, the prostitute also undergoes a process of growth in the story. As a matter of fact, she undergoes a much more dramatic and meaningful change than he does. When her visitor has a sudden change of heart, she initially fears that he has found her to be repugnant. He seeks to reassure her, telling her that his change of heart has nothing to do with her appearance, that actually, he has never seen a woman so beautiful. But his answer doesn’t leave her at rest. After witnessing his impressive behavior, his willingness to give up the object of his desire in which he had already greatly invested and instead respond to a higher call, she realizes that though she has no external blemish, something inside is missing, her way of life is not whole. So she makes a radical decision, abandons her lifestyle and wealth, and follows in the footsteps of the one who granted her this insight, eventually meriting to “enjoy her claim.”
Fringed Garments and Gilded Beds
The most interesting aspect of the story is the way the prostitute relates to the tools of her trade – her beds and her ladders. One would think that on her way to a new life, she would quickly seek to distance herself from those things most intimately associated with the life she seeks to leave behind, namely her beds, but she departs on her journey with the entire assemblage in tow. She isn’t the only one who sees them as important; the gemara itself makes a point of noting that after her conversion, she offers to her husband the same beds she had used in her trade. The key to the moral of this unusual story lies, in my opinion, in her beds.
First of all, there is a significance to the number of beds (seven) and the number of ladders (six). These numbers parallel the wrappings of the tzitzit. The strings of the tzitzit are wrapped in thirteen bands – seven bands of blue techelet, symbolizing the seven heavens, and six bands of white string, symbolizing the atmosphere between them (Menachot 39a). The top most bed is made of gold, and it corresponds to the last band of the tzitzit, which, according to the gemara, is the holiest one (ibid).
One would think that this parallelism comes to make a contrast, a sort of “this as opposed to this, made the Lord” (Kohelet 7:14). The movement toward holiness is expressed by the upper band of the tzitzit which represents the seventh heaven, whereas the prostitute’s seventh bed represents the approach toward sin and impurity. It is surprising, then, that ultimately the beds receive such positive treatment in the gemara.
To help understand the story’s message, let us turn to the torah of the Baal Shem Tov. The Baal Shem Tov teaches that there are three levels in the spiritual rectification of one’s inclination to do wrong: subduing, separating and sweetening. These three levels appear in our story. First, in the simplest sense, the urge itself is subdued. Ascending to the naked prostitute whom he has hired, the man manages to overcome his desire and withhold himself from sin. In the second step, separating, the man leaves her and returns to his town and his Beit Midrash, but before he does so, he writes her a note, “he wrote it down and put it in her hand.” The language of the gemara here is reminiscent of the language of the torah regarding divorce, “and he must write her a bill of separation and put it in her hand” (Devarim 24:1).
In the third step, the sweetening, the would-be sinners marry, and “the same beds which she had spread for him illicitly she now spread for him permissibly.” The inclinations have come to expression in a place of holiness, in marriage. The story teaches us that human urges and inclinations are not inherently wrong or evil, but when they hold the reins, they are liable to lead to negative places. The goal is not to uproot and destroy one’s inclination, but to channel it toward expression in the proper contexts. This is what the Baal Shem Tov means when he speaks of the sweetening of the inclination. The connection between the word for inclination, “yetzer,” and the word “yetzira,” creation, bears witness to the potential for good in Man’s inclinations.