Masechet Menachot 37a-43b

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14 Apr 2011

The Coming Week’s Daf Yomi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz

This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.

Menachot 37a-b: Tefillin on the arm and on the head

According to the Torah Tefillin are worn on the “hand” and “between the eyes” (see Shemot 13:9). The Gemara defines the Tefillin of the “hand” as being placed on the kiboret – the muscle between the elbow and the shoulder – and the Tefillinbetween the eyes” as being placed on the skull, the soft area of a baby’s head.

Various derivations are offered explaining why halacha rules that neither “hand” nor “between the eyes” are understood literally by the Sages. When the Gemara suggests that perhaps “Tefillin of the hand” should be actually placed on the hand, and that “between the eyes” should be understood literally, it is not only a theoretical discussion. According to the Mishnah in Masechet Megillah (24a) during the time of the Mishnah there were Jewish sects that disagreed with the traditional interpretations of the Sages and actually performed the commandment of Tefillin in a literal manner. Among these sects, apparently, were early Christians.

Through the ages there were, nonetheless, different interpretations of the Sages’ definition, as well. We know of groups that understood the term kiboret as meaning the fleshy part of the lower part of the arm, between the elbow and the wrist, and actually wore Tefillin in that fashion. Rabbeinu Tam came out strongly against this understanding and proved that only the upper part of the arm could be considered the kiboret.

With regard to placing the Tefillin of the head on the spot where a baby’s head is soft, when a baby is born the bones of the skull are separated. The area where these bones will eventually meet are open so that the brain is not covered with bone, but there is room for the skull to grow and develop. The Gemara’s reference to the area where the baby’s skull is soft refers to the soft area towards the front of the head, which ordinarily closes up by the time the baby is one-and-a-half years old.

Menachot 38a-b: Dyeing one’s tzitzit

The fourth perek of Masechet Menachot, Perek ha-Tekhelet, which begins on today’s daf continues discussing a number of loosely related commandments that have two or more parts. Unlike the previous perek, which dealt with commandments whose different parts depend on one another, (e.g. the four parshiyot in Tefillin or the four tzitziyot on a four-cornered garment) this perek focuses on mitzvot that do not depend on each other, so that each part is viewed as a separate commandment that can be fulfilled in-and-of itself (e.g. the Tefillin of the arm and the Tefillin of the head, or the tekhelet of tzitzit and the tzitzit themselves).

The Torah mentions the color tekhelet on many occasions, but it is not really a shade of color; rather it is the dye from which this color is made. Various discussions in the Gemara make it clear that the blue dye of the tekhelet was taken from a living creature called a hilazon. Because of the many Gemarot that describe the hilazon, it is difficult to identify one particular animal that meets all of the criteria, and there are many different opinions regarding its classification.  The consensus of most opinions is that the hilazon is the snail “Murex trunculus” that is found on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in the north of Israel. This creature has a unique liquid dye (that is not the animal’s blood), which, when mixed with other materials, produces the blue tekhelet color described in the Torah. Already during Talmudic times the use of tekhelet became a rarity, and within a short time its true source was forgotten.

It appears that the color of the tekhelet dye was a dark blue containing shades of green, which is why the sources compare it both to the sea and to grass.

Menachot 39a-b: Of knots and twists in tzitzit

The standard method of tying tzitzit today is to take four strings, placing them through the hole at the bottom of each corner of the four-cornered garment so that they are eight strands, with one strand longer than the rest. Five knots are made, with the longer strand twisted around the rest between each of the knots.

Rabbah argues that one of the knots is a Torah obligation – the kesher elyon, or “top knot.” His proof for this is that the Torah offers specific dispensation that allows woolen tzitzit with tekehlet (see yesterday’s daf, or page) to be placed on a linen garment, the prohibition of sha’atnez (which prohibits the mixing of wool and linen) notwithstanding. Were there no requirement to actually knot the tzitziyot onto the garment, then this could be done by simply inserting the woolen tzitziyot which would not be prohibited according to the laws of sha’atnez.

Rashi on our page suggests that the kesher elyon actually refers to the knot at the bottom of the series of knots and twists, which is the “top knot” in comparison to the strings that descend from it. He views this knot as significant because those strings would not last if they were not tied together. Tosafot, however, quote Rashi as holding the exact opposite position – that the kesher elyon is, in fact, the knot that is tied closest to the garment. This opinion does appear in Rashi in Masechet Sanhedrin (88b). According to this view, after the four strings are folded through the hole in the garment and appear as eight strings, it is when they are tied together – with a single, double or triple knot – that they actually become tzitzit.

Many rishonim disagree with the traditional view that the knots are made using all eight strings; they rule that the knot is made only with the longer string that is twisted around the others. According to this approach, the kesher elyon is the first time that the longer string is tucked under the twists, creating a knot.

Menachot 40a-b – Counterfeiting tekhelet

We have learned (see daf, or page 38) that although the Torah mentions the color tekhelet on many occasions, it is not really a shade of color; rather it is the dye from which this color is made. It is clear, however, that the blue dye of the tekhelet was taken from a living creature called a hilazon.

There were similar color dyes available in the time of the Mishnah – so similar, in fact that it was difficult to distinguish between the true tekhelet and the counterfeit tekhelet. The Gemara refers to a dye called kala ilan, which means “dark blue,” or, perhaps, the word kala itself means “dark blue” and the word ilan – “tree” in Hebrew – was added in order to indicate that it was dye that was produced from a vegetative source rather than from a living creature.

It appears that the kala ilan referred to in the Gemara is True indigo, or indigofera tinctora L. True indigo is a shrub one to two meters high. It has red, pink or violet flowers. It may be an annual, biennial, or perennial, depending on the climate in which it is grown. The plant is a legume, so it is rotated into fields to improve the soil in the same way that other legume crops such as alfalfa and beans are.
The blue dye is obtained from the processing of the plant’s leaves. This plant was the single most important source of blue dye for woven fabrics, and it grew mainly in India, although it also could be found in other areas including the Middle East. Only in recent years has synthetic indigo overtaken this traditional method of producing blue dye.

It appears that although kala ilan and tekhelet were very similar in appearance, kala ilan was much cheaper to produce than the tekhelet, and it was almost impossible to distinguish between them.

Menachot 41a-b – Neglecting the commandment of tzitzit

Generally speaking, there is no Biblical punishment for neglecting to perform a positive commandment; only transgressing negative commandments are grounds to be punished according to the Torah.

With regard to tzitzit it would appear that there should be no punishment if someone did not choose to wear them. In this context the Gemara relates the following story:

An angel once found Rav Kattina wearing a linen wrap, and he exclaimed, ‘Kattina, Kattina, a wrap in summer and a cloak in winter (apparently, neither of these had four corners, and so they were not obligated in tzitzit), and what is to happen to the law of tzitzit?’ ‘And do you punish’, asked Rav Kattina, ‘a person who neglects to perform a positive precept?’ ‘In a time of wrath’, replied the angel, ‘we do’.

The Maharal explains that the reason the Torah does not ordinarily mete out punishment for neglecting a positive commandment is because the person did not actually engage in inappropriate behavior, he merely missed an opportunity to reach the higher spiritual level offered by the mitzvah. In a “time of wrath,” however, a person is punished because of the lack of effort towards self-improvement.
The Maharsha suggests that during a “time of wrath” it is incumbent upon the religious leadership to strive to fulfill even more mitzvot that will serve as protection to the community. If they neglect to do so, they will be punished for their negligence.

Tosafot point out that the local Jewish courts have the ability to mete out punishments to people who do not perform positive commandments, and we can assume that Heavenly courts do as well. They argue, however, that that punishment only applies in cases where the individual is obligated in a mitzvah like sukkah or lulav and neglects to perform it. The case of tzitzit is different, because the obligation only exists if the person wears a four-cornered garment. It was not that Rav Kattina neglected the commandment; he was never obligated in the mitzvah, since he did not wear clothing that needed tzitzit.

Menachot 42a-b: Who can write STa”M (Sefer Torah, Tefillin and Mezuzot)?

Rav Chinana the son of Rava from Pashranya taught: A Sefer Torah, Tefillin and Mezuzot that were written by a min (heretic), kuti, goy, eved (non-Jewish slaves), isha (women), katan (minors) and Yisrael meshumad (apostate) are invalid, based on the passage in Sefer Devarim (6:8-9) that connects laying Tefillin and writing mezuzot. This passage is understood to teach that only those obligated in laying Tefillin can be involved with writing them.

The Ritva explains that this teaching is applied to Tefillin and mezuzot about which the passage is speaking, as well as Sefer Torah which has a higher level of sanctity.
None of the abovementioned individuals are obligated in laying Tefillin:

The term Kutim refers to the nations (not all of whom were truly Kutim, as there were people from other nations, as well) that were exiled to the Land of Israel by the kings of Assyria who were interested in populating the land after they had removed the Israelite people from it. According to Sefer Melakhim (see II Melakhim, chapter 17), these nations converted to Judaism because of their fear of lions that had begun attacking them (from which derives the term gerei arayot – “lion converts”), but they continued worshiping their gods at the same time.

Upon the return of the Jews to Israel at the beginning of the Second Temple period, the Samaritans, descendants of the Kutim, were active in trying to keep the returnees from rebuilding the Temple and the walls of the city of Jerusalem. Even so, there were families – including members of the kohanim – who intermarried with the Samaritans.

During the following years there were continued tensions between the two communities, and Yochanan Hyrcanus led his troops into battle against the Samaritans and destroyed the temple that they had built on Har Gerizim. Nevertheless, there were also periods of cooperation, such as the period of the Bar Kochba rebellion. As is clear above, the attitude of the Sages towards them differed, although after a period of time a final conclusion was reached and they were ruled to be treated as non-Jews, due to their continued involvement with different types of idol worship.

Menachot 43a-b: Searching for tekhelet

The Gemara on today’s daf relates a number of Rabbinic statements about the importance of fulfilling the commandments of tzitzit.

One baraita teaches that fulfillment of the mitzvah of tzitzit “is equal to all the commandments,” based on the passage in Sefer Bamidbar (15:40). Another baraita teaches that looking at the tzitzit reminds us to perform all of the commandments, based on the previous passage (15:39).

The Gemara concludes with the teaching of Rabbi Meir:

Why is tekhelet specified from all the other colors for this mitzvah? Because tekhelet resembles the color of the sea, and the sea resembles the color of the sky, and the sky resembles the color of a sapphire, and a sapphire resembles the color of the Throne of Glory, as it is said, ‘And there was under his feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone’ (Shemot 24:10, and it is also written, ‘The likeness of a throne as the appearance of a sapphire stone’ (Yechezkel 1:26).

It is difficult to precisely identify the color of tekhelet, as there is no clear tradition regarding its hue from the Sages, and over the years the words used for the colors themselves took on different meanings. Even the descriptions that we find in Rabbi Meir’s statement are unclear, since the shades of color found in the sea and in the sky change depending on the season and the time of day. Furthermore, there are other places where Rabbinic statements identify tekhelet as the color of grass or leek.

The rishonim offer a number of definitions for tekhelet:

Similar positions are found among the researchers who have gone in different directions in identifying the chilazon which is the source of tekhelet. If we look to the kala ilan, the “counterfeit tekhelet” as a way of determining the color, it would be indigo, a very dark blue color (see daf 40).

In addition to his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics, both Jewish and secular. For more information about Rabbi Steinsaltz’s groundbreaking work in Jewish education, visit or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.