Rashbam: Blue is the Holiest Color (Tetzaveh)

Tetzaveh focuses on the garments and ordination of the priests. Among the details the Torah specifies, Exodus 28:31 tells us “You shall make the robe of the ephod (me’il ha-ephod) of pure blue (k’lil techeilet).”

Rashbam comments:

It was entirely [blue]. It seems to me that the reason [that the robe was entirely blue] was that the robe could be seen under the ephod and the breastpiece. A function of the ephod and the breastpiece was that they served for “remembrance” (zicharon).

The color blue also serves for remembrance, since it is the color of heaven. So the rabbis said (BT Menachot 43b) about the blue [thread] of the tzitzit – that the blue color is similar to that of the oceans, and the color of the oceans is similar to that of the heavens, and the color of the heavens is similar to that of the Divine Throne. For that reason the robe is entirely blue, without any purple or red [threads]. (Translation Martin Lockshin)

Intrigued by this attention to the color blue, I discovered some fascinating aspects of its history.

According to Artsy.net, blue only became popular sometime around 13th century: “Sometimes called ‘true blue,’ ultramarine is made from the semiprecious gemstone lapis lazuli, which for centuries could only be found in a single mountain range in Afghanistan. Lapis first appeared as a “true blue” pigment in the 6th century, gracing Buddhist frescoes in Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Around 700 years later, the pigment traveled to Venice and soon became the most sought-after color in medieval Europe. For centuries, the cost of lapis rivaled the price of gold. Given its hefty price tag, the color was reserved for only the most important figures (namely, the Virgin Mary) and the most lucrative commissions (namely, the church).”

And according to this delightful podcast episode of 99 Percent Invisible, blue was associated with girls rather than boys for many centuries due to the connection to the Virgin Mary. Pink, as a pale form of red, was seen as much more manly. The switch to pink as girly and blue as boyish only happened after World War 2.

In any event, Rashbam sees deep spiritual intent in the color blue, connecting us to the natural world and to the divinity beyond or within it.

The 16th-17th century rabbi Kli Yakar adds a few threads to the idea of what the ocean and heavens are supposed to remind us of. Just like the ocean could burst forth and flood with great devastation – but doesn’t, so too we should guard our tongues from speaking slander. And just like the heavens lead us to contemplate the Divine Throne, we reconnect to “the place of our sculpting.”

I think this means we reconnect to (1) origins; (2) formation; (3) humility; (4) an awareness of the gift of life; (5) dvekut, spiritual yearning and cleaving, or God-centeredness; and crucially (6) the creative core, the place where we operate from a vital potent ability to sculpt our own selves.

May the color blue create vivid spiritual associations for us, so that we might remember to shape ourselves and our world in as beautiful and as holy a way as possible.

For more about Rashbam, see my introduction.