The Chilazon…in the Desert?

Moshe Ben-Chaim

Teacher: A student is asking about Rashi's comment that the techeiles (blue dye) is from the blood of the chilazon, which arises from the sea to the mountain every 70 years.  She pointed out that the Jews are in the desert at this time, so where did they get the dye? Her teacher explained that perhaps, like Yaakov prepared the atzei shitim by planting them, maybe they carried dye with them.  Any other ideas or sources?

Rabbi: Let's distinguish between matters that are; 1) possible, 2) probable, 3) improbable, 4) impossible and 5) what must be true. 

It appears the student's question is generated from genuine curiosity. Other times, such questions are based on the assumption that certain matters are improbable, or impossible. I will address both.

People often wrongly assume, "That which is difficult, must be improbable, or even impossible."  People cannot fathom how God ensures that innocent and righteous people escape a natural disaster, as King David teaches (1), while many others perish. People feel, "I wouldn't be able to work out all the details that certain traffic lights got delayed, certain trains too, that certain people missed their planes, etc."  This projection of our weaknesses onto God causes the error. In fact, with ease, God is aware of the 7 billion people alive today; all their thoughts and plans, and at all moments. Difficulty, is not something God faces. He can step in at any moment to alter events. This, then, is the 5th category: things that "must" be. Meaning, as God is in full control of all He created, and He created all, nothing prevents Him from expressing His will.

Therefore we must appreciate that as sure as God knew the Jews would be in a certain location when they would require the chilazon to dye the Temple's fabrics, God planned that this chilazon was around, and that this animal was designed in a manner that it reproduces abundantly, as the Jews required (Talmud Sanhedrin 91a):

"Go up to the mountains, where you will see only one chilazon, but by tomorrow the rain has descended and it is covered with chilazons." 

Here, the Talmud states that this species called the chilazon can reproduce quickly when there is ample moisture.  There's no impossibility here, for the presence of the chilazon in the desert nearby the Jews is merely a matter of timing natural events. Although improbable by natural law, the presences of many chilazons in proximity to the Jews is possible, and clearly occurred in the dessert. 

This is unlike impossible matters, such as God creating a square that is also a circle at the same moment. If it's a square, it cannot be a circle. Maimonides discusses certain matters are impossible(2). He writes:

"That which is impossible has a permanent and constant property, which is not the result of some agent, and cannot in any way change, and consequently we do not ascribe to God the power of doing what is impossible"…"It is impossible that one object have at the same moment, two opposite properties" [like our square circle case] … "Likewise it is impossible that God should produce a being like Himself, or annihilate, corporify, or change Himself". 

The difficulty most people have with this, is they view God like "Superman," where if something is impossible for Him, this is a weakness in God. But in truth, being limited in this fashion, is certainly not a weakness. For if we find a judge who literally cannot make an error and always frees the innocents and jails the wicked, this is clearly a perfection, not a flaw. Similarly, God cannot perform that which is impossible, and this too is a perfection, for the impossible, by definition, literally "cannot" exist. That's what "impossible" means. And our God is involved only in what is real and exists. What we call "truth." 

Once we distinguish between these 5 possibilities, and know when and where to apply each one, we will find it easier to accept God's complete control over all variables, and at all times. We will also grow in our intelligence, as we will distinguish between what God can, and cannot do. We thereby abandon the false infantile view of a "Superman" God, and arrive at a conviction in what is truly impossible, and that God's inability to perform the impossible, is a truth, and is not an imperfection in God. 

(1) Psalms 34:20

(2) "Guide for the Perplexed" book III, chap xv