The Gnat

The rab­bis tell us that many a species was cre­at­ed sole­ly for the sake of a sin­gle mem­ber of its kind, to which some spe­cial his­tor­i­cal mis­sion was assigned. For exam­ple, the low­ly gnat was called into being to cause the death of Titus, the Roman gen­er­al who destroyed Jerusalem.

Accord­ing to the Tal­mud, while Jerusalem was still in flames, Titus loaded the holy ves­sels of the destroyed Tem­ple aboard a ship for trans­port to Rome so he could parade the spoils of his vic­to­ry. On the sea a vio­lent gale sprang up, threat­en­ing to sink the ship. Titus cried out, The God of the Jews may have domin­ion over the waters, but if He is real­ly mighty let Him come up on dry land and fight with me.” Where­upon a heav­en­ly voice pro­claimed, Sin­ner and son of a sin­ner! There is a tiny crea­ture in the world called a gnat. Go up on dry land and wage war with that!” (Git­tin 56b). The storm sub­sided, and the ship pro­ceed­ed on its way.

When Titus land­ed at Ostia, a gnat flew into his nose and entered his brain. The insect remained inside Titus’s head for sev­en years, buzzing inces­sant­ly. The suf­fer­ing was intol­er­a­ble. One day, as Titus was pass­ing a blacksmith’s shop, the gnat heard the clang­ing of the ham­mer and ceased its activ­i­ty. Believ­ing that a rem­e­dy had been found, Titus ordered a black­smith to ham­mer before him each day. If the black­smith was a non-Jew, he would be giv­en four coins; if a Jew, he would be told that it was com­pen­sa­tion enough to see the suf­fer­ing of his ene­my. How­ev­er, the rem­e­dy worked for only thir­ty days because the gnat grew accus­tomed to the ham­mer­ing and resumed its buzzing.

The gnat grew in size each day, feed­ing on Titus’s brain until it final­ly caused his death. Physi­cians who opened his skull found a two-pound crea­ture resem­bling a spar­row with a beak of brass and claws of iron, and they placed it in a bowl.

Titus’s remains were cre­mat­ed. In accor­dance with his dying com­mand, his ash­es were car­ried to dis­tant places and scat­tered over the sev­en seas so that the God of the Jews would not be able to find him and bring him to tri­al for the destruc­tion of the Temple.

Yet anoth­er midrash says that Titus asked physi­cians to open his head in order to relieve the pain but asked them not to harm the insect so that all might see how God was pun­ish­ing him. When they removed the insect, it was like a dove. It grad­u­al­ly dimin­ished in size until it became an ordi­nary insect, which then flew away as insects do. And at that point Titus died.

Art by Mark Podwal

The Snail

Let them (the wicked) … be like a snail that melts away as it moves.” This imagery from the book of Psalms (58:8) stems from the ancient belief that the moist streak left by a snail as it crawls along is sub­tract­ed from its bod­i­ly sub­stance; the far­ther it creeps, the small­er it becomes, until it wastes away entirely.

A more benign asso­ci­a­tion is with the aro­mat­ic spice shekhelet, said to have been derived from the shell of a snail found in the Red Sea, which emits a pleas­ant odor when burned. Shekhelet was one of the ingre­di­ents, accord­ing to the book of Exo­dus (30:34), in the holy incense burned as an offer­ing in the Taber­na­cle and lat­er in the Tem­ple. This fra­grant offer­ing is recalled in the cer­e­mo­ny of hav­dalah, per­formed at the con­clu­sion of the Sab­bath and fes­ti­vals, when bless­ings are recit­ed over a cup of wine, a lit can­dle, and spices (placed in con­tain­ers that have been fash­ioned in a vari­ety of forms).

Tekhelet is a blue-vio­let dye men­tioned forty-nine times in the Bible. How­ev­er, the Bible describes nei­ther its source nor the means of pro­duc­ing it. Jew­ish tra­di­tion tells us that the only source of tekhelet is a sea crea­ture known as the chilla­zon. The Midrash Tehillim describes the chilla­zon: All the time that it grows, its shell grows with it” (23:3), which indi­cates the chilla­zon is a crus­tacean. Under­stood to be a species of snail, it is said that once every sev­en­ty years, a strong cur­rent uproots the chilla­zon, upon which the crea­ture becomes inan­i­mate and wash­es up on the shore; oth­er­wise it must be fished out.

Tekhelet was used in the gar­ments of the High Priest, the tapes­tries in the Taber­na­cle, and the tzitz­it (fringes) affixed to the four cor­ners of the tal­lit (prayer shawl). The fringes remind the Chil­dren of Israel to observe God’s com­mand­ments. Accord­ing to kab­bal­ah, tekhelet pro­tect­ed the wear­er of the fringe, for the col­or blue wards off the evil eye. The Tal­mud notes that Rab­bi Meir would say, What dis­tin­guish­es tekhelet from all oth­er types of col­ors? It is because tekhelet is sim­i­lar in its col­or to the sea, and the sea is sim­i­lar to the col­or of the sky, and the sky is sim­i­lar to the sap­phire stone, and the sap­phire stone is sim­i­lar to [the col­or of] the Throne of Glo­ry” (Chullin 89a). Remark­ably, techelet was col­or­fast. Mai­monides writes, Its dye­ing is well known for its stead­fast beau­ty and does not change” (Mish­neh Torah, Tzitz­it 2:1).

Around thir­teen hun­dred years ago, the knowl­edge of tekhelet pro­cure­ment was lost or con­cealed. Thus a midrash lament­ed, And now we have no tekhelet, only white” (Num­bers Rab­bah 17:5). As such, white fringes are worn until the com­ing of the Mes­si­ah, when Eli­jah him­self will resolve all unan­swered ques­tions, includ­ing reveal­ing the iden­ti­ty of the chilla­zon and how to make tekhelet.

Art by Mark Podwal

Mark Pod­w­al has writ­ten and illus­trat­ed more than a dozen books, and has illus­trat­ed more than two dozen works by such authors as Elie Wiesel, Hein­rich Heine, Harold Bloom, and Francine Prose. King Solomon and His Mag­ic Ring, a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Wiesel, received the Sil­ver Medal from the Soci­ety of Illus­tra­tors, and You Nev­er Know, a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Prose, received a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award. His art is rep­re­sent­ed in the col­lec­tions of the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, the Vic­to­ria and Albert Muse­um, Prague’s Nation­al Gallery, and the Jew­ish muse­ums in Berlin, Vien­na, Prague, and New York, among oth­er venues. Hon­ors he has received include being named Offi­cer of the Order of Arts and Let­ters by the French gov­ern­ment, the Jew­ish Cul­tur­al Achieve­ment Award from the Foun­da­tion for Jew­ish Cul­ture, and the Gra­tias Agit Prize from the Czech Min­istry of For­eign Affairs.