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Q & A: Biblical Blue Fringe: Will the Real Chilazon Please Stand Up!


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In February we conducted a thorough discussion of the mitzvah of techeilet. The following guest piece by Baruch Sterman, marking 20 years since the establishment of the Ptil Tekhelet Foundation (www.tekhelet.com), is a follow up to that discussion.

For the last 20 years, the Ptil Tekhelet Foundation, under the leadership of Rabbi Eliyahu Tevger, has worked to spread awareness of all areas of study relating to techeilet, as well as to make techeilet strings available to the public. Techeilet is the sky-blue wool that was worn by the Kohen Gadol, whose garments included a robe (me’il) that was completely techeilet and a band worn on his forehead from which the golden tzitz with the name of G-d hung. The regular priests also wore a sash embroidered with the precious blue wool.

Each Jew is commanded to tie a thread of techeilet to the corners of his garment to remind him of all the commandments. Tzitzit, the emblem and uniform of the Jew, is his everyday priestly garb that signifies his bond to the Almighty and his membership in a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

Techeilet was fantastically expensive and one of the most sought after treasures in the ancient world. Often worth as much as twenty times its weight in gold, the blue dye was a driving economic commodity in the Mediterranean domain. The source of the dye was a sea creature called the chilazon by the Talmud, porphyros by the Greeks and murex by the Romans and has been identified as the species of mollusk named Murex trunculus.

Shellfish dyeing dates back 5,000 years; the first mention of “takhiltu” predates the written Torah and is found in the Tel el Amarna tablets in Egypt from the times of Abraham. The murex snail is depicted on coins from Tyre (the capital city of the Phoenicans, who were expert dyers, located in what is now Lebanon) .The Tanach records that Hiram, king of Tyre, sent his best craftsmen and dyers to help Shlomo build the Beit Hamikdash.

The demand for techeilet, and its sister dye argamman (knows as Tyrian Purple), and the status associated with those who could afford to wear them, led to state monopolies in the dye production, and severe restrictions were placed on their use. In Roman times, only the emperor and the governing elite were permitted to own and wear shellfish dyed robes and to disobey this regulation was “an offense similar to high treason.”

Though Jews tried their best to produce and wear techeilet on their tzitzit, the expense, difficulty, and danger associated with obtaining it prevented most of them from fulfilling the commandment. In the turmoil and tragedy of the seventh century in Israel, when the holy land was conquered by Persians, Christians, and finally Arabs, the secrets of dyeing techeilet were lost, and the Midrash (in approximately the year 720) laments, “and now we have only white, for the techeilet has been hidden.”

For the next 1,300 years techeilet would remain lost, not only to the Jews but to the secular world as well. The exact details regarding the identity of the chilazon faded into obscurity, and only a few vague descriptions or other clues remained scattered throughout the Talmud. In the mid-nineteenth century the first attempts were made to renew the mitzvah of techeilet. Within the secular world it was generally accepted that the source of the ancient blue and purple dyes was some sea snail, although the exact species was unclear. The Tiferet Yisrael, Rav Yisrael Lipschitz, considered that option, but rejected it since the color produced by those snails was purple-blue or violet. Techeilet, according to halachic tradition, had to be sky blue.

Influenced by the Tiferet Yisrael, the great hasidic Rebbe of Radzyn, Gershon Henokh Leiner, devoted his life to searching for an alternative candidate, and after a trek across Europe to the newly opened aquarium in Naples, he settled upon the cuttlefish, Sepia officinalis, as the true chilazon. Using a bit of chemical magic to turn the black sepia ink into blue, the Radzyner began to produce techeilet, and within a year tens of thousands of his followers wore the blue strings on their tallitot. Most contemporary rabbinic authorities, however, rejected the Radzyner techeilet.

The final blow to the identification of the cuttlefish as the chilazon would come in 1914, more than 20 years after Rabbi Leiner’s death. That year, Rabbi Yitzchak Halevi Herzog, later to become the first chief rabbi of the State of Israel, wrote his doctoral dissertation for the University of London on the topic of Hebrew Porphyrology (the study of purple – a word Rav Herzog invented). He requested samples of the dyed strings from the Radzyn dye masters and sent them for chemical analysis in laboratories across Europe. The conclusion was that Radzyn techeilet was a synthetic dye known as Prussian Blue, and that the color in fact came from the chemicals added to the mixture as part of the process, and was not based on the ink obtained from the cuttlefish. It was inconceivable, argued Rav Herzog, that the Talmud would insist on the dye coming from the chilazon, if that creature did not provide any essential ingredient to the color forming process.

About the Author: Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at yklass@jewishpress.com.


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One Response to “Q & A: Biblical Blue Fringe: Will the Real Chilazon Please Stand Up!”

  1. Joy Comes says:

    How interesting! The association of this royal blue with the ruling class suggests that the wearing of tzitzit is a statement of individual sovereignty under Hashem — a precursor to modern democratic republics. As the Western world loses reliance on Hashem and Torah principles, liberty is being abandoned and replaced with socialism (aka “the road to serfdom”).

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