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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.

Rav Herzog investigated all the known sources regarding techeilet and the chilazon, looking for clues not only in halachic sources but in a vast array of secular sources as well. By that time, due to the work of the French zoologist Henri Lacaze-Duthiers, the German chemist Paul Friedlander, and a host of archeologists all along the Mediterranean, the scientific community was in agreement that murex snails were the source of the ancient dyes. Murex brandaris produced a red-purple dye – argamman – and Murex trunculus yielded a purple-blue dye – techeilet. Echoes of the Tiferet Yisrael ring through Rav Herzog’s conclusion that although all the evidence points towards the Murex trunculus snail as the Talmudic chilazon, if we assume that the true color of techeilet did not contain even a hint of violet, we must reject that snail as the source of the biblical blue dye.

The solution to Rav Herzog’s problem would not be found in his lifetime. In the 1970’s, however, two decades after Rav Herzog’s death, an Israeli chemist, Otto Elsner, discovered that at a certain stage in the dye process, if exposed to sunlight, the dye obtained from the Murex trunculus would in fact produce a magnificent sky-blue color that remained color-fast and stable. This discovery removed the difficulties that such rabbis as the Tiferet Yisrael, the Radzyner, and Rav Herzog had struggled with for over a century. It would take another 20 years until the mitzvah, lost for 1,300 years, would once again be fulfilled, as Rav Eliyahu Tevger produced the first techeilet strings with dye obtained from trunculus snails.

Although from a purely halachic standpoint the descriptions and requirements within the Talmud and other sources are vague and often contradictory, both Rav Herzog and the Radzyner – the two greatest experts on the laws pertaining to techeilet – agree on the minimum conditions that must be met in order to have “kosher” techeilet. Those are: (1) the dye must come from a sea-creature, (2) it must be fast and not fade or wash out, and (3) it must be the color of the sky. This list is based on the fact that the Talmud warns against using a fraudulent dye of vegetable origin known as kala ilan, which is indigo. This dye is sky-blue and is indistinguishable from real techeilet. Rav Herzog and the Radzyner argue that since the Talmud only warns against using this vegetable dye substitute, any marine animal that yields a fast, sky-blue dye must be suitable for the mitzvah of techeilet.

This seems to be an absolute endorsement of the trunculus dye, which meets all three criteria. However, one could argue that perhaps Chazal did not know of the trunculus snail, or maybe they were unaware of the process by which it could dye pure blue instead of violet. Three recent archeological discoveries prove that this was not the case. A saddlecloth unearthed in Siberia dating to the time of the destruction of the first Beit Hamikdash has a pattern of purple and a border of sky-blue – both of which have been absolutely identified chemically as coming from Mediterranean murex snails. A piece of cloth with a dark blue embroidery was found on Masada that dates back to the early Mishnaic period. It also was produced from murex dye.

Finally, tens of actual Murex trunculus shells were found in digs on Har Tzion in Jerusalem dating from the time of the second Temple, in a section believed to be the houses of kohanim. These finds prove conclusively that ancient dyers knew how to control the color of the murex dyes to produce sky-blue, that murex dyed wool was available in Israel in the times of the Tannaim, and that the Murex trunculus snail was well known in Jerusalem in the time of the Beit Hamikdash.

Within the halachic community today, there are three opinions regarding wearing techeilet from the murex. There are those who view the trunculus techeilet positively; many rabbanim wear it, many encourage their followers to do so, and some have ruled that one must wear it – to the point where there are even opinions that hold it is forbidden to wear white-only tzitzit. Other rabbanim remain unconvinced that the Murex trunculus is the true chilazon and counsel against wearing techeilet. Typically, these rabbanim argue that scientific, archeological, or historical proofs are not admissible in the court of halacha, and so the discussion must rely solely on authentic halachic material. A third school of thought admits that the Murex trunculus could indeed be the chilazon used in the times of the Talmud, but reject wearing techeilet nonetheless. They argue that once the chain of tradition with respect to a certain mitzvah has been broken, that mitzvah is lost to halacha – at least until Mashiach comes to reinstate it.

Techeilet is a unique halachic case as it is the first, and so far only, commandment that was lost completely to the Jewish people, but that can now, according to many, once again be fulfilled. As such, it poses intriguing questions about the fundamental character of halacha, the priority of authenticity vs. tradition, and the nature of halachically valid reasoning and evidence.

Over the past 20 years, as techeilet from the Murex trunculus has become available, awareness of the mitzvah has grown tremendously. Over 100,000 people are wearing it on their tallitot in shuls around the globe from Melbourne to Mattersdorf, to Monsey, to Manchester. In yeshivot such as Mir, Lakewood, and Har Etzion lectures are given on the topic, and rabbanim and bochrim can be seen kissing the blue strings when reciting Shema. To some, this long forgotten mitzvah has undergone a renaissance, while others still wait and long for the day when they will be able to fulfill the Torah’s commandment.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav would recite a special prayer every time he put on his tallit: “Have mercy on us and rebuild Your city speedily in our days, and bring us peacefully to Your holy land. And grant us the merit that the chilazon again be revealed, so that we may fulfill the mitzvah of techeilet in the tzitzit.”

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.

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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