Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Worming Out Of This One!
“On the hem they made pomegranates…twisted scarlet wool”
(Yoma 71b)



The garments of the Kohen Gadol were made of a mixture of beautiful colors, including sheish, t’cheiles, argaman, and tolaas shani. Sheish is flax, as we find in our sugya. What are t’cheiles, argaman and tolaas shani? In Maseches Yevamos 4b, we find that the material t’cheiles refers to wool dyed with the secretions of a certain shellfish called t’cheiles. Rashi and Tosefos add that argaman [usually translated as purple] and tolaas shani [usually translated as scarlet] are also shades of dyed wool.


The Color of T’cheiles

In discussing the color of t’cheiles, the Rishonim offer several opinions. The Rambam (Hilchos Klei Mikdash 8:13) holds that t’cheiles is “wool dyed the color of the clear sky,” namely light blue. Rashi (Shemos 25:4), on the other hand, holds that t’cheiles is green. Some commentaries suggest that it resembles the color black (Ibn Ezra, parshas Teruma; see Rambam, Hilchos Tzitzis 2:5). Others suggest that it is dark blue (see introduction of Tiferes Yisroel to Seder Moed).


Argaman and Tolaas Shani

The Rambam (Hilchos Klei Mikdash, ibid) writes that argaman and tolaas shani are both shades of red (see also Hilchos Para 3:2; Rashi on Yeshaya 1:18). What is tolaas shani, and how was it used to produce red dye? Although the word tolaas in Hebrew means worm, the Rambam explains that the tolaas shani dye used in the Kohen Gadol’s garments was not made from worms. Rather it was made from small red seeds, similar in size and shape to those of the carob tree. Inside each seed was a tiny worm, hence the name of the dye. However, the seed itself, not the worm, was used in producing the color.


Forbidden Ingestion

It would seem that the Rambam was drawn to this conclusion because we have a general principle that only kosher substances were used in the construction of the Mishkan (see Shabbos 28a). Rabbeinu Bachaye (Shemos, ibid) writes that the same was true in the creation of the garments for the Kohanim. For this reason, silk was not used in their clothes, since it is made by non-kosher worms. He then adds the Rambam’s explanation that tolaas shani was not made from worms, but from seeds that usually contain worms.


Medicinal Ingestion

In contrast, many hold that tolaas shani was in fact made from worms. This opinion seems to be supported by the Yerushalmi (Kilayim 9:1), which clearly states that tolaas shani was made from a living creature. How does this opinion address the question that the Mishkan could only be made from kosher materials? Surprisingly, they could answer that one may even eat the worms. R’ Chaim Palagi in fact encouraged eating powdered tolaas shani worm as a treatment for stomach disorders.


Reduced To Dust

During his time, this worm was known as “karmaz.” (Refua V’Chaim 12:232, cited in M’Zahav U’Paz p. 130). How was this permitted? The Maharam Chaviv (cited in Me’am Loez, parshas Teruma p. 938) writes that the tolaas shani worms were left to dry in the hot summer sun until they were reduced to dust. They were then used as dyes for coloring clothes and food products. Since the worm has already turned into dust, it is permissible to eat it. If the poskim permitted even eating this dye, then certainly it could be used in the garments of the Kohen Gadol (see M’Zahav U’Paz p. 131).


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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.