Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Tekhelet: A Lost Commandment Rediscovered”Ž

December 18, 2013 11:54 am 1 comment

Sunrise over Mt. Sinai. Photo: Wiki Commons.

We live in a world of endless and vibrant color. Glittering neon lights, LEDs, paints, cosmetics, and HD computer screens bombard us with eye-popping shades wherever we turn. And we take it all for granted.

In the ancient world, such multicolored richness did not exist. Clothes and fabrics were muted and drab, and the few dyed materials that were available were earth tones – reds, browns, and ochres. That is, until it was discovered that certain shellfish, under certain conditions, could produce vibrant blue and purple hues of the most excellent, enduring quality.

Tekhelet, as it was known in the ancient Near East, was the wildly popular and precious sky-blue dye derived from a most unlikely source – the digestive gland of a tiny sea-snail. It dominated the market in ancient times, drove the Mediterranean economy, and won the hearts of everyone who came in contact with it.

First discovered by the resourceful Minoans, these dyes were the cornerstone commodity of the seafaring Phoenicians, and revered by emperors, kings, and princes throughout the world. In Greek and Roman society, the sumptuous purple and blue-dyed wools were the height of fashion and the ultimate status symbol, fetching up to twenty times their weight in gold. In a world where fabric had been dull and monochromatic, these vivid colors created, as the Greek scientist Pliny the elder put it, “a mad lust for purple.”

For the Jewish people, Tekhelet was seen as God’s chosen color. It comprised the Holy Temple’s curtains, drapery, and decorative coverings, as well as the elegant clothes worn by the priests who served there. Moreover, the Bible calls upon the entire community to join the religious aristocracy by commanding each and every Jew to wear a single thread of Tekhelet on the corner hem of his garment – the tzitzit – so that he may “look upon it, and remember all the commandments of the Lord, and do them” (Numbers, 15:39). By attaching a bit of the sacred, the Tekhelet thread, to his everyday clothes, each individual aspires to holiness.

Surprisingly, however, due to the shifting of power and the turmoil of conquest, the once burgeoning Tekhelet industry had disappeared by the seventh century, and the secrets of the wondrous sea-creature that produced it, known as the Hillazon, along with the closely guarded process for preparing the dye, slipped into obscurity.  There they remained for more than 1,300 years until a chance encounter between a French zoologist and a Minorcan fisherman put scholars on the path to recover the ancient knowledge.

The story of the rediscovery of this biblical blue brings together an eclectic group of figures including a Hassidic Master and part-time pharmacist, a retired English engineer whose dabbling in natural dye chemistry was funded by the British Ministry of Defense, an eccentric millionaire from Chattanooga, Tennessee, and the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog.

A renowned Torah master, Rabbi Herzog was also an exceptional scholar of secular disciplines. He devoted his 1913 doctoral dissertation at the University of London, “The Dyeing of Purple in Ancient Israel,” to the study of Tekhelet. Herzog’s dissertation demonstrates a breathtaking expertise in academic subjects as diverse as chemistry, archaeology, philology, ancient Greek and Roman literature, and Sanskrit and Chinese, along with an encyclopedic mastery of biblical and rabbinic texts.

All the evidence suggested to Rabbi Herzog that the most likely candidate for producing the authentic blue dye of the Hillazon was the snail known as the m“Žurex trunculus. But there was a problem.

The scientific and academic community maintained that the murex snail could produce only a purple colored dye. The traditional Jewish sources, however, insisted that Tekhelet was a pure sky-blue, evoking the vast, deep oceans, the boundless heavens, and, by association, the one infinite, unfathomable God of the Universe. Rabbi Herzog, a man of deep faith as well as an impeccable scholar, straddled both worlds, and was unable to reconcile this intractable disparity. Sadly, his death in 1959 occurred prior to the scientific breakthrough that would solve this riddle.

In 1980, Professor Otto Elsner, a leading Israeli dye chemist, turned his attention to researching the ancient shellfish dyes. Elsner’s experiments with the murex yielded the same results as the scientists before him, namely a purple color. But when he performed the exact same experiments in direct sunlight, he found the dyed wool turned the sky-blue that Jewish tradition required. Elsner discovered what the ancient dyers on the Mediterranean coast must surely have known; the effects of sunlight on the snail dye process, and how to produce a rich array of shades ranging from light blue to deep purple.

The obstacle that had prevented Rabbi Herzog from definitively endorsing the murex trunculus had finally been removed, and in an unforeseen convergence, science and religion ultimately came to the same conclusion. In light of this discovery, many individuals, most notably Rabbi Eliyahu Tevger, founder of the non-profit organization Ptil Tekhelet, have worked to reinstate the lost mitzvah. Today, tens of thousands of people once again wear threads of authentic murex-dyed Tekhelet on their tzitzit.

This tale of loss, disappointment, determination, and, ultimately, rediscovery parallels in many ways the past thousand years of Jewish history. Tekhelet disappeared around the same time that Jewish life in Israel collapsed, and the Jewish people were compelled to forfeit an important national, religious, and cultural symbol just as they had been forced to relinquish their land.

For generations, Jews adapted to these losses similarly; by relating to it as something to yearn for though compelled to live without. The story of Tekhelet, so closely intertwined with Israel, unfolds in the re-born state whose very flag of blue and white derives from Tekhelet. The return of the Jewish people to their land and the revival of the lost mitzvah of Tekhelet both highlight how recent generations of Jews, at once heeding tradition while embracing modernity, have proudly and determinedly chosen to shape their people’s destiny.

Baruch Sterman is a co-founder of Ptil Tekhelet (www.tekhelet.com), an Israeli non-profit organization that promotes, educates and produces authentic tekhelet, and the author of The Rarest Blue, a work that details the history and science of tekhelet.

Ptil Tekhelet will host “100 Years to Tekhelet Research,” a one-day international academic conference to mark the centennial of the late Chief Rabbi Dr. Isaac Halevi Herzog’s ground-breaking doctoral dissertation, “The Dyeing of Purple in Ancient Israel,” on December 30, 2013, at the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem.  To learn more, please visit www.100Herzog.com.

1 Comment

  • i think Elyahu hanavi will test the talith with tzitzit
    and if the Brelev talith is the true tehelet
    it will wear it as give one to Machiah ben David

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture A Theatrical Look at Diplomacy and the Oslo Accords (REVIEW)

    A Theatrical Look at Diplomacy and the Oslo Accords (REVIEW)

    Is diplomacy worthwhile, even if the end result isn’t what we hoped for? That is the question, among many others, posed by the new play Oslo, by J.T. Rogers. Making its New York debut at Lincoln Center, the play examines the secret diplomatic process that led to the historic 1993 peace accords. The character of Shimon Peres makes an appearance onstage — and he, along with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, tower over the proceedings. But they mainly do so in absentia. Instead, […]

    Read more →
  • Spirituality/Tradition Sports Israeli Trailblazer Dean Kremer Brings Jewish Values to Nascent Pro Baseball Career

    Israeli Trailblazer Dean Kremer Brings Jewish Values to Nascent Pro Baseball Career

    JNS.org – Other than being part of the Los Angeles Dodgers organization, Sandy Koufax and Dean Kremer have something else in common: a respect for Jewish tradition. Koufax — who was recently ranked by ESPN as the best left-handed pitcher in Major League Baseball (MLB) history — decided not to pitch Game 1 of the 1965 World Series because the game fell on Yom Kippur. “I would do the same,” Kremer said in an interview. Last month, the 20-year-old Kremer became […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Lead Guitarist of British Rock Band Queen Asks Adam Lambert to Sing in Hebrew During Upcoming Israel Concert

    Lead Guitarist of British Rock Band Queen Asks Adam Lambert to Sing in Hebrew During Upcoming Israel Concert

    The famed lead guitarist of British rock band Queen, Brian May, encouraged Jewish singer-songwriter Adam Lambert to perform in Hebrew during their upcoming joint concert in Israel, an entertainment industry advocacy organization reported on Tuesday. During a recent interview with Israeli television personality Assi Azar, May was played a 2005 video of Lambert singing the popular song Shir L’Shalom, (Song for Peace). May was so impressed by Lambert’s singing of the Hebrew track that he told the American singer, “We have to do that. Let’s […]

    Read more →
  • Sports Kenyan Marathoner to Compete for Israel in Rio Olympics

    Kenyan Marathoner to Compete for Israel in Rio Olympics

    JNS.org – Kenyan-born marathoner Lonah Chemtai is expected to compete for Israel at the Olympics Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil next month after gaining a last minute approval. “I am very proud [to represent Israel] and I hope to achieve a new personal best time,” Chemtai told Reuters. Chemtai, who grew up a rural village in western Kenya, first came to Israel in 2009 to care of the children of her country’s ambassador to Israel. The 27-year-old runner recently gained […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity Will Laughs Lead to Love on Show About Orthodox Dating?

    Will Laughs Lead to Love on Show About Orthodox Dating?

    To date or not to date? That is not the question for most Modern Orthodox singles in New York. The question is when will they find their future spouses, and when will their families stop nagging them about having babies? Inspired by the success of the Israeli show “Srugim,” Leah Gottfried, 25, decided she would create and star in her own show, “Soon By You.” “Dating is so serious already,” Gottfried said. “We wanted to take a lighter approach and laugh at the […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Israeli Actress Says Playing Muslim Character in ‘Tyrant’ Has Made Her More ‘Hopeful, Humble’

    Israeli Actress Says Playing Muslim Character in ‘Tyrant’ Has Made Her More ‘Hopeful, Humble’

    Israeli actress Moran Atias said that playing a Muslim woman in the hit FX series Tyrant has changed her outlook. “Educating myself about a different culture has made me more hopeful and humble, that we’re all the same,” the Jewish actress, 35, said during an interview with AOL Build. Atias plays Leila Al-Fayeed, the strong and politically minded wife of the president of Abbudin, a fictional Middle Eastern country run by a dictatorial family. The Israeli-born former model, who earned the title of Miss Globe International […]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture Jewish Identity Jewish Fashionistas From Around the World to Tour ‘Chic Side of Israel’

    Jewish Fashionistas From Around the World to Tour ‘Chic Side of Israel’

    A delegation of 35 Jewish fashion industry mavens from around the world will travel to Israel later this month to “discover the chic side” of the country, 5 Town Jewish Times reported. The eight-day tour, organized by the Maryland-based Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project (JWRP) and the Israeli Ministry of Diaspora Affairs, will include visits to key fashion sites and meetings with some of the country’s top fashion designers, merchandisers and marketers. Participants will also attend a JWRP Fashion Week event in Tel Aviv. JWRP said the trip is […]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Granddaughter of Holocaust Survivors Honored to Represent Israel at 2016 Olympic Games

    Granddaughter of Holocaust Survivors Honored to Represent Israel at 2016 Olympic Games

    Pro golfer Laetitia Beck said she is honored to have been selected to represent Israel at the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil largely because of her grandparents, who survived the Holocaust. “Everywhere I go, I want people to know where I’m from, my background and where my family came from because of the struggle they had to go through,” she told the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA). “Every week when I play and I see the Israeli flag, it brings me a lot […]

    Read more →