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 murex 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.