Book Review: The Rarest Blue
By Baruch Sterman with Judy Taubes Sterman
Lyons Press / 306 pp.
Reviewed by Rabbi Ari Enkin
I’ve always had an interest in the intersect between halacha, history, and archaeology. It is this interest that led me to research and write about the status of Purim in modern-day Israeli cities that are adjacent to ancient cities that had a wall around them in the days of Yehoshua Bin Nun. I concluded, that with regards to Beit Shemesh at least, that there is much merit in observing a second day of Purim, on the 15th of Adar.
Although I never took my interest in archaeology and halacha much further than the Purim issue, I jumped at the opportunity to review Baruch and Judy Sterman’s new book, “The Rarest Blue.” The Rarest Blue is an adventure into the world of techelet, the blue of the Bible. While techelet was needed and used in a number of different ways, especially in the Temple service, it was more widely found on the fringes of the tzitzit. As the Torah says, there must be a thread of blue on the corners of the tzitzit garment. Sadly, however, this mitzvah has fallen dormant and all but forgotten over the last two thousand+ years. This was mostly due to the inability to identify the source of this blue.
The Rarest Blue is a fascinating journey that takes the reader back in time, offering an exciting and thorough overview into the ancient world of dyeing, in general, and of dyeing the techelet, in particular. It tells the story of the re-discovery of the murex snail which is, at least according to the Sterman’s, the source of the ancient blue. To properly explore the world of techelet, one is taken on an exciting adventure into the world of Torah, archaeology, art, chemistry, and history, which The Rarest Blue so gracefully does.
In unraveling the mystery and re-discovery of techelet, readers are taken back in time to the Greeks, Romans, Akkadians, Scythians, and Phoenicians. Indeed, with even New Testament references, haskamot from a chemist and a journalist, and publication by Lyons Press, this is not your average sefer. The Sterman’s clearly wanted to publish an “all audiences” book which is what they did. Whether one is a non-Jewish academic exploring the history of the ancient dyeing industry or a Torah scholar seeking to understand the history and revival of the murex as the source for fulfilling this mitzva d’oraita, this book offers something for everyone.
Nevertheless, I would have much appreciated a chapter or at least an appendix of some sort, on the practical applications of the halachot and shittot on wearing and tying techelet today. How many strings of blue? How are they to be tied? Is there a problem with having techelet on only some of one’s tzitzit garments and not others? These, and other such questions that the orthodox reader would enjoy exploring, would have made the book that much more complete and authoritative — the one-stop-shop for anything techelet. There also should have been further resources available on how those who wish to purchase techelet can do so.
But from Crete to Masada and from Galileo to Gandhi – no stone is left unturned in presenting the glorious past of the blue dye. The presentation on the key players in the history of techelet, such as the Radziner Chassidic dynasty and Rabbi Isaac Herzog is beautifully presented along with their biographies and the historical context in which they lived and were influenced. Readers will even learn how Aristotle and Pliny affected the search for the murex snail.
The Rarest Blue is simply delightful. The material is crisp and clear – it reads incredibly smoothly and beautifully. Even the chapter on the physics, biology and neurology of techelet-making can be understood by someone like me who never passed tenth grade science. The argument that the murex snail is the source for the techelet of the Torah is certainly a convincing one. And although I am not in a rush to place techelet on my tzitzit, I am certainly far more educated on the word of the murex and techelet than I was 300 pages ago.
(To order the book, contact the author directly: [email protected])
Rabbi Ari N. Enkin, a resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh, is a researcher and writer of contemporary halachic issues. He is the author of “The Dalet Amot Halacha Series” (5 Vol.) and the General Editor and Halacha columnist at Torahmusings.com. He welcomes books of a halachic nature for review on the Torah Musings website. [email protected]