by Efraim Vaynman
Tekhelet, most say it is blue, others argue it is purple, and still others describe it as green. Let us reexamine the subject anew as we approach Parshat Shelah that contains the mitzvah of tzitzit and tekhelet.
A Scottish eye care company recently commissioned a study to “demonstrate just how our visual interpretations of the world around us can differ quite sharply, even on a very basic level.” https://www.opticalexpress.co.uk/magazine/dividing-a-nation-an-insight-into-human-interpretation-through-colour-illusions Participants were shown a swatch and asked to determine whether it was blue or green. While most respondents (64%) correctly identified the color as green, almost a third (32%) identified the color of the swatch as blue. Much like the viral meme #TheDress https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_dress_(viral_phenomenon) , the study exposes that differences in the perception of color are much more prevalent than people realize.
One can imagine that if in our modern globalized world there is such dissonance about the perception of color among people of the same country, there was probably little unanimity about color in the ancient world, especially amongst divergent countries, cultures, and languages.
The very concept of color in our western world may not even have had an exact correlate in ancient civilizations. We think of color in Newtonian terms, namely, as a mixture of base colors which form a particular hue, but color does not inform us of the other visual percept qualities such as depth, brightness, temperature, irradiance, opacity, and texture.
Color was not always so abstract. In ancient times colors were referred to by noting their similarity to other items in nature with a known particular visual characteristic. This is similar to the way the English language uses the word orange to refer to things that have the same color as the fruit. If one were to say today that a particular thing is orange colored, we would know that it’s hue is what we refer to as orange without imparting that it was similar to an orange in any other way. However, in ancient times this was not necessarily true. The ancient Greek term for color is khrôma (χρῶμα) which primarily meant surface, particularly the skin, and only sometimes was it used to describe things of color such as paint or dyes. The Latin word color had similar connotations. To describe the color was to describe the outside skin or surface of something, including but not limited to its color hue. To say that something has an orange-like color in ancient times could mean that this thing is similar to the skin or outside of an orange in a number of ways, including color, smoothness, or shininess.
This different perception of color in the ancient world is something we must keep in mind when trying to analyze and reconstruct colors based on the way they are described in ancient sources. In an effort to better understand this mitzvah, this essay will address the following pertinent question: what is the color of tekhelet and how did modern researchers determine the color after being lost for over 1300 years?
The Rediscovery of Tekhelet
The quest for tekhelet started in 1888 when Rabbi Gershon Hanoch Leiner, the Radziner Rebbe, stirred the European rabbinate with three books he authored in which he proposed to find the hilazon, the source of tekhelet, based on inferences from Talmudic sources. His search culminated with a visit to an aquarium in Italy where he identified a certain squid (Sepia officinalis) as the source of tekhelet from which he managed to produce a Prussian blue dye, which some Radziner and Breslover chassidim wear till this day. Rabbi Leiner’s suggestion was never widely accepted, and it was later discovered that the Prussian blue dye was a result of a chemical process rather something derived from the squid itself. He did, however, manage to spark the search for tekhelet.
In 1914, Rabbi Isaac Herzog, later the first chief rabbi of Israel, defended his dissertation, Semitic Porphyrology, Porphyrology is the study of purple. about the search for tekhelet. This excellent work is still the most comprehensive treatise on the subject. While Rabbi Herzog did not come to a conclusive resolution for the source of tekhelet, he did feel that he had firmly proven its original color. In Rabbi Herzog’s words: “I believe conclusively, that if not actually so in the strictly scientific sense, the tekelet-colour did not, at all events, appreciably differ from a dark pure blue, the nuance assigned to it by tradition.” “The Dyeing of Purple in Ancient Israel”, Proceedings of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society 1919-1920 pp. 21-33, reprinted by the Israel Malacological Society and the Municipal … Continue reading Elsewhere he says it is what an English man calls “deep dark blue”. “ha’Hillazon Shel Tekhelet al pi haHakirot ha’Archiologiot b’Siyua Nisyonot Ma’assiyim.” Ha’Hed, 12 (1934), p. 17.
Though he very much longed to do so, Rabbi Herzog never did produce tekhelet from either of the two snails he strongly considered in his dissertation. Rabbi Herzog mentions in a letter to Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky that he plans to conduct tests on the coast of Haifa to validate the “secret of the tekhelet snail” that he thinks he has … Continue reading He had doubts about both possibilities but his questions were not enough to conclusively dismiss either one as the source of the tekhelet. Problems with creating an actual dye were more practical because at the time scientist had not found a way to create a color fast dye from either snail. I find this strange because already in 1810, The Belfast Monthly Magazine reported that the dye of a similar Buccmum snail was extremely colorfast. See “On the Tyrian, or Purple Dye”, The … Continue reading
Despite his assuredness about the true color of tekhelet, Rabbi Herzog was not absolutely certain that tekhelet was a pure blue. He was willing to allow a degree of violet because “there are very persuasive reasons to believe that the species known as Murex trunculus is the hilazon of tekhelet. For one, the dye that it emits is sufficiently blue.” ha’Hillazon Shel Tekhelet, ibid. Many of the supporters of the Murex tekhelet deceitfully tell a different narrative where R’ Herzog biggest problem was with the dye not being completely blue. … Continue reading At the time it was not yet known how to produce a pure blue dye from the Murex trunculus. Although Rabbi Herzog would tolerate a blueish violet color, he believed that it was likely possible to create a pure blue dye from the Murex trunculus if we only knew the precise sub-species and correct way of dyeing. ha’Hillazon Shel Tekhelet ibid. This belief is based on what he heard from Lacaz Duthiers who claims to have encountered through his experiments a murex trunculus which yielded a blue dye but at … Continue reading
Eventually a method was found to create a pure blue dye from the Murex trunculus. L. A. Driessen, “Über eine charakteristische Reaktion des antiken Purpurs auf der Faser”, Melliand Textilberichte, 1944, v. 25, pp. 66-69; J Van Alphen, “Remarks on the Action of Light on … Continue reading In 1988 Rabbi Eliyahu Tavger managed to dye wool blue from the Murex trunculus and tie his tallit with the strings. The Rarest Blue p. 207. A few years later, in 1993, the Ptil Tekhelet organization was founded to manufacture and promote the wearing of sky-blue Sky-blue is the color of the sky at noon. Sterman even claims that this was the view of Rabbi Herzog in an article in BAR. See “The Great Tekhelet Debate—Blue or Purple?”, BAR, 39:05 … Continue reading tekhelet for the mitzvah of tzitzit.
The Question of Color
The question of the color of tekhelet is a modern one. From biblical times the colors of the Torah were a living tradition mimetically transmitted from generation to generation. There was no need to describe color because it was learned; if not as part of the language they spoke then at the very least tekhelet was something with which they were intimately familiar with from everyday religious life. When Jewish sources mention tekhelet they are almost always speaking of its symbolism or relationship to other things and not of its color which was well known and needed no description. It isn’t until tekhelet was lost or became too scarce to be familiar to everybody that there was an attempt to describe its color. For example, Pesikta Rabati (circa 9th century), piska 20 (matan Torah) Ish Shalom edition.
Although a description of the color of tekhelet may not have been needed for Jews living contemporaneous with tekhelet, non-Jews were not familiar with the word. The earliest sources that describe tekhelet are translations of the Torah. The Septuagint, Aquila Ex. 35:23,25; Ezekiel 27:24, Symmachus Ex. 35:23; Ezekiel 23:6, Theodotion Ex. 28:6, 35:23,25; Jeremiah 10:9; Ezekiel 23:6, and the Vulgate Ex. 25:4, 26:1,31,36, 27:16, 28:5,6,8,15,33, 35:6,24,26; 36:37, 38:18,23, 39:1,2,8,22 Ezekiel 23:6, 27:7 were all translations that were written at the time that tekhelet was still in use. The translations are unanimous that the translation of tekhelet in Greek is ὑάκινθος Alternatively, ὑακίνθινος. (hyákinthos); the Latin equivalent hyacinthum Jerome uses ianthinum (violet) in translation of תחש. This should probably be understood as the same as hyacinthum because his rendering of tahash is dependent on the LXX which renders tahash the … Continue reading is found in the Vulgate. The same translation for tekhelet is also found in Josephus’ Antiquities 3:8; Wars 6:6 and Philo’s de Vita Mosis 3:2 Greek writings.
The problem is that these translations are equally ambiguous to us. The word hyákinthos as the name of a colored fabric rarely occurs outside of the translations of the Bible and when it does it is still unclear the color intended. Herzog, Semitic Porphyrology, p. 93-94, 161, (manuscript edition) The color of hyákinthos fabric was probably similar to the flower and the precious stone which both bear the same name. Rabbi Herzog argued that the translation could not be used to determine the color of tekhelet because hyákinthos was variably used to describe both violet and blue.
Rabbi Herzog instead argued that the most reliable sources attesting to the color of tekhelet can be found in the Talmud, which in his opinion seem to clearly indicate that tekhelet was blue.
The best proof from the Talmud according to Rabbi Herzog is that in several places it warns against substituting dye from kla ilan (indigo)in place of tekhelet, which, according to Rabbi Herzog, clearly demonstrates that the color from the two dyes were identical. This is the proof Rabbi Herzog cited when pressed by Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky to provide a definitive proof for the exact color of tekhelet. See Ir haKodesh v’haMikdash, ibid p. 59. The Talmud even devises a test for one who is unsure if he has authentic tekhelet whereby subjecting the material to a chemical process one can differentiate between authentic tekhelet and imitation tekhelet made from kla ilan. Menahot 42b The necessity to resort to a chemical test and not just visually ascertain the color with one that is familiar with the authentic tekhelet proves that kla ilan and tekhelet were the exact same color. Kla ilan was invalid for sacramental use not because of its color but because of its source. Tosefta Menahot 9:6
To this end, Rabbi Herzog obtained a sample from the famous Manufacture des Gobelins of authentic indigo which he planned to use as a representative template for the proper color of tekhelet. Ir haKodesh v’haMikdash idem. It is unclear to me if this was an actual swatch of indigo or a photograph of a swatch. He uses the word “temunah” but it is unclear if he intends it to mean a … Continue reading Rabbi Tukachinsky who saw this sample describes it as being “stronger than blue, turning to green, and a little black mixed in”. Idem. It seems to me that Rabbi Tukachinsky’s remarks are not objective observations about the color he saw but are rather his comments that the color he saw confirmed his expectations he had based … Continue reading Rabbi Herzog himself remarked that “to the experienced eye a slight reflex of violet or reddish is visible.” Herzog, Semitic Porphyrology, p. 217
The problem with this argument is that indigo itself can be found in several color variations ranging from purple Ctesias seems to be referring to the indigo plant when he says, “Near the sources of this river there grows a certain purple flower, which is used for dyeing purple, and it is not inferior to the … Continue reading to violet to blue. Natural indigo can contain up to 15% indirubin (red dye) as well as other impurities that can affect the color of the dye J. Merritt Matthews, Application of Dyestuffs to Textiles, Paper, Leather and Other Materials, (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1920), p. 410fn. Indirubin is reduced to a leuco in the same way as indigo … Continue reading. Effectively, this proof suffers from the same ambiguity as the linguistic argument that Rabbi Herzog rejected. Since it is unknown to which hue of indigo the Talmud refers we still do not know the true color of tekhelet.
Talmudic Descriptions of Tekhelet
There are several other descriptions of tekhelet which Rabbi Herzog thought corroborated that tekhelet was blue, though he admitted that they are inconclusive. Most famously the Talmud states: “Rabbi Meir used to say; Why is tekhelet so different from all other colorants? For tekhelet is like the sea, and the sea is like the sky, and the sky is like [Lapis lazuli Missing in some texts. The Hebrew word ספיר is often translated as sapphire but sapphire in ancient text most often refers not to the modern gem known under that name but to Lapis lazuli. See … Continue reading, and Lapis lazuli is like] the heavenly throne.” Menahot 43b, Sotah 17a, Ḥulin 89a This statement at first seems to be describing the color of tekhelet, but upon further consideration, Rabbi Herzog contends that the gradations of colors here is actually more of symbolic significance. Herzog, Semitic Porphyrology, p. 206, (manuscript edition). “R. Meir’s object in this instance, be it duly emphasized, is not to give a definition of tekelet but merely to explain its symbolic … Continue reading In fact, some versions of this statement expound that the “sea is similar to grass and grass is similar to the sky” Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 7b. Rabbi Herzog himself suggests that it still could be color gradations and the “grasses” referred to are blue types of greenery such as the hyacinth flower. See … Continue reading precluding the understanding that this a simple color gradation. And why was a gradation necessary; was tekhelet itself not similar to sapphire? Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 14 states, “tekhelet resembles Lapis lazuli, and the Tablets were of Lapis lazuli, to tell you that so long as the people of Israel gaze upon this tekhelet they are … Continue reading Rabbi Herzog suggests that this long chain of associations was meant to symbolize the similitude of the Throne of Glory throughout the universe. Semitic Porphyrology, ibid.
Other times it is implied that tekhelet is similar to the dark sky at night. The Talmud writes that the silver hooks in the Tabernacle appeared like shining stars set against the loops made of tekhelet. Shabbat 99a. The word tekhelet is also homiletically explicated to be semantically related to the Hebrew word for bereave (תכל), because it was in middle of the night that God smote the Egyptian firstborns. Sifrei, Parshat Shelah. See the explanation of R’ Moshe HaDarshan cited by Rashi in Bamidbar 15:41 s.v. ptil tekhelet.
Colors in Ancient Times
Throughout his dissertation Rabbi Herzog was quick to note that it is hard to be sure that the colors described in ancient sources are the same colors as we now know them. Not only have the names for the colors shifted along the color scale through history but ancient societies often had a much narrower color vocabulary. Still, Rabbi Herzog believed that the color descriptions were useful to broadly determine that a particularly described item was at least within a certain reasonable range of colors. It is based on this assumption that he analyzes much literature to best determine what the colors of argaman and tekhelet are known as in contemporary times.
Modern anthropologists have pointed out that the issue is actually much more complex. Whereas our own color system is primarily focused on hue, the ancients were sensitive primarily to such things as luminosity, saturation and texture, or even subtler variables such as smell, agitation and liquidity. Mark Bradley, “Colour as Synaesthetic Experience in Antiquity.” Synaesthesia and the Ancient Senses, edited by Shane Butler and Alex Purves, Acumen Publishing, 2013, p. 127 Mark Bradley, a historian of Roman visual art, argues that the ancient sense of color can be described as being somewhat “synaesthetic”, that is to say, they experienced color not just though their visual sense but as an experience that involved multiple sensory systems. For example, color was sometimes used by the ancient Greeks to refer to other sensory experiences such as music’s chromatic scales. Much likes genuine synaesthetes, Greek musicians experienced some correlation of visual and auditory senses when playing music. It was because of this synaesthetic experience that ancients sometimes describe colors in ways which seem very odd to us.
The corollary of this is that when a color is described seemingly inaccurately in ancient sources it is not necessarily because the color scale has shifted or because they had an insufficient vocabulary to accurately describe the color. It might just be that the strange way in which the color is described is the experience that the color evoked or represented in the ancient observers. Sometimes we may need to look beyond hue to understand what is really being described.
Tekhelet is often described as being similar to the sky and sea. Rabbi Meir above in footnote 31. See also Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book III, 7:7, where tekhelet is compared to the sky and the air. Cf. Midrash Raba Bamidbar, 4:13. Interestingly, the sky and sea are reoccurring motifs in ancient literature. Most famously, Homer in several places describes the sea as being wine-dark (oinops pontos). Iliad 23.143; Odyssey 5.132; 5.221; 7.250; 12.388 Although there have been attempts to explain how the sea could have appeared red in specific settings, See the literature cited by Bradley, Colour as Synaesthetic, on pp. 132-133. Michael Clark, professor of classics in the National University of Ireland, suggests that it is more likely that Homer’s usage here reflects the conceptual associations of wine, such as danger and frenzy, as well as the whole range of qualities identified with Dionysos. Michael Clark, “The Semantics of Colour in the Early Greek Word-Hoard”, Colour in the Ancient Mediterranean World, ed. Liza Cleland and Karen Stears with Glenys Davies, pp. 131-139; Oxford; 2004. … Continue reading Pliny the Elder actually describes the color produced from the purpura, the purple producing Murex snails, in very similar terms when he decries the “mad lust” for the dye. “But what is the cause of the prices paid for purple-shells, which have an unhealthy odour when used for dye and a gloomy tinge in their radiance resembling an angry sea?” Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book IX, Ch. LX.
Homer in three places also describes the sea as the “purple-sea” (alipòrphuros [ali – sea, porphura]). The sea’s color is described as being purple, a reference to the purple color produced by the Murex snails. This description however seems to have more of an actual visual component than the previous term since Homer uses the term porphura which refers to a purple dye. According to Sandra Busatta, a Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Padua, “To Homer’s audience the word purphureos first referred to the play of the light that produces brilliance on troubled water and by extension any play of sparkling, glossy or shiny color, but it also referred to a negative sense of fear”. Sandra Busatta, The Perception of Color, p. 316. She suggests that it is for this very reason that Homer described the sky as being bronze, an apparent reference to the glare and sparkling of the metal. Iliad 5.504, 17.424-5; Busatta, idem. The early Greeks believed that the sky was a sort of hemispherical dome made of metal that covered the earth, a view that is also found Rabbinic literature. See … Continue reading
Arguments for a Violet Tekhelet
Thus far I have shown that the proof presented from the Talmud for the color of tekhelet is inconclusive. Moreover, I have shown that it is difficult to ascertain the hue based off textual evidence from archaic sources since they may be describing the other visual aspects. Furthermore, in this particular case it seems that the Talmudic allusions to the color of tekhelet are describing not its hue but its other visual qualities, namely the shine of fabrics dyed with tekhelet, Mark Bradley, writes that the purple sea dye “had unique physical properties, sitting on the surface of garments rather than within the fabric and reflecting and manipulating sunlight in a similar … Continue reading a description of the Murex dye corroborated in many Greek sources. Is there any proof that can be adduced to prove the hue of tekhelet?
There are several arguments that can be made for identifying violet as the color of tekhelet.
First, it must be noted, that without proof to the contrary, the Greek and Latin translations of the Torah that translate tekhelet as hyacinth should be assumed to be referring to the well-known violet colored flower that carries that name. Although the flowers from the hyacinth family may occur in varying colors throughout the world, the dominant species Hyacinthus orientalis L. found in Asia Minor See A. Horovitz & A. Danin, “Relatives of Ornamental Plants in The Flora of Israel”, Israel Journal of Botany, 32:2 (1983), p. 91. The Hyacinthus orientalis is indigenous to Israel where it … Continue reading is violet. It can be fairly assumed that ancient authors from the Mediterranean are referring to this well-known species.
Secondly, there is a strong argument that tekhelet could not be blue. It is clear from Greek historians that the purple and reddish-purple dyes produced from the Murex snails were extremely expensive. The expensiveness tekhlet is also attested to in the Talmud Menahot 44a which adds that non-Jews are not to trusted with transporting tekhelet because they are suspected of stealing it and substituting the authentic tekhelet with a fake made of kla ilan (indigo). Avoda Zara 39a Imitation tekhelet was so rampant that the Talmud requires that one only buy tekhelet from an expert to ensure its authenticity. Menahot 42b Supporters of blue tekhelet point to this halakhic decree as proof that tekhelet is the same color as indigo. In fact, they claim that molecularly the two dyes are identical. Yet if they were exactly the same, the superiority of the authentic tekhelet is not understood. While Jews can be insistent that tekhelet they use for religious purposes come from the original Biblical dye source, why would the non-Jews prefer the molluscan dye to the molecularly identical plant sourced dye? If anything, we would expect that the blue dye from the indigo plant to be preferred since it did not have a strong fishy smell adhering to it. It wouldn’t make financial sense to use a Murex trunculus for blue dye when it could be used to create the more expensive purple dyes. Although there were fake purple dyes, they were of inferior quality, Pliny discusses the quality of different purples at length. whereas the indigo blue dye was supposedly just as good as the blue tekhelet dye. In footnote 30 I surmise that the ability to use indigo as a vat dye may not have been well known. There is however evidence that indigo was used for vat dyeing in the Stockholm Papyrus (recipe 105) … Continue reading The Talmud’s statement that non-Jews are suspected of substituting authentic tekhelet with imitation tekhelet made of kla ilan clearly suggests that the authentic tekhelet was vastly superior and therefore much more expensive.
The more likely explanation is that the imitation tekhelet made of kla ilan was a mix of indigo and some other red dyes, yielding an imitation violet dye. The Sifrei describes a deceitful person as making fake tekhelet from “pigments” and kla ilan. Sifrei, Parshat Shelah 73 Other sources which refer to imitation tekhelet simply as “kla ilan” possibly did so because indigo was the predominant dye stuff or perhaps the imitation tekhelet was made of indigo from which the red indogotin was not removed.
Perhaps the strongest argument against blue tekhelet is that the debromination process, the process used to convert the Murex dye to a pure blue, would not have been performed in antiquity. The process currently used at the tekhelet factories utilizes synthetic chemicals to reduce the Murex dye to a water-soluble form so that the dye can adhere to the wool. After the dye has been reduced, the debromination is effectuated by exposing the dye to either a UV emitting light or to sunlight for over an hour. In antiquity, a more natural process was required to the reduce the dye to a water-soluble form. Several attempts were made to recreate this process, but it is likely that the ancients utilized the bacteria found in the snail itself to ferment the dyestuff and ready it for dyeing. See the history and citations in, Zvi Koren, “The First Optimal All-Murex All-Natural Purple Dyeing in the Eastern Mediterranean in a Millennium and a Half”, Dyes in History and Archaeology (20), … Continue reading
Zvi Koren, the director of The Edelstein Center for the Analysis of Ancient Artifacts, argues that when using the natural fermentation process, it would not have been possible to create a blue dye since this particular fermentation has to be done in an anaerobic environment. Leaving the soluble dye exposed to the sun for considerable time by removing the lid would have caused the dye to return it its insoluble form because of the exposure to oxygen. He argues that the other attempts at natural dyeing were only able to succeed because they used a glass beaker that was sealed and exposed the dye to light without opening it. In ancient times, such glass would not have been used since the dye required large quantities and was heated on a fire for days or weeks. Zvi Koren, “New Chemical Insights into the Ancient Molluskan Purple Dyeing Process”, Archaeological Chemistry VIII, ed. R. A. Armitage & J. H. Burton, ACS Symposium Series 1147, American … Continue reading The Talmud itself says that the process involved putting the dyestuff into a cauldron and heating it. Menahot ibid
The color of tekhelet might be possible to discern from a comment by Epiphanius of Salamis, one of the church fathers who lived during the 4th century in Israel when tekhelet was still found. Epiphanius, commenting on a passage in Matthew in which Jesus criticizes the Pharisees for making “their phylacteries wide and their craspeda long” Matthew 23:5. Craspeda appears in the Greek version. ; craspeda being the Aramaic word for Tzitzit. Epiphanius explains that the Greek word phylacteries does not refer to amulets like many believe, but to “purple woven”, which were purple strips woven into clothes in the Greek period. The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis: Book I (Sects 1-46), tran. Frank Williams, Brill (2009), Ch. 15 1.4, p. 41-42 The strips to which Epiphanius refers are called clavi. These were strips that the Greeks and Romans used to put on their himations which denoted the rank and prestige of the wearer. It has been proposed that that these clavi are actually the source for the black strips that Ashkenazic Jews print on their tallit and that the tallit itself was originally a himation which the Jews living in lands of predominant Greek culture wore. See Erwin Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period. Volume Nine: Symbolism in the Dura Synagogue, p. 171 -174. For clavi as the source of the black strips on the tallit see Daniel … Continue reading Epiphanius explains that the Pharisees were being haughty by wearing wide clavi which denote a high rank and making their tzitzit long (presumably because the more purple fabric was used, the greater the cost). The very fact that he mentions both together seems to indicate they are of the same color, which he calls purple. Historically clavi, of which there are many existent samples, are purple, thus implying that tekhelet is purple.
Tekhelet was lost over one thousand years ago. Together with the loss of tekhelet we, as a people, also lost our mimetic tradition of what tekhelet was. Through our written records we preserved many details of what tekhelet is, where it comes from, and what it means to us, but piecing together all of these details after a thousand years in a world vastly changed is tricky business.
In this essay, I showed that what was assumed to be clear Talmudic descriptions of the color hue tekhelet are not necessarily so. Color in the ancient world meant something different than what it means in our modern western society. I attempted to demonstrate that the sea, sky, the lapis lazuli stone, all of which are likened to tekhelet, and even the Murex dye itself, were all chiefly known in the ancient world for their unique shine and glimmer and only secondarily for their hue. When the ancients speak of colors sometimes they intend to convey not how it is visually perceived but how the color is apprehended in the mind and what it represents.
Accordingly, I suggest that if we are to attempt to recreate the biblical tekhelet we should take the ancient biblical translations of tekhelet more seriously, since they are a translation and not a description, and they all unanimously declare tekhelet as violet. I also attempted to show that other proofs identifying tekhelet as blue are unconvincing and that there are several reasons why tekhelet couldn’t be blue.
|↑3||Porphyrology is the study of purple.|
|↑4||“The Dyeing of Purple in Ancient Israel”, Proceedings of the Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society 1919-1920 pp. 21-33, reprinted by the Israel Malacological Society and the Municipal Malacological Museum, Nahariya, 1981. See also Ir haKodesh v’haMikdash, vol. 5, p. 56, where he is quoted in a letter as saying, “And in regard to the exact color of tekhelet, I expanded and studied it as far as my hand can reach, and I am without doubt.”|
|↑5||“ha’Hillazon Shel Tekhelet al pi haHakirot ha’Archiologiot b’Siyua Nisyonot Ma’assiyim.” Ha’Hed, 12 (1934), p. 17.|
|↑6||Rabbi Herzog mentions in a letter to Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky that he plans to conduct tests on the coast of Haifa to validate the “secret of the tekhelet snail” that he thinks he has uncovered. See Ir haKodesh v’haMikdash, ibid p. 57.|
|↑7||I find this strange because already in 1810, The Belfast Monthly Magazine reported that the dye of a similar Buccmum snail was extremely colorfast. See “On the Tyrian, or Purple Dye”, The Belfast Monthly Magazine, 1810, 5 (25), pp. 93-95, available at <https://archive.org/details/jstor-30072679>.|
|↑8||ha’Hillazon Shel Tekhelet, ibid. Many of the supporters of the Murex tekhelet deceitfully tell a different narrative where R’ Herzog biggest problem was with the dye not being completely blue. See for example, Baruch Sterman, The Rarest Blue, p. 130, “The primary argument against the trunculus, however, was the color. Tekhelet had to be sky blue. This was a long held Jewish tradition that Rabbi Herzog could not dismiss—but the blue obtained from the Murex trunculus appeared blueish purple.” Even Gadi Sagiv who wrote an article to expose some the fallaciousness of the Ptil Tekhelet narrative seems to embrace this falsity. See “Deep Blue: Notes on the Jewish Snail Fight”, Contemporary Jewry, 35:3 (October 2015), p. 290.|
|↑9||ha’Hillazon Shel Tekhelet ibid. This belief is based on what he heard from Lacaz Duthiers who claims to have encountered through his experiments a murex trunculus which yielded a blue dye but at other times was violet. See Semitic Porphyrology (manuscript edition) p. 133. Rabbi Herzog also mentions the possibility of somehow removing the red elements from the murex dye.|
|↑10||L. A. Driessen, “Über eine charakteristische Reaktion des antiken Purpurs auf der Faser”, Melliand Textilberichte, 1944, v. 25, pp. 66-69; J Van Alphen, “Remarks on the Action of Light on several substances, most of them containing halogen, in particular several Indigo Dyes, in a Reducing Medium”, Recueil des travaux chimiques des Pays-Bas, 1944, v. 63, pp. 95-96. Sterman includes both of the above citations in his bibliography but in his book, he inexplicably attributes the rediscovery of the blue dyeing process to Otto Elsner who independently rediscovered the method serendipitously by accidently exposing the dye to light in 1985 (p. 134). Sagiv, Deep Blue, p. 292, points that Elsner himself explicitly stated that this result was based on a study conducted by two German scientists.|
|↑11||The Rarest Blue p. 207.|
|↑12||Sky-blue is the color of the sky at noon. Sterman even claims that this was the view of Rabbi Herzog in an article in BAR. See “The Great Tekhelet Debate—Blue or Purple?”, BAR, 39:05 (September/October 2013). This is in contradiction to Rabbi Herzog own expressed opinion that is was “deep dark blue”.|
|↑13||For example, Pesikta Rabati (circa 9th century), piska 20 (matan Torah) Ish Shalom edition.|
|↑14||Ex. 35:23,25; Ezekiel 27:24|
|↑15||Ex. 35:23; Ezekiel 23:6|
|↑16||Ex. 28:6, 35:23,25; Jeremiah 10:9; Ezekiel 23:6|
|↑17||Ex. 25:4, 26:1,31,36, 27:16, 28:5,6,8,15,33, 35:6,24,26; 36:37, 38:18,23, 39:1,2,8,22 Ezekiel 23:6, 27:7|
|↑19||Jerome uses ianthinum (violet) in translation of תחש. This should probably be understood as the same as hyacinthum because his rendering of tahash is dependent on the LXX which renders tahash the same as tekhelet.|
|↑20||Antiquities 3:8; Wars 6:6|
|↑21||de Vita Mosis 3:2|
|↑22||Herzog, Semitic Porphyrology, p. 93-94, 161, (manuscript edition)|
|↑23||This is the proof Rabbi Herzog cited when pressed by Rabbi Yechiel Michel Tukachinsky to provide a definitive proof for the exact color of tekhelet. See Ir haKodesh v’haMikdash, ibid p. 59.|
|↑24, ↑51||Menahot 42b|
|↑25||Tosefta Menahot 9:6|
|↑26||Ir haKodesh v’haMikdash idem. It is unclear to me if this was an actual swatch of indigo or a photograph of a swatch. He uses the word “temunah” but it is unclear if he intends it to mean a colored sample. If he had meant photograph at the time he showed it to Rabbi Tukachinsky it was over 40 years old and it would be unreasonable for him to use this as a source because it can be assumed that the color had faded and color reproduction in photographs at the time was not very accurate in the first place.|
|↑27||Idem. It seems to me that Rabbi Tukachinsky’s remarks are not objective observations about the color he saw but are rather his comments that the color he saw confirmed his expectations he had based on his prior research.|
|↑28||Herzog, Semitic Porphyrology, p. 217|
|↑29||Ctesias seems to be referring to the indigo plant when he says, “Near the sources of this river there grows a certain purple flower, which is used for dyeing purple, and it is not inferior to the Greek sort, but even imparts a more florid hue.” Ctesias makes no other mention of indigo, one of the prominent Indian exports at the time, and there is no known flower from India that can be used for dyeing purple. It therefore seems reasonable to assume that Ctesias is referring to the indigo plant. See Ancient India as described by Ktêsias the Knidia, translated by J. W. McCrindle, (London 1882) p. 22. Pliny also describes indigo as producing a mixture of purple and blue. He also mentions the existence of “scum of purple” which ostensibly produced some type of purple dye. See Natural History, Book XXXV, Ch. XXVII, §46, translated H. Rackham, W.H.S. Jones, D.E. Eichholz, (Harvard University Press, 1949-54).|
|↑30||J. Merritt Matthews, Application of Dyestuffs to Textiles, Paper, Leather and Other Materials, (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 1920), p. 410fn. Indirubin is reduced to a leuco in the same way as indigo though the reduction is slower. Dyers without knowledge of how to chemically remove the indirubin may see varying amounts of indirubin in the dyed fabric depending on the efficiency of the reduction agent and the length of the reduction process.|
A friend of mine that is involved with the promotion tekhelet attempted to recreate a natural indigo dye so that he could subject the fabric to the tests the Talmud gives for the differentiation of authentic tekhelet and indigo (Menahot 42b). He theorized that although the molecular structure of tekhelet and indigo were the same and they are both vat dyes, perhaps, in antiquity the reduction process for the dyes differed and that is why it was possible to differentiate between them with a chemical test. However, his attempt to create a natural indigo dye resulted in a purple fabric. He later tested an ancient indigo sample and supposedly found his theory to be true. See also Meir Hellman, Levush HaAron, pp. 68-70.
Incidentally, I should note that this theory is probably correct because historically indigo was not necessarily used as a vat dye but as a mordant dye. Pliny, for example only mentions it use in painting and says that when mixed with water it creates a beautiful purple and blue which is not how it appears when vat dyeing. This is particularly true when indigo was used in conjunction with another red dye to create an imitation purple which necessitates a mordant for dyeing. See R. J. H. Clark et all, “Indigo, Woad, and Tyrian Purple: Important Vat Dyes from Antiquity to the Present”, Endeavour, 17:4 (1993), p. 191. See also footnote 53 below.
Indigo was exported from India as dried blocks and looked like a black clump before being dissolved in water. It is possible that the name for indigo in the Talmud is on account of this קלא – burnt אילן – tree, a description of what the item appeared to be. Being an imported item it is not surprising its exact source was not known, Pliny also has a mistaken understanding of the indigo plant (Book XXXV Ch. XXVII). I find this etymology more likely than the Sanskrit suggestion of Herzog or the identification with callanium (Καλλαιλαν).
|↑31||Missing in some texts. The Hebrew word ספיר is often translated as sapphire but sapphire in ancient text most often refers not to the modern gem known under that name but to Lapis lazuli. See Theophrastus on Stones, E. R. Caley & J. C. Richards, Ohio State University Press (1956), p. 136. Theophrastus (30) says there were two types of Lapis lazuli stones, a male and a female, the former being the darker variety. The stone’s color can range from deep violet blue and royal blue to light blue to turquoise blue to a greenish blue. The stone most often contains specks of gold-colored pyrite giving the appearance of a midnight sky with sparkling stars. It is probably this similarity to the midnight sky that is referred to here. Pliny (Book XXXVII Ch. XXXIX) writes that most Lapis lazuli are blue and only rarely are they tinged with purple. Epiphanius writes the sapphire of the breastplate was royal purple colored. However, in an epitome of the work it is described as “crimson purple, like to the red sheen of black velvet is its appearance” but it is later stated “They say that there is also a blue one like lapis lazuli”. See Epiphanius de Gemmis: The Old Georgian Version and the Fragments of the Armenian Version, R. P. Blake, Christophers, London (1934), p. 133, 201 Epitome B.|
Based on the above I find it inconsequential to this debate that the Sumarian cognate for tekhelet was also the word used for Lapis lazuli and things of that color. Lapis lazuli occurs is both blue and violet shades and probably served as a name for both colors. See Benjamin Rusch, “’Biblical Blue’ Tekhelet (תכלת) Ecclesiastical Dye and its Archaeological Identity in the Ancient Near East”, pp. 3-4. https://www.academia.edu/15286548/Biblical_Blue_Tekhelet%D7%AA%D7%9B%D7%9C%D7%AA_Ecclesiastical_Dye_and_its_Archaelogical_Identity_in_the_Ancient_Near_East [accessed 64/17] Sandra Bussata explains that in Sumerian “uqnu was used to describe dark blue, dark purple and even black materials, but with associated notions of brilliance and splendor, reflecting the value of lapis lazuli in the ancient Near East because of its rarity and attractive luster, augmented by small traces of silvery pyrite and white calcite in the dark blue matrix, which gives the material a glittering quality perhaps connected to the night sky.” See her essay, “The Perception of Color and The Meaning of Brilliance Among Archaic and Ancient Populations and Its Reflections on Language”, Antrocom Online Journal of Anthropology, 10:2 (2014), p. 325
|↑32||Menahot 43b, Sotah 17a, Ḥulin 89a|
|↑33||Herzog, Semitic Porphyrology, p. 206, (manuscript edition). “R. Meir’s object in this instance, be it duly emphasized, is not to give a definition of tekelet but merely to explain its symbolic significance.”|
|↑34||Jerusalem Talmud, Berachot 7b. Rabbi Herzog himself suggests that it still could be color gradations and the “grasses” referred to are blue types of greenery such as the hyacinth flower. See Semitic Porphyrology, p. 212.|
|↑35||Mishnat Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 14 states, “tekhelet resembles Lapis lazuli, and the Tablets were of Lapis lazuli, to tell you that so long as the people of Israel gaze upon this tekhelet they are reminded of that which is inscribed on the Tablets and they fulfill it.”|
|↑36||Semitic Porphyrology, ibid.|
|↑38||Sifrei, Parshat Shelah. See the explanation of R’ Moshe HaDarshan cited by Rashi in Bamidbar 15:41 s.v. ptil tekhelet.|
|↑39||Mark Bradley, “Colour as Synaesthetic Experience in Antiquity.” Synaesthesia and the Ancient Senses, edited by Shane Butler and Alex Purves, Acumen Publishing, 2013, p. 127|
|↑40||Rabbi Meir above in footnote 31. See also Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Book III, 7:7, where tekhelet is compared to the sky and the air. Cf. Midrash Raba Bamidbar, 4:13.|
|↑41||Iliad 23.143; Odyssey 5.132; 5.221; 7.250; 12.388|
|↑42||See the literature cited by Bradley, Colour as Synaesthetic, on pp. 132-133.|
|↑43||Michael Clark, “The Semantics of Colour in the Early Greek Word-Hoard”, Colour in the Ancient Mediterranean World, ed. Liza Cleland and Karen Stears with Glenys Davies, pp. 131-139; Oxford; 2004. Clarke in fact suggests that the Greek word for purple, πορούρεος, is rooted in this association with the sea which can be described as heaving and surging. “Diachronically the word seems to have been conflated from two distinct sources, the reduplicated verb πορφορω ‘heave, surge’ and the name of the purple murex, πορφορα.” (footnote 32). For the symbolic meaning of colors in antiquity see Frederic Portal, An Essay on Symbolic Colors: In Antiquity, the Middle Ages, and Modern Times, trans. W. S. Inman, London, 1985.|
|↑44||Pliny the Elder, Natural History, Book IX, Ch. LX.|
|↑45||Sandra Busatta, The Perception of Color, p. 316.|
|↑46||Iliad 5.504, 17.424-5; Busatta, idem. The early Greeks believed that the sky was a sort of hemispherical dome made of metal that covered the earth, a view that is also found Rabbinic literature. See Natan Slifkin, The Sun’s Path at Night <http://www.zootorah.com/RationalistJudaism/TheSunsPathAtNight.pdf>|
|↑47||Mark Bradley, writes that the purple sea dye “had unique physical properties, sitting on the surface of garments rather than within the fabric and reflecting and manipulating sunlight in a similar fashion to oil floating on water.” See “The Colour Purple in Ancient Rome”, p. 12-13 <http://www.saturatedspace.org/2014/05/the-colour-purple-in-ancient-rome.html>.|
|↑48||See A. Horovitz & A. Danin, “Relatives of Ornamental Plants in The Flora of Israel”, Israel Journal of Botany, 32:2 (1983), p. 91. The Hyacinthus orientalis is indigenous to Israel where it commonly grows wildly on the limestone rock in the Upper Galilee. See http://flora.org.il/en/plants/hyaori/. Hyacinthella nervosa is also native to Israel and its flowers are similarly violet colored. http://flora.org.il/en/plants/HYANER/|
|↑50||Avoda Zara 39a|
|↑52||Pliny discusses the quality of different purples at length.|
|↑53||In footnote 30 I surmise that the ability to use indigo as a vat dye may not have been well known. There is however evidence that indigo was used for vat dyeing in the Stockholm Papyrus (recipe 105) which has directions for dyeing with indigo by using fermented urine which is a reduction agent. It is possible that this method of dyeing was known at the time of the composition (CE 300) and in the local (Eygpt) but not at the time of Pliny. It has been suggested that the Greeks and Romans had a particular disdain for the color blue and perhaps this contributed to the indigo dyeing methods not being well known. See Bussata, The Perception of Color, pp. 334-6. The kela ilan of the Talmud was probably a vat dye based of the prescribed tests (Menahot 42b)|
|↑54||Sifrei, Parshat Shelah 73|
|↑55||See the history and citations in, Zvi Koren, “The First Optimal All-Murex All-Natural Purple Dyeing in the Eastern Mediterranean in a Millennium and a Half”, Dyes in History and Archaeology (20), Archetype Publications, London, pp. 139-140. Koren thinks that the use of a chemical reduction agent, even a natural substance such as tin is unlikely to have been used in antiquity. I personally do not find all of his arguments convincing. I believe that a chemical reduction agent was not historically used because the preparation process as recorded in ancient required several weeks. Had they used a chemical agent the process would have only taken several hours.|
|↑56||Zvi Koren, “New Chemical Insights into the Ancient Molluskan Purple Dyeing Process”, Archaeological Chemistry VIII, ed. R. A. Armitage & J. H. Burton, ACS Symposium Series 1147, American Chemical Society: Washington DC; Chapter 3, pp. 51-52. See also his response to Sterman in BAR http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-artifacts/artifacts-and-the-bible/zvi-c-korens-reply-to-the-stermans-response/ . Koren also dismisses Roy Hoffman’s attempts, who besides using a glass vessel that was covered, also only received blue after a second dyeing in the same dye bath. Koren has shown that the red dibromoindigo (DBI) has a higher affinity to wool than the blue indigo (IND) and in the first dyeing DBI will adhere to the wool more readily than IND, see Koren, The First Optimal, p. 143. The second dyeing resulting in a bluer wool is explicitly disqualified in the Talmud (Menahot 42b). Based on Koren’s finding we can perhaps suggest that this is another indication that the desired color of tekhelet was violet (Cf. Rashi and Tosfot in Menahot ibid). Hoffman himself admits that natural blue dyeing was probably impossible on a commercial scale, thereby conceding that the dyeing process described in the Greek authors was not for a blue dye. See Roy Hoffman, “The Identity of Tekhelet: New Findings” (Hebrew), Bekhol Derakhekha Daehu (BDD), 27 (March 2013), p. 17.|
|↑58||Matthew 23:5. Craspeda appears in the Greek version.|
|↑59||The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis: Book I (Sects 1-46), tran. Frank Williams, Brill (2009), Ch. 15 1.4, p. 41-42|
|↑60||See Erwin Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period. Volume Nine: Symbolism in the Dura Synagogue, p. 171 -174. For clavi as the source of the black strips on the tallit see Daniel Sperber, Minhagei Yisrael, vol. 5, Mossad HaRav Kook (1995), pp. 207 n. 5. Traditional sources suppose that the strips on the tallit were a remembrance for tekhelet and originally the tekhelet and the tallit strips were the same blue color. See R. Joseph Teomim, Pri Megadim to Shulhan Arukh, O.H., ch. 9, Eshel Avraham, no. 6.|