A Testament to the True Tekhelet

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

by Efraim Vaynman

I welcome the comments of Dr. Sterman to my recent essay “Tekhelet: Color Perception or Apprehension”. There were many issues I did not have a chance to address in my original article and his critique has given me the opportunity to address those remaining issues and present a fuller picture of why I believe that tekhelet was violet colored.

But first, I must agree with the sentiments of Rabbi Tavger and Dr. Sterman that tekhelet since its inception has always engendered conflict. In particular, the modern renaissance of tekhelet exposed a deep epistemological division between the supporters and the detractors for the revival of tekhelet. Those differences bubbled up right from the very beginning when Rabbi Gershon Hanoch Leiner first raised the idea of reviving the mitzvah of tekhelet, a mitzvah that had been lost for over a thousand years. Many opposed the idea fundamentally. Midrash states emphatically that God had taken tekhelet and hid it away. Who then are we to find it?  Any such attempts are futile. Others contended that so as long as we don’t have a living tradition of what the Hilazon snail was and how to produce the tekhelet dye the mitzvah could never be revived.

Rabbi Leiner and those that supported the search for tekhelet were less deterministic.  They believed that God had caused tekhelet to be lost but that it was our job to find it, particularly as we are of on the eve of messianic times. However, Rabbi Leiner himself had his own epistemological limitation. He believed that the rabbinic corpus held within it all of the knowledge needed to bring back tekhelet. After surveying and analyzing the rabbinic corpus all that was left to do was to go to the aquarium and pick out the sea creature that best fit the description found in the Talmud.

Rabbi Herzog took a dramatically different approach. He analyzed the topic from every which way he could, philologically, historically, archeologically, and textually, using every body of knowledge to best inform his opinion. Supporters of the tekhelet from the Murex trunculus adopt this approach and have built on it by adding research in various fields such as chemical analysis. Those that oppose it question not just if it is possible for us to revive the mitzvah but even if theoretically possible question if these methodologies can be admitted into the halakhic discourse. There remain deep epistemological differences between those that support tekhelet and those that don’t.

Supporters of Murex trunculus-derived tekhelet can generally be assumed to be supporters of the academic approach of Rabbi Herzog. I find it ironic that these very supporters are bringing proofs that tekhelet is sky-blue which are not academically sound.

Rambam

Dr. Sterman was careful with his words. He writes that by “taking the plain and straightforward reading of his [Rambam’s] words” it is clear that Rambam believed tekhelet was sky-blue. He further claims that this position is also stated by Rambam’s son. However, this simple reading of Rambam has long been discredited by Dr. Zohar Amar. 1)Zohar Amar, “Givan haTekhelet al pi haRambam” HaMa’yan, 52:2 (5772), pp. 77-87. He later published an expanded version in a chapter of his book, haArgaman, ch. 6, p. 175-205.

Dr. Sterman does not translate Rambam’s words, leaving the reader to translate them roughly as “the middle of blue”. He also quotes a defective version of Rambam that adds the word שמש, which is absent in the most reliable versions of Rambam. 2)Oxford manuscript (Hunt. 80) ad loc.  Dr. Amar writes at length to prove that Rambam thought tekhelet was blackish-gray or perhaps a very dark blue with a grayish tinge. It is impossible to summarize the entire article in a few lines but the crux of it is that כוחל does not mean blue but a dark colored eye pigment. 3)Not to be confused with כחול (which appears in some versions), the word used in modern Hebrew for blue. Even כחול means a blackish pigment and it was only under Arabic influence that it took on a new meaning for blue. Amar writes that Rambam himself refers to the כחל eye pigment that was dark and not blue. פתוך, which in Rambam means a mix of colors, is used to describe the shade of grayness. Dr. Amar also addresses the comments of Avraham the son of Rambam in their original Arabic and similarly concludes that the color to which he refers is a dark gray, the color of clouds on a stormy day. 4)The description is found in his Hamaspik leOvdei Hashem (Ktav Kephia Ela’avdin), ed. Nissim Dana, Ramat Gan (1989), p. 273.  Amar is unsure about Avraham’s comments in his Torah commentary. He entertains the possibility that here he disagrees with his father.

Tangentially, I should mention that Rabbi Herzog wrote that his conclusion that tekhelet is deep dark blue is based mainly off of the description of Rambam for whom he had great respect. 5)“ha’ Tekhelet b’Yisrael: Ma’areh haTekhelet” Ha’Hed, 14 (1935), p. 18. Had Rabbi Herzog seen the convincing arguments of Dr. Zohar Amar it is possible that his conclusion about the color of tekhelet would have been different.

Other Medieval Descriptions

Dr. Sterman quotes other medieval authors as saying that tekhelet was sky-blue. An academic approach to tekhelet would dictate that these descriptions not carry as much weight as eyewitness accounts of the tekhelet, of which we have many. Moreover, there does not seem to be any reliable tradition about the color, with Rashi describing it a green 6)Bamidbar 15:38 and Rambam, a blackish-gray. Radak, as Dr. Sterman quoted in a footnote, says that it is azoro (Azure?) ultramarine which is a very deep blue. Similarly, in the footnote to Saadia Gaon’s commentary you will find “אסמאנג’ון”, which in fact simply means the color of the sky, (which, by the way, in classical Arabic poetry the sky was called green.) 7)See Sanda Bussata, “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. 313. Finally, he quotes Rabbenu Bahya as saying it is sky-blue but if you look in the footnote you will find that all that he says is that it was כעצם השמים, which is the same language used by Rambam. 8)Rabbenu Bahya seems to simply be quoting Rambam. How he understood Rambam is unknown. Rambam himself seems to use this phrase to mean the middle of the sky as a reference to the brightness and/or intensity of the color. Cf. Rambam, Hilchot Yisodei haTorah, 3:3 where implies that the sky has no color.

Dr. Sterman proceeds to quote from Rabbi Israel Lipschitz, author of the Tiferet Yisroel, who, based on an incorrect version of Rambam and a “plain and straightforward” reading, insists that that tekhelet is blue. I do not think this reference adds anything of substance to the discussion. There were other noted rabbis who explicitly rejected blue. For example, Rabbi Yair Chayim Bacharach writes “In my novella I wrote that the blood of the Hilazon with which we dye tekhelet is not blue, rather it was a purple color that was made of a fish that was called purple.” 9)Commentary of Havot Yair to Shulahan Arukh, O.H. 18.

Rabbi Herzog’s Opinion

Dr. Sterman invites the reader to take a look at a sample of wool dyed with the Murex trunculus that has not undergone photodebromination and consider if Rabbi Herzog would have really considered using it, especially in light of Rabbi Israel Lipschitz’s comments. This is misleading, because it has been known for many years now that even without photodebromination it is possible to obtain dark blue hues from the Murex trunculus, as I noted in my original essay. Moreover, Rabbi Herzog was completely sure that a blue hue can be obtained from the Murex trunculus because he quotes Henri de Lacaze-Duthiers who said that he obtained exactly that! 10)See the manuscript edition of Semitic Porphyrology p. 35. Lacaze-Duthiers also said that at other times it yielded violet. Dr. Zvi Koren notes that Lacaze-Duthiers did not actually dye any fabric with the dye but simply smeared it. There may be slight variations between the color obtained in a smear and the resulting color of a fabric after dyeing. I object to the quotation of only those passages in Rabbi Herzog’s dissertation that negate the possibility of producing blue from the Murex trunculus.

Dr. Sterman proceeds to claim that I probably did not understand Rabbi Herzog’s intention when he wrote, “deep dark blue” and that what Rabbi Herzog really meant by “deep dark blue” is “dark sky blue”. This is incorrect. Rabbi Herzog writes: “That the colour of tekelet or hyacinth is likened to that of the sea or of the sky only proves that tekelet was not easily distinguishable from deep blue: a deep dark violet-blue would be classed by the ancients, as indeed by most people to-day, as a deep-blue.” 11)Semitic Porphyrology p. 194 In this passage Rabbi Herzog says tekhelet which is  “deep dark violet-blue” is not the exact same color as the sea and the sky but is nevertheless likened onto them because the ancients and modern day people would call both colors “deep blue”.

Getting Blue from the Murex trunculus

Dr. Sterman claims that it is so easy to get sky-blue from the Murex trunculus that it is unreasonable to claim that the ancients didn’t know about it. Unfortunately, to my knowledge, to this date nobody has been able to obtain a sky-blue dye through a natural dyeing process that would actually have been employed by the ancients. Roy Hoffman, who most recently attempted the natural dyeing process, had trouble producing any sort of blue. Even after he steamed the purple wool, the wool remained purple. He eventually got a blue color when he dipped a second piece of wool into the same vat, but as I noted, such a dyeing is explicitly invalidated in the Talmud. I agree with Dr. Sterman that this phenomenon was probably recognized by the ancients. In fact, I believe that this very phenomenon is exactly what led to the Talmudic invalidation of such a practice. An academic approach to this issue would recognize that the significantly bluer hue obtained in a second dyeing is probably the motivation of the Talmudic decree, despite what Rashi or Tosafot may have explained the reason is. According to this reading the Talmud explicitly invalidates sky-blue dye for tekhelet.

Evidence for Sky-Blue Dye

I am puzzled by Dr. Sterman’s mentioning of the Pazyryk saddlecloth. Dr. Zvi Koren expressed reservations about the chemical analysis done on the saddlecloth after he contacted the authors that did the analysis. 12)See the video here https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B067a0iiCYnyNnpHQmxGdXJxdEU In short, according to Koren, the claims of the researchers that chemically analyzed the sky-blue part of the saddlecloth are not scientifically valid and the light-blue color on the saddlecloth is probably not from a molluscan source. To my knowledge there are no ancient textiles that are dyed sky-blue from a molluscan source alone.

Kla Ilan

In his response Dr. Sterman asserts that when the Talmud says that tekhelet is similar to indigo it was referring to the most commonly produced blue color and not to “some atypical recipe”. Dr. Sterman does not address the arguments I made for believing kla Ilan to have been a purple color. For one, it is an historical fact attested to by Pliny that indigo produced “a marvelous mixture of purple and blue”. 13)“mixturam purpurae caeruleique mirabilem”.  Natural History, Book XXXV, Ch. XXVII, §46, translated H. Rackham, W.H.S. Jones, D.E. Eichholz, (Harvard University Press, 1949-54). Secondly, getting purple from indigo is not some “atypical recipe”. Indigo naturally has indirubin (red) and other impurities which if not removed by a special process will come out in the dyed fabrics. Most importantly, I claim that indigo was probably used in conjunction with some type of other red dye to perfect the color, as implied in the Sifrei. Archeologists in Israel have found many examples of imitation purple made with indigo. In fact, most of the ancient purple textiles found in Israel are imitation purples.

Dr. Sterman doesn’t think it is a question why the supposed sky-blue Murex trunculus was used for blue when a cheaper alternative of indigo blue was available. He claims it is analogous to buying a real diamond when imitations are available. While I think the analogy is probably a bit anachronistic as I am doubtful that ancients necessarily had this modern bizarre sociological convention, I specified another reason why this was probably not true. Historically, molluscan dyes were known to have had a terrible stench that could not be removed with washing. I find it hard to believe that there would still be a preference for the “authentic” blue when the wearer had to endure a terrible smell whenever the clothes were worn.

According to Dr. Sterman tekhelet had no inherent superiority to the imitation kla ilan, it was simply the original and authentic one. Furthermore, he claims that even if tekhelet and kla ilan were violet the question still stands; in which way was tekhelet superior to kla ilan? I tried to preempt this question in my original essay by pointing out that Pliny, who actually showed much contempt for the “mad lust” of authentic purple, writes that the authentic purples were superior to the imitation purples. 14)Pliny implies that the superiority was visually discernable. This brings to question the dispute in the Talmud if there is a test for authentic tekhelet. The implication seems to be that it was not visually or otherwise discernible therefore necessitating a chemical test. Furthermore, we might ask that if kla ilan was from a plant source then authentic tekhelet should be discernible simply by its fishy smell. The answer to the later question might simply be that kla ilan was dipped in a fishy liquid to give it an authentic smell. As to the former question, I contend that an academic reading of the Baraita, תכלת אין לה בדיקה ואין נקחת אלא מן המומחה implies that only experts were able to reliably discern authentic tekhelet from the kla ilan imitation. This reading is particularly true according to Yuval Blankovsky who believes that the idea of lishma is only found in the Bavli. See his, עיון בדין “לשמה” בהכנת תשמישי קדושה, Sidra, 31 (5776), pp. 7-31. Additionally, since, as I have suggested, kla ilan was produced by mixing indigo with other red dyes, this probably necessitated a mordant so that the red dye could adhere to the fabric, thus making the imitation tekhelet not as colorfast as authentic tekhelet which was a pure vat dye.

Tekhelet Cognates

Dr. Sterman repeats his claim that the fact that the word tekhelet is somehow related to the Sumerian word for Lapis lazuli implies that tekhelet is sky-blue. Now, whenever dealing with cognates one cannot always expect a word to mean the exact same thing in the related languages, particularly since the assertion here is that the word traveled through several languages from Sumerian, to Akkadian, (to Ugaritic?,) to Hebrew. I don’t think it is reasonable to assume that the particular hue associated with Lapis lazuli was transferred along with the word. It was more likely a broader spectrum of colors that was transferred, particularly since the original Sumerian word was probably just used as the word for blue-purple color range.

Moreover, as mentioned in footnote 31 in my previous essay, Lapis lazuli comes in a range of colors. The stone’s color can range from deep violet blue to royal blue to light blue to turquoise blue to a greenish blue. I do not agree with Dr. Sterman’s assertion that the association of the Lapis lazuli stone with the sky means that the stone was known as sky-blue, mainly because the association is not with sky at noon but with the dark nighttime sky. I previously quoted Sandra Bussata who writes “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.” 15)“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

“Eye-Witness Accounts”

Dr. Sterman cites a poetic piece written by the fourth – fifth century paytan Yossi ben Yossi to prove that tekhelet was sky-blue. Now, as mentioned in my essay, we have many eye-witness accounts to tekhelet, most notably all of the Greek translations of the Torah, as well as Josephus and Philo, all of whom translate tekhelet as hyákinthos, which is the same word used for the violet hyacinth flower. Moreover, Yossi ben Yossi’s description of “תכלת כזהר הרקיע” does not imply that tekhelet was sky-blue. Dr. Sterman’s translation here is accurate: “tekhelet as radiant as the sky”. It is important to distinguish that tekhelet is not likened to the color of the sky when it is radiating i.e. noon, but rather that tekhelet is described as being as radiant as the sky. As I explained in my essay this is a reference to the well-known remarkable ability of Murex trunculus dyed fabric to reflect light in a way which uniquely attracts and fascinated the observer. For the ancients, this visual quality was more important than the hue of the item and was therefore the fundamental element that they tried to convey in their descriptions.

Conclusion

Dr. Sterman and I agree on more things than we disagree. We both agree that the Murex trunculus is the source of tekhelet and that it is absolutely possible to perform the mitzvah nowadays. We differ only in our opinions of the exact hue of tekhelet, which may not even be halakhically consequential. Dr. Sterman and his co-found organization Ptil Tekhelet have been instrumental in restoring the mitzvah of tekhelet and they should be commended for their efforts to educate the public of the importance of this mitzvah and for manufacturing thousands of sets of tekhelet.

Still, Dr. Sterman’s repeated insistence that the association of tekhelet with the sky somehow proves that tekhelet’s hue was sky-blue is lost on me. The theory I have proposed is that the ancient Jews, just like the ancient Greco-Romans they lived with, appreciated color in a different way than we do today. For them hue was not the main component of color. The brightness, depth, and reflectivity were more important than hue. It is these qualities that made them associate the color of tekhelet with the sea, sky, and Lapis lazuli. 16)As a last note I will address Dr. Sterman’s acceptance of the “apocryphal” story of Elsner finding he could turn Murex trunculus dye blue. I do not want to address this issue in the main text of my rebuttal being that this issue is inconsequential to the actual debate at hand. Let me first state that I only quoted Gadi Sagiv who claims that Elsner’s finding was no accident but was rather based on the research of two German chemists; I myself never looked into this. I recently wrote to Sagiv for clarification. Sagiv clarified that his claim in not based on what Elsner wrote but what he heard from Dr. Irving Ziderman in an oral interview.  I have also been told by Dr. Koren that “Elsner definitely based his photodebromination process on the work of “German chemists”, and it was not “by accident”.”

I will also admit that at the moment I do not remember reading the endnote (not footnote) Dr. Sterman quotes. However, Dr. Sterman’s claim that Driessen’s research played no role in the foundational work in the 80s can be called to question by simply googling “Driessen” and “tekhelet” upon which you will find that Dr. Ziderman already quoted him in 1986. Ziderman was in contact with Spanier and Elsner since at least the early 80s.  Ziderman himself (“The Biblical Dye Tekhelet and its Use in Jewish Textiles”) attributes the discovery of photodebromination to Driessen.

Endnotes   [ + ]

1.Zohar Amar, “Givan haTekhelet al pi haRambam” HaMa’yan, 52:2 (5772), pp. 77-87. He later published an expanded version in a chapter of his book, haArgaman, ch. 6, p. 175-205.
2.Oxford manuscript (Hunt. 80) ad loc.
3.Not to be confused with כחול (which appears in some versions), the word used in modern Hebrew for blue. Even כחול means a blackish pigment and it was only under Arabic influence that it took on a new meaning for blue. Amar writes that Rambam himself refers to the כחל eye pigment that was dark and not blue.
4.The description is found in his Hamaspik leOvdei Hashem (Ktav Kephia Ela’avdin), ed. Nissim Dana, Ramat Gan (1989), p. 273.  Amar is unsure about Avraham’s comments in his Torah commentary. He entertains the possibility that here he disagrees with his father.
5.“ha’ Tekhelet b’Yisrael: Ma’areh haTekhelet” Ha’Hed, 14 (1935), p. 18.
6.Bamidbar 15:38
7.See Sanda Bussata, “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. 313.
8.Rabbenu Bahya seems to simply be quoting Rambam. How he understood Rambam is unknown. Rambam himself seems to use this phrase to mean the middle of the sky as a reference to the brightness and/or intensity of the color. Cf. Rambam, Hilchot Yisodei haTorah, 3:3 where implies that the sky has no color.
9.Commentary of Havot Yair to Shulahan Arukh, O.H. 18.
10.See the manuscript edition of Semitic Porphyrology p. 35. Lacaze-Duthiers also said that at other times it yielded violet. Dr. Zvi Koren notes that Lacaze-Duthiers did not actually dye any fabric with the dye but simply smeared it. There may be slight variations between the color obtained in a smear and the resulting color of a fabric after dyeing.
11.Semitic Porphyrology p. 194
12.See the video here https://drive.google.com/open?id=0B067a0iiCYnyNnpHQmxGdXJxdEU
13.“mixturam purpurae caeruleique mirabilem”.  Natural History, Book XXXV, Ch. XXVII, §46, translated H. Rackham, W.H.S. Jones, D.E. Eichholz, (Harvard University Press, 1949-54).
14.Pliny implies that the superiority was visually discernable. This brings to question the dispute in the Talmud if there is a test for authentic tekhelet. The implication seems to be that it was not visually or otherwise discernible therefore necessitating a chemical test. Furthermore, we might ask that if kla ilan was from a plant source then authentic tekhelet should be discernible simply by its fishy smell. The answer to the later question might simply be that kla ilan was dipped in a fishy liquid to give it an authentic smell. As to the former question, I contend that an academic reading of the Baraita, תכלת אין לה בדיקה ואין נקחת אלא מן המומחה implies that only experts were able to reliably discern authentic tekhelet from the kla ilan imitation. This reading is particularly true according to Yuval Blankovsky who believes that the idea of lishma is only found in the Bavli. See his, עיון בדין “לשמה” בהכנת תשמישי קדושה, Sidra, 31 (5776), pp. 7-31.
15.“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
16.As a last note I will address Dr. Sterman’s acceptance of the “apocryphal” story of Elsner finding he could turn Murex trunculus dye blue. I do not want to address this issue in the main text of my rebuttal being that this issue is inconsequential to the actual debate at hand. Let me first state that I only quoted Gadi Sagiv who claims that Elsner’s finding was no accident but was rather based on the research of two German chemists; I myself never looked into this. I recently wrote to Sagiv for clarification. Sagiv clarified that his claim in not based on what Elsner wrote but what he heard from Dr. Irving Ziderman in an oral interview.  I have also been told by Dr. Koren that “Elsner definitely based his photodebromination process on the work of “German chemists”, and it was not “by accident”.”

I will also admit that at the moment I do not remember reading the endnote (not footnote) Dr. Sterman quotes. However, Dr. Sterman’s claim that Driessen’s research played no role in the foundational work in the 80s can be called to question by simply googling “Driessen” and “tekhelet” upon which you will find that Dr. Ziderman already quoted him in 1986. Ziderman was in contact with Spanier and Elsner since at least the early 80s.  Ziderman himself (“The Biblical Dye Tekhelet and its Use in Jewish Textiles”) attributes the discovery of photodebromination to Driessen.

About Efraim Vaynman

Efraim Vaynman is an Editorial Intern at Torah Musings. He is a rabbinical student at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary while concurrently pursuing an MA in Talmud at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies. Previously, Efraim studied in yeshivot Brisk and Beth Medrash Gevoha.

Leave a Reply