For more than 3000 years, Jews dreamed of recovering a lost blue dye called techelet. Using clues laid down over 100 years ago by one rabbi in Poland, and another in Israel, Ptil Techelet, the Association for the Promotion and Distribution of Tekhelet, has succeeded in tracking down the dye’s source and reviving it. We’ve posted on another Jewish revival, one a bit earthier: Jewish beer.
Jews are Biblically commanded to wear ritual fringes – tsitsit – “on the corners of their garments.” The Biblical passage continues: “And God said to Moses, say to them that they shall place upon the tsitsit of each corner a thread of techelet (a rich blue color). And you shall see it and remember all the commandments of God…”
In ancient times, a blue techelet thread was knotted among white ones, as described to Moses. To fulfill the commandment of tsitsit, Jewish men throughout the ages have worn a short, four-cornered wool or cotton shift with ritual fringes attached to each of its corners. At given times during prayer, or at any time, a man holds the tsitsit up and looks at it, to remind himself that his actions should be imbued with holiness. This distinctive blue thread was the reminder.
Although indigo and woad plants also yield blue dyes, only dye from a sea animal is considered the legitimate source of color for the blue thread. While other Murex varieties yield purples and reds, only Murex trunculus yields sky-blue techelet.
Along the northern coast of Israel and up into Lebanon, dyeing houses took in harvests of the sea snail and cooked them for many days in salted water with fenugreek; or in urine. Near Tyre, archaeologists have found large mounds of snail shell remains, indicating where local dyeing industries flourished in Biblical times. Remains of the techelet snail have also been found on Mt. Zion, Jerusalem, indicating an ancient dyeing industry there.
Techelet was an expensive dye, obtained through a labor-intensive, long-drawn-out hand process that yielded the blue coveted by Jews and Gentiles alike. Fabrics dyed this color, along with purple and crimson, were as valuable as gold. Dye from marine snails and its attendant industry were so important that images of the Murex snail were imprinted on a number of Roman coins. Below is one showing a Roman eagle with the Murex snail between its claws.
Ancient Roman and Greek ruling classes adopted sumptuary laws to enforce privilege and social distinction, making it illegal for anyone but themselves to wear blue, purple, or crimson clothes. The Roman governments eventually monopolized the dyeing industry. Jews were consequently forbidden to produce techelet. The Muslim conquest of Israel in the 7th century brought new prohibitions against the manufacture of techelet. As the Jewish dyeing houses closed, the secret to making techelet was lost.
But the dream was never totally abandoned. In 1889, the head of a Polish hassidic sect, Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner, traveled to Italy and witnessed blue dye being made from the black ink secreted by cuttlefish. The ink was boiled together with iron filings and a form of potassium. Rabbi Leiner was convinced that he had discovered the source of the techelet. Some say that the rabbi was fooled by an Italian chemist who saw a chance to cash in on a new market, because any organic material takes on a blue dye when boiled with iron filings. In any case, his theory was rejected by all but his own followers.
The next investigation into techelet was undertaken by Rabbi Isaac Herzog in 1913. In his scientific doctoral thesis, the Jerusalem sage claimed that the authentic source of techelet is the Murex trunculus snail, basing his theory on its discovery by French zoologist Henri Lacase Duthiers, in 1857. Below is a page out of Rabbi Herzog’s thesis.
Handwritten 100 years ago at the top of the page is this remark: “Perhaps some student of chemisty may be tempted to undertake research in that direction!”
Under the right processing conditions, the snail’s digestive gland produces a rich sky blue color. The snail itself has all the physical markers described in the Talmud. The Ptil Techlet organization has proved Rabbi Herzog’s theory to be correct.
Ptil Techelet held a conference celebrating 100 years of techelet research this week in Jerusalem. Speakers and panelists included scientists, archaeologists, historians, a specialist in ancient languages, and prominent rabbis.
From left to right: Prof. Zohar Amar, Dept. of Archaeology, Bar-Ilan University; Prof. Ilan Sharon, Dept. of Archaeology, Hebrew University; Prof. Horowitz, Faculty of Science, Hebrew University, and Dr. Baruch Sterman, a founder of Ptil Techelet. The founders of Ptil Techelet described their search for Murex trunculus, how they tested ancient harvesting methods and recreated the ancient cooking process themselves. There was a live demonstration of the dyeing process.
It was thrilling to see the techelet actually forming itself under our own eyes. Although the salty, rotten smell was less than pleasant, it brought a feeling of experiencing the same exact thing that ancient people did.
Ptil Techelet is researching ways to farm the Murex trunculus snail, in order to establish a sustainable way of continuing production. They are concerned with issues of over-fishing and preservation of the snail for future generations.
This, then, is techelet.
More on Jewish traditions from Green Prophet:
- Tu B’Shvat, The Jewish New Year For The Trees
- First Etrog Tree In Holy Land Discovered In Jerusalem
- Traditional Jewish Burial Rites Are Green
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