R. Meir used to say: Why is blue different from all other colors? Because blue is similiar to the color of the sea; the color of the sea is similar to the color of the firmament; the color of the firmament is similar to the color of sapphire; and the color of sapphire is similar to the color of the throne of glory...." [1]

Tekhelet is a biblical color of uncertain hue, in the blue-violet-purple family, which was extracted from the Mediterranean mollusks of the Gastropoda species; the mollusk, known as hilazon in Hebrew, was a snail found in the sea between the promontory of Tyre and Haifa.[2] The color from the mollusks was used for dyeing, and the desired shade of blue was probably obtained by varying the dyeing process and using different mollusks. The snail reached the shore in shoals infrequently and the extraction of the dye was a very expensive process. And that is why, according to rabbinic sources, "a garment made wholly of tekhelet" was considered rare and expensive.[3]

One of the sea snails believed to be the source of tekhelet: Murex trunculus. [18}

The best dye was obtrained when extracted from live snails [4] and to make it hold, various other materials were added [5]. Most investigators incline to the view that tekhelet was extracted from the Murex (trunculus and brandarais) snails. Often, a "conterfeit" dye, kela ilan, extracted from the Indian indio plant, was used to replace the tekhelet.

Tyre long enjoyed a monopoly in the "blue" and "purple" dye industry, the Tyrians being considered expert dyers with these materials[6] although both colors were available and obtained elsewhere.[7] While considered inferior to royal purple in antiquity, this "blue" or "blue-purple" was a particularly popular color.

Tekhelet (blue) dye was widely employed alone; however, it is frequently mentioned in the Bible together with argaman (purple) and tola'at shani ("crimson worm") as dye for threads and fabrics used in the tabernacle for the curtains, the veil of the tent and for the priest's clothing.[8]

Blue is mentioned together with scarlet and purple as prominent colors in the dress of the Qumran priest on the occasion of battle.[9]

In addition to priests, princes and nobles wore garments of tekhelet [10]. It was used for the expensive blue hangings in the royal palace of Ahasuerus and in the royal blue and white robes.[11] In Ecclesiasticus bonds of wisdom are compared to a cord of blue,[12] and both blue and purple are identified in the clothing of Moses.[13] Judas Maccabeus seized cloth dyed blue as plunder.[14]

The most well-known use of the tekhelet dye in biblical and early rabbinic times was in preparing the threads fastened to the four corners of the tallit, or prayer shawl, which, according to biblical stipulation, were to have a cord of blue entwined in them. "The Lord said to Moses as follows: Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe (zizit) at each corner."[15]

That the blue cord was prepared with dye extracted from the hilazon snail, is evident from a discussion in Mishna, which bemoans the dearth of this dye.[16]

Because the hilazon snail was said to appear only once in seventy years and was scarce even in mishnaic times (and the cost of producing tekhelet was therefore prohibitive), and because of the fear of counterfeiting with kela ilan -- the authorities agreed that the blue cord might be dispensed with and white threads alone be used [17] for the zizit (although for a period many continued to fulfill the biblical precept with tekhelet).

See also: PTIL TEKHELET: The Association for the Promotion and Distribution of Tekhelet (Jerusalem, Israel)



[1] TJ, Ber. 1:5, 3a [back]
[2] TB Shabbat 26a; Sif. Deut. 354 [back]
[3] TB Menahot 39a [back]
[4] TB Shabbat 75a [back]
[5] TB Menahot 42b [back]
[6] II Chronicles 2:6-7, 14 [back]
[7] Ezekiel 27:7, 24 [back]
[8] For the tabernacle: Exodus 25:4, 26:1,4, 31, 28:6; Numbers 4:6-7, 9 for the priests' clothing: Exodus 28:5-6, 8, 15; 39:1, etc. [back]
[9] Exodus 39:28-29) [back]

[10] Ezekiel 2:7 [back]
[11] Esther 1:6, 8:15 [back]
[12] Ecclesiasticus 6:30 [back]
[13] Ecclesiasticus 45:10 [back]
[14] I Maccabeus 4:23 [back]
[15] Numbers 15:37 [back]
[16] TB Menahot 4:1 [back]
[17] TB Menahot 4:1 [back]
[18]Irving Israel Ziderman, Seashells and Ancient Purple Dyeing, Biblical Archaeologist 52, June 1990, pp. 98-101. [back]

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