Volume 8 Number 12

Subjects Discussed In This Issue: 

         [Baruch Sterman]


From: Baruch Sterman <baruch@...>
Date: Tue, 29 Jun 93 22:38:10 EDT
Subject: Tekhelet

I noticed that there has been some discussion of late on the net 
regarding the issue of Tekhelet. I have been involved with this 
for the past two years, specifically with Trunculus Tekhelet. I 
wrote this article which is a general introduction to the history
of the subject - but not totally rigorous from the Halachik side. 

We are at the stage where within a few months we will have enough
Tekhelet to begin selling strings to interested parties. 

Anyone who would like to find out more details, please feel free
to reach me at:
                Baruch Sterman
		Te'ena Mizrach 76
		Efrat, Israel

         The Riddle of the Biblical Blue 
        or The Quest  for  the  Holy Snail

                 Baruch Sterman

The story of the rediscovery of the source for the dye  tek-
helet - Biblical Blue, is one of intrigue, deception, deduc-
tion, and luck. It weaves together  clues  from  archeology,
chemistry and Biblical scholarship and its major players in-
clude Jewish and Non-Jewish archeologists, marine biologists
and  chemists,  the leader of a Hasidic sect, and the former
Chief Rabbi of Israel.

The book of Numbers records, "And God spoke to Moses saying,
Speak to the Children of Israel and say unto them, that they
shall make for themselves fringes on the  corners  of  their
garments  for their generations, And they shall place on the
corner fringes a thread of blue. And they shall see  it  and
remember all of my commandments."

In ancient times colored dyes were rare  and  valuable,  and
the most prized of all were the purple and blue derived from
mollusks, literally worth their weight in gold.  Porphyra in
Greek originally meant shellfish and the word purple applied
to the range of colors from purple to  blue  which  were  of
shellfish  origin.  These  precious  dyes  were reserved for
royalty; they colored the robes of the kings and princes  of
Media,  Babylon,  Egypt  and Greece, and to wear them was to
identify with the nobility. To the Greeks it was a  sign  of
hubris  as  Agamemnon  realizes  when his wife Clytaemnestra
convinces him to walk over the garments of  the  Gods,  "Now
since  my  will  was  bent to listen to you in this, my feet
crush purple as I pass within the hall." The thread of  blue
on  the  corners of the Israelites' garments would have been
conspicuous and solicited attention.  The  association  with
royalty  reminded  the  Israelite  of his duties towards his
master, the King of the Universe -"And you shall be to me  a
kingdom of Priests".

The Mediterranean coast was the center of the purple  dyeing
industry  in  the ancient world. Tyrian purple came from the
port of Tyre in what is now southern  Lebanon.   The  Talmud
records  that  the  hilazon - the mollusk source of the blue
dye was to be found "from the ladders of Tyre to Haifa." The
Phoenicians  (the  etymology  of their name is from the word
purple) made their wealth trading in the dyestuff,  and  dye
houses  were ubiquitous in the region. Because of its lucra-
tive nature, purple dying slowly came  under  imperial  con-
trol.  The Romans issued edicts that only royalty could wear
purple garments and only imperial dye houses were  permitted
to  manufacture the material. This drove the Jewish tekhelet
making industry underground. A story is recorded in the Tal-
mud  of two students carrying tekhelet from Palestine to the
Jews in Babylon,  who were caught by the eagle  (a  Talmudic
metaphor  for Rome) and miraculously escaped death. With the
Arab conquest of Palestine (683 AD.) the secret of  tekhelet
was  lost.  Purple  dying continued to survive sporadically,
with a small industry in  Constantinople,  until  that  city
fell to the Turks on May 29, 1453.

Jews continued to wear fringes on their garments but as  the
Midrash  (circa  750  AD)  laments, "and now we have no tek-
helet, only white, for the tekhelet has been  hidden."   The
description  of  the  hilazon  was recorded by the Talmud in
various, often contradictory, passages.  Its  distinguishing
features,  were that it had a shell, it could be found along
the northern coast of  Palestine,  and  that  its  body  was
similar  to  the  sea.  The main characteristics of the tek-
helet were its color, which was similar to the sky and  sea,
the  steadfast  nature  of  the dye, that it had to be taken
from the hilazon while still alive,  and  that  it  was  in-
distinguishable   from  the  counterfeit  dye  of  vegetable
origin, kala ilan - indigo.

The rediscovery of the purple dye was due to  a  chance  en-
counter  in  1858.  The  French  zoologist  Henri de Lacaze-
Duthiers was on a scientific study sailing from the Minorcan
port  of Mahon when one of the fishermen took a snail, broke
it open and smeared it on his shirt.  He  boasted  that  the
yellow  stain  would  soon  turn  red  in  the sunlight, and
Lacaze-Duthiers immediately recognized  the  snail  -  Thais
Haemastoma  - as the long lost source of the ancient purple.
Subsequent investigation by Lacaze-Duthiers  revealed  three
mollusks  in  the  Mediterranean  which produced dyes, Thais
Haemastoma and Murex Brandaris, which give a pure purple and
Murex  Trunculus, which yields a mixture of purple and blue.
At the turn of the century P. Friedlander, a German chemist,
conducted extensive research into the chemical nature of the
purple dye and established the  molecule  as  dibromoindigo,
and the great Egyptologist, A.  Dedekind, concluded that the
source of ancient tekhelet was certainly Murex Trunculus.

In 1887, utterly unaware of Lacaze-Duthiers'  work,  Gershon
Henokh  Leiner, a Hasidic Rebbe from the Russian-Polish town
of Radzin, wrote a small pamphlet announcing that he was  to
begin  searching  for the lost hilazon in an effort to bring
back the tekhelet to the Jewish people. Leiner was an excep-
tional  individual who might have been an engineer in a dif-
ferent incarnation. With  no  formal  secular  training,  he
nevertheless  spoke  several  European  languages and taught
himself mechanics  and  medicine.   After  he  suceeded  his
father   as   leader  of  the  Ishbitzer  Hasidic  sect,  he
established a mill  furnished  with  machinery  of  his  own
design,  which  turned  out  an amazing 80,000 lbs. of flour
daily. (The venture, however, eventually failed and  brought
Leiner and some of his Hasidim to complete financial ruin.)

He set off (in cognito) to scour Europe and records that his
travels  brought  him  to  Naples  in Italy, where he saw "a
great building of stone deep in the ground on  the  Mediter-
ranean  sea  shore, with rooms built of white glass with sea
water flowing through them. And in them all  the  sea  crea-
tures  travel freely." Leiner concluded that the cuttlefish,
Sepia officinalis, a type of squid, fit the  description  of
the  coveted hilazon. The only problem was that he could not
fabricate a blue dye from  the  black  ink  that  the  squid
released.  He  put  an  advertisement in the local paper of-
fering a substantial reward to any chemist who  could  solve
the  problem.  Eventually a solution was procured and Leiner
went back to Radzin and opened up a factory to  produce  the
tekhelet.  Within  two  years, ten thousand of his followers
were wearing the  blue  threads  on  their  fringes.  Leiner
published  two  books  to counter the strong opposition from
other Rabbis who were not convinced that this was indeed the
true hilazon.  Nevertheless, the split between his followers
and others who would not wear his  tekhelet,  ran  deep  and
divisive,  to  the point where Radzin Hasidim were often not
allowed into regular Jewish ritual baths, and  the  question
arose  as to whether they should be buried in regular Jewish

In 1913, then Chief Rabbi  of  Ireland  Rabbi  Isaac  Herzog
(later  Chief Rabbi of Israel and father of the President of
Israel, Chaim Herzog) wrote a doctoral dissertation  on  the
subject of Hebrew Porphyrology (the study of purple - a word
Herzog coined). He requested a sample of their tekhelet from
the  Hasidim  of  Radzin,  and  then  sent it off to leading
chemists and dye experts in England and  on  the  Continent.
The results were unanimous; the dye was not organic - it was
Prussian Blue, or  Ferric  Ferrocyanide!   Herzog  was  sure
that  the  source  of the dye was Sepia, refusing to believe
that Leiner would purposely mislead his followers. He  asked
the Radziners to send him the process that they used to make
the dye and together with chemists,  carefully  studied  it.
The  ink  from  the squid was mixed "with iron filings and a
snow white chemical called Potasz. After  keeping  it  on  a
large  powerful  fire  for some four or five hours until the
flames burn outside and inside as the fires of Hell the mix-
ture fuses..." Since all the chemicals added were colorless,
the dye master from Radzin was convinced that the blue color
must  come  from  the squid ink (as Leiner himself must have
been). In  fact,  at  that  high  temperature,  the  organic
molecules  dissociate and the nitrogen and carbon form inor-
ganic cyanide - which mixed  with  the  iron  gave  Prussian
Blue.   Leiner  had  been duped by some unscrupulous Italian

Herzog could not  accept  the  fact  that  genuine  tekhelet
depended  on  the hilazon in such a superficial manner, when
in fact virtually any organic material  -  blood  or  corned
beef  for  example  - could be processed in the same way and
yield the same dye. He thus discounted the  Radzin  tekhelet
and  sought  an alternative. (As an interesting side note of
history, during World War II with the  destruction  of  East
European Jewry, the tekhelet factories of Radzin were ruined
and the process lost. When  the  survivors  of  Radzin  made
their  way  to Israel after the war, they asked Rabbi Herzog
for the correspondence between himself and  the  Radzin  dye
makers,  and  through those letters reestablished a tekhelet
industry in Israel which still flourishes to this day.  Thus
Herzog  is  responsible  both for discrediting Radzin's tek-
helet and at the same time for rescuing their  process  from

Herzog was aware of the strong evidence for associating  one
of  the  Murex species (Trunculus) with the hilazon. He knew
of Lacaze-Duthiers' and  Friedlander's  work.  He  had  read
Pliny  and  Aristotle who indicated  Brandaris and Trunculus
as the source of the ancient purple dyes. He  also  knew  of
the  archeological finds in Tyre and elsewhere which had un-
covered mounds of millions of Murex  shells  broken  in  the
exact  spot  necessary  to obtain the dyestuff. Yet he could
not bring himself to unequivocally identify Trunculus as the
source  of  tekhelet  for  two reasons. Firstly, Murex Trun-
culus, also known as the banded rock Murex, has  stripes  of
brown   against  an  off-white  shell,  hardly  fitting  the
description of the Talmud as domeh l'yam -  similar  to  the
sea.   Furthermore,  the  dye  obtained  from  Trunculus  is
purplish-blue, not pure blue as tradition had maintained.

Herzog proposed an alternative snail, Janthina, which has  a
violet  shell  and produces a bluish liquid when stimulated,
though he never actually dyed with it. There are a number of
difficulties  with  the  identification  of the hilazon with
Janthina. The snail lives in  the  heart  of  the  ocean  in
floating  colonies and washes up on shore very rarely, which
would make the snail so scarce as  to  be  unattainable.  It
would  also  mean  that the tekhelet used by the ancient Is-
raelites was different than the blue dye  the  rest  of  the
world used, and that neither Pliny nor Aristotle knew of it.
But the main objection to Janthina is that it does  not  dye
well. The blue-violet color of the dye turns to black- brown
after a few days, and the dye is water soluble,  hardly  the
steadfast blue of true tekhelet.

All the evidence points in favor  of  Murex  Trunculus,  but
what of Rabbi Herzog's objections? As for the first, that it
is not similar to the sea, Herzog only  saw  specimens  from
the   British  Museum,  after  they  had  been  cleaned  and
polished.  In  its  natural  state,  however,  Trunculus  is
covered  with  a  coat of sea fouling which has a blue-green
tint.  Furthermore, since  everything  in  the  vicinity  is
covered  with  the  same fouling, it is almost impossible to
distinguish between a  Trunculus  shell  and  a  neighboring
rock.  In  Biblical  Hebrew, yam can mean either sea or sea-
bed. The Talmud may have meant that the hilazon  is  similar
to the sea-bed, an exact description of Trunculus in situ.

A short explanation of  the chemical nature  and  origin  of
the  dye molecules is required to understand the solution to
Herzog's second objection, that the dye is not blue.  Inside
the  hypobranchial  gland,  only  the  precursors to the dye
exist as a clear liquid. (The  indigo  molecule  contains  a
substance  called  indole,  which  is  also found in the in-
testines of animals, where it is  a  waste  product  of  the
proteins  which constitute most of meat.  Indole is a poison
and does not pass out of the body directly. In order to  get
rid  of it, animals unite it with sulphur, and this harmless
combination is excreted through the kidney. In the snail, in
addition  to the sulphur, bromine and potassium are also in-
corporated into the neutralized molecule.)  When  these  are
exposed  to  air  and  sunlight in the presence of an enzyme
purpurase which also exists within the gland, they turn into
the  dye material. Purpurase quickly decomposes, so in order
for this reaction to take place, the gland must  be  smashed
soon  after  being  taken from the live snail, in accordance
with the Talmudic passage that the tekhelet  is  taken  from
the  hilazon  while still alive. In Haemastoma and Brandaris
only dibromoindigo - Tyrian Purple - is produced,  while  in
Trunculus  this  process yields monobromoindigo and pure in-
digo as well, which is why its dye is purplish-blue.

About twenty years ago, Otto Elsner from the Shenkar College
of  Fibers in Tel Aviv, serendipetously solved the riddle of
the tekhelet color. Elsner was researching the methods  used
by ancient dyers and noticed that while on cloudy days Trun-
culus dye tended towards purple, on sunny days it  was  pure
blue. The dyes dibromoindigo and indigo are vat dyes, and in
order for them to bind tightly to wool, they must  first  be
reduced.  Elsner  and  his colleague Ehud Spanier from Haifa
University found that while dibromoindigo is in its  reduced
state,  if it is exposed to ultraviolet light it will deter-
mine to pure indigo. Since dying is a very  smelly  process,
it  would  have  been  natural  to  dye outdoors, and in the
bright Mediterranean sunlight,  ancient  dye  masters  would
have  quickly  learned how to control the color of the Trun-
culus extract.  (Elsner suggested a second  possibility  for
obtaining  pure blue from Trunculus - by sex separation - as
the males produce primarily indigo while the  females  yield
dibromoindigo.  This assumes that the ancient mariners could
tell the difference between male and female snails -  not  a
trivial  feat  since the Trunculus species is hermaphrodite,
or imposexual to be more precise,  with many females growing
male  sexual  organs  during their lifetime. Recent research
has cast some doubt as to the  statistical  significance  of
sex  as  a  factor  in dye type, but Elsner maintains that a
difference does exist.)

When the dibromoindigo is completely  determined  to  indigo
there  is  no  way  of  telling it from the identical indigo
molecule of vegetable origin - kala ilan  -  as  the  Talmud
states.  Does  this  mean that one could today use synthetic
indigo in place of the hilazon based chemical?  Most  Jewish
legal authorities rule not. As is often the case with ritual
objects, the source and process  are  as  important  as  the
product.  Jewish  mystical tradition associates the sun with
God's fiery attribute of  justice and the sea with His  ten-
dency  towards  kindness.  To the ancient Jews of Palestine,
tekhelet may have symbolized the mixture of the two; as  the
sea  and sunlight come together to form the blue dye, so too
man survives only through the mixture of both sides of God's

The  chemicals  needed  for  the  dying  process  were   all
available  to the ancients. They probably obtained potassium
hydroxide (2KOH), the strong base necessary  to  reduce  the
dyes  by  burning  sea  shells (CaCO3) and mixing the result
with potash (K2CO3).

       CaCO3  ->  CaO + CO2 
       CaO + H2O ->  Ca(OH)2  
       Ca(OH)2  + K2CO3 ->  CaCO3  +  2KOH  

This  provides  the  answer  to  another archeological mystery, 
why ovens were found at the site of the ancient  dye  houses.  
These must have been used to burn the shells in order to procure
the potassium hydroxide.

Over the last few  decades,  much  work  has  been  done  to
reestablish  the  tekhelet  dying  process. Irving Ziderman,
from the Israel Fiber Institute has published  a  number  of
articles describing the scientific aspects and religious im-
plications of the Trunculus dye.  Rabbi  Herzog's  doctorate
has  finally  been  published  after  nearly 80 years. Rabbi
Eliahu Tebger of Jerusalem was the first to  actually  apply
the   process   according  to  the  prescribed  ritual  from
beginning to end,  and  prayer  shawls  -  tallitot  -  with
authentic  tekhelet  can be found in Jerusalem today for the
first time in more than 1300 years.


End of Volume 8 Issue 12