Posted by: gruvenreuven | March 2, 2011

Blue Fringe Benefits

Tekhelet, is a blue dye mentioned 48 times in the Tanach. Its uses include the clothing of the High Priest, the tapestries in the Mishkan, and the tassels (known as Tzitzit) to be affixed to the corners of one’s garments. Following the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, the sole use of the blue dyed strings was in the tzitzit.

The Talmud in Menchot 44a teaches that the source for the blue dye is a marine creature known as the hillazon, which is translated as “snail” in Modern Hebrew. The Talmud also mentions a counterfeit dye from a plant called Kela-Ilan. The Talmud goes on to explain that it is absolutely forbidden to use this counterfeit dye intentionally. The Tosefta explains that Kela Ilan is not the only invalid dye source, but in fact everything but the hillazon is unacceptable for making the blue dye.

Following the Roman exile of the Jews from the land of Israel in 70ce, the actual identity of the source of the dye was lost and as a result the Jews have worn only plain white Tzitzit.

Over the last two centuries, attempts have been made to identify the ancient source of the dye by comparing Talmudic sources to physical evidence. Three types of mollusks have been proposed as the lost “hillazon”. None have been universally accepted, as such most Jews continue to wear only white Tzitzit.

With all this in mind, I find the 28-Feb-11 New York Times article by Dina Kraft quite interesting.

Apparently, Professor Zvi C. Koren (Described in the article as CSI Meets Indiana Jones) using a 2,000 year old patch of fabric discovered in the ’60s during an excavation of Masada, Professor Koren has identified the first known physical sample of tekhelet. (See attached Photo). What is also interesting is that the Rambam describes the color of Tekhelet as being light blue like the sky on a sunny day. Rashi describes Tekhelete as being either green, or dark like an evening sky. Either case both the Rambam or Rashi’s account do not match the color of the uncovered swatched (Albeit 2000 years old!)

Of course, there will be much debate as to whether or not the un-earthed swatch is really Tekhelete. But regardless…. It is still very interesting to see the picture, and specifically the hole in the middle where the Tzitzit is to be tied, and look at the Tzitzit that I/we wear today. Looking at the hole were my Tzitzit are ties I can see very little has changed. (Other then the fabric I wear is probably oodles more comfortable then the fabric pictured which looks way scratchy)



  1. Great post… the blue thread is a very interesting subject and one that can be expounded upon and discussed over and over. I was not aware of the modern discoveries that you mentioned above which have made me revisit this fascinating subject. Thank you for getting my brain going again!

    Also, there is a great section on the blue thread in Aryeh Kaplan’s book “Tzitzith: A Thread of Light”. I recommend reading this for anyone who wants to read more on the subject.

    You are on a roll lately. Keep them coming, I am enjoying them immensely.

    • Thanks!!

      Aryeh Kaplan z”l is amazing. I haven’t read “A Thread of light”. Thanks for the tip, I’ll definitely check it out!

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