From the bottom of the sea

A ‘Ptil Tekhelet’ conference sheds new light on an old problem

Tallis/Talit/prayer shawl (photo credit: PTIL TEKHELET COLLECTION)
Tallis/Talit/prayer shawl
A full century after it was published, the vision of Israel’s first Ashkenazi chief rabbi, Yitzhak Halevi Herzog, also known as Isaac Herzog, has come full circle. The definitive location of the source of techelet – the blue dye specifically used for tzitzit tassels on a four cornered garment such as a prayer shawl – is agreed upon, with the next stage to be the mass production, ecologically made in Israel.
About 150 years ago, the hassidic Radzyner Rebbe Gershon Chanoch Leiner was in Italy when he saw a marine animal, similar to a squid, that he deduced was the source of techelet.
He found that the ink of the cuttlefish, Sepia officinalis, when mixed with other ingredients and cooked, makes a blue dye. He knew from Torah sources that the origin of techelet was the hilazon, a sea creature. He made the dye and to this day his followers use the same recipe.
When Herzog was a boy, his father, a rabbi, was approached by the dyers of Radzyn to approve the techelet they were using at the time. So from a very young age, he was acquainted with and became interested in the dyeing process.
As he began his research into porphyrology (the study of the color purple), Herzog wrote a letter to the dyers, requesting the recipe, to test out what was written. Herzog believed, however, that the source for the dye was some kind of shellfish. He sent out samples made from the Radzyn recipe to two independent testers and found that the iron filings and phosphates in the mixture made the blue color. The fish blood was insignificant, and the result would have been just as blue with any other kind of blood. It was proven that the dye was inorganically made and therefore invalid.
He set out to find out what the real source of techelet was.
It is interesting to note that after the Holocaust, the Radzyner Rebbe’s disciples no longer knew how to make the dye. They asked Herzog for a copy of his father’s correspondence with the rebbe. Herzog came to disprove their theory and simultaneously save their tradition from being lost.
He discovered that according to the scientific community, the solution to the hilazon puzzle was the Murex snail. The evidence used then still holds true today.
At the 100 Years of Techelet Research conference, held last month, Na’ama Sukenik of the Antiquities Authority shared an explanation of the basis to that proof.
“Until now, our most important discovery had been the piles and piles of Murex trunculus [hilazon snail] shells from the area, which served as a silent testimony to the presence of an ancient dyeing industry in Israel,” she said.
According to scientists it fit the description, but Herzog needed it to also fit the talmudic definition to be convinced. The Talmud has many criteria for the hilazon, including three major tenets that Herzog had to contend with.
For one thing, its color didn’t exactly match the talmudic description of “similar to the sea.”
When Herzog first saw the snail it was cleaned off, and it didn’t look anything like the sea; it wasn’t even blue. However, when the snail is in the ocean bits of vegetation and tiny sea creatures will stick to its shell, thus making it hard to find, as its green hue combines with the plants and animals, making it look like just another rock on the ocean floor. Secondly, it didn’t fit the Talmud’s explanation of something “coming up once in 70 years.”
Scientists couldn’t think of any animal with that characteristic. One answer is that the steadfastness of the dye meant that it wouldn’t need to be replaced often. The scientific community also believed that the dye from the murex snail would not last a long time and would wear off. This assertion has been refuted; it has been shown to be one of the best dyes in nature and certainly the best for the time period it was in use.
The biggest problem that needed to be dealt with was that the dye made from the snail’s blood wasn’t sky blue. The dye was coming out more of a bluish-purple.
This was an impossibility for Herzog’s hypothesis that the murex snail was the source of techelet.
The answer came after it was found that if the dyeing process was exposed to sunlight, the color changed from purple to the long-lasting sky blue that is required for tzitzit.
Even so, Herzog wasn’t satisfied with the scientific evidence that the dye could make the correct color. He wanted to make sure that it was the same dye used in biblical times. Because he could never solve all of the Talmud’s specifications, he died without ever knowing if the murex snail was, without a doubt, the origin of techelet.
A century after he delivered his dissertation, and on the day of its anniversary, proof has finally been found.
At the conference to celebrate Herzog’s work on the subject, Sukenik showed three pieces of material found in Judean Desert caves that might have been used for clothing, from Roman times and the time of the Bar Kochba Revolt, that included blue dye. They analyzed the findings by HPLC (high-performance liquid chromatography) testing, the most accurate way to test the chemical makeup of colors on ancient fibers.
One of the textiles, made of wool, indicated that the fibers used in the thread were dyed by exposing them to sunlight or heat after having been dyed.
This amounts to another use of the murex snail to achieve the blue color, and it is possible that the fabric was made by a process similar to making the techelet in tzitzit.
According to the Antiquities Authority, “The importance of this fabric is extremely significant as there are practically no parallels for it in the archeological record.”
Sukenik deduced that two of the samples had been imported into Israel, by looking at the direction of the spinning of the threads.
They were spun in a manner used outside the land. One, however, used the same method that is unique to Land of Israel spinning.
Combining the knowledge of its chemical composition with identification of the fabric’s source, there is now conclusive proof that the biblical dye was made from the murex snail, which is found in abundance off the coast of Israel. Adding to this that the dye was blue, and therefore either exposed to the sun or possibly boiled, we now know that the original techelet was made this way.
Ptil Tekhelet, a non-profit organization that sponsored the conference and produces techelet, has had its method of dyeing techelet confirmed by the Antiquities Authority as corresponding to the process used in biblical times.
Currently, snail collecting – 30 to 60 for one tallit’s worth of strings – takes place on coasts all over the world.
Israel Ziderman, head and scientific director of the Tekhelet Foundation, which promotes the use of techelet today, spoke of the issues involved in making techelet available for every Jew. He said that the amount needed for such an endeavor was “astronomical.”
He added that beyond the ecological problems for harvesting snails in their natural habitat, including over-farming already existent from those that gather the snails for food, and pollution of the oceans that is being added to everyday, there could be a political problem as well. He said that at any time, a government could decide to forbid the collecting of snails for any number of reasons.
Ziderman said that the search for ways to make techelet in large quantities that is ecologically friendly, in the amounts necessary to provide enough for all Jews, necessitates a place in Israel to grow the snails.
He summarized the four ways in which this could be achieved.
First, current ways to make the dye without using chemicals have been found, such as via the use of bacteria in the process, an angle that has the possibility to be developed in Israel with scientific research. Second, it would result in the availability of snails native to Israel which could be used as in ancient times. Third, by using maricultural ponds, the species could be preserved and protected from possible extinction. Finally, even going as far as cloning could be possible to ensure that at any time Jews can avail themselves to this “great mitzva.”