Jewish blues

The Jerusalem Bible Lands Museum’s ‘Out of the Blue’ exhibit creates a context for Jewish colors.

Murex shells from Tel Shimona, Israel, dating from the Second Iron Age, 10th to 7th centuries BCE (photo credit: MOSHE CAINE / ISRAEL ANTIQUITIES AUTHORITY)
Murex shells from Tel Shimona, Israel, dating from the Second Iron Age, 10th to 7th centuries BCE
In 1986, a young Israeli rabbi, Eliyahu Tavger, found a way of turning the gland found in the Murex trunculus sea shell into the pure, sky-blue woolen tassel which is meant to adorn the corners of the garment of every Jewish male – the tzitzit – according to the Biblical commandment (Numbers: 15:37-39). This was the first time such a process had been used for maybe 1,300 years. In 1991 he co-founded the Ptil Tekhelet Association along with physicist, Dr Baruch Sterman, Dr. Ari Greenspan, and Joel Guberman to manufacture and distribute these blue tassels commercially. The story of how this was discovered and why the technique was lost for so many years is at the center of a current exhibition called “Out of the Blue” in Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum.
“The fact is,” Dr Sterman told The Jerusalem Report, “that the colors of blue and purple (or tekhelet and argaman as they are referred to in the Bible) were extremely precious commodities in the Ancient Middle East. As far as we know, manufacture began during the Minoan civilization (1700 BCE), from there it was taken up by the Phoenicians, who became so adept at the creation of these blue and purple dyes that they were named the purple people (the literal meaning of Phoenicia). The Israelites took it up when they were commanded to use these colors to cover the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle with tekhelet (e.g., Exodus: 36:8; 38:23; 39:1), or to attach blue fringes to men’s garments.
Out of this one thread the museum has created a complete exhibition, exploring the etiology of the colors, their usage over the centuries, and in particular their importance in the Jewish world not only as religious items but also as a historical link in the development of Zionism.
According to Leora Berry, deputy director of the museum, “All colors exist in nature, but blue, although very present throughout nature, is very difficult to access. It is more abstract. Partly because blue is the color of the heavens, it became a symbol of the divine and of power, not just for Jews but also for civilizations around the Mediterranean.”
Dr. Baruch Sterman, CEO of Ptil Tekhelet, elaborates. He quotes Rabbi Meir in the Talmud, who asks: “What is special about the color blue? It is because it is the color of the sea, which reflects the color of the sky and, in turn, reflects the Throne of Glory.” (Sota:17a on Exodus: 24:10). Berry then added, “We took this concept and tried to create an exhibition that would look at the significance of blue, in the lands and history of the entire area, rather than looking at the one little strip, which is Israel. Israel didn’t suddenly appear; we came out of these other civilizations. Ancient Israel was surrounded by the ancient Middle East. So we’ve tried to create a context for these colors. This includes archaeological discoveries; some of the items in the exhibition have never been put on display before, fragments of textiles that are dyed and so on.”
About 4,000 years ago, people discovered that they could use sea snails to produce beautiful dyes with magnificent colors that held fast on wool and never faded. Such garments that sported these colors were simply priceless. The range of blues and purples that came from shell fish were called purple in ancient times, the snails themselves were also called “purple fish” and the people that became masters at producing them – the Phoenicians – were known as the purple people. So when the nomenclature ‘purple’ is mentioned, it could be referring to the fish, the dyes or the people.
It seems that Phoenicia played a central role in manufacturing these dyes. There is even a legend that the Greek hero, Hercules, was walking with a friend in Tyre when he noticed his dog playing with one of the conchs near the sea and that his mouth was filled with red. Assuming that it was blood, he took a piece of cloth and wiped the color from his mouth, only to see that what was left on the cloth was a beautiful bright purple color. His wife was impressed by this color and asked for a dress to be made with this purple color. And this is how this color became the trademark of Tyre!
In the Bible these precious colors were not used for profit or to represent the grandeur of an elite class or nobility – as they were in the surrounding cultures – but they were used in the service of the King of Kings, in the garments of the high priest, and the fabrics that were hanging on the walls of the Tabernacle. Every single Jew is commanded to wear a single thread of blue “on the fringes of their garment.” This was how Jews identified themselves and how others identified them. Yet the knowledge of this Divine commandment was lost and forgotten for centuries.
The answer as to how and why this happened is supplied by Dr Sterman. “As to many other questions in history,” he says, “it is wise to ‘follow the money.’ If you could find out who was making money out of something, who owned the process, or was in charge of the commodity, then you could find out what happened to it. With these color processes, everyone wanted control over the tekhelet and argaman industry. When the Romans took over this region the tekhelet and argaman industry came, slowly but surely, under imperial control. Eventually, their control meant that anyone, outside of the rich or powerful, wearing a blue or purple garment was suspected of plotting to overthrow the existing regime, a treasonable offense punishable by death. During the second to fifth centuries these dyes became very expensive. They became rare as only the Roman dye houses were producing them. It was dangerous to attempt to reproduce it (though people did, but with other materials). Then, in the seventh century, the whole region was visited by great turmoil: the Byzantines were fighting the Roman Christians, the Arab Moslems were fighting the non-Moslems. The whole area was totally desiccated. It seems that at that time the processes that went into collecting the snail and manufacturing tekhelet and argaman were lost. Once it was lost, even for one generation, it was gone forever.”
Fast forward about 1,200-1,300 years. In the 19th century scholars were beginning to understand what these ancients were talking about. Rabbinic scholars, too, were interested in finding out the source of these Biblical colors, and the lost commandment. There was already an assumption that these snails (called hilazonim by the sages) were the source of the colors. But it was not clear how these snails produced these colors or what the connection was between purple and blue.
Among the rabbinical scholars who researched the question was Rabbi Isaac Halevy Herzog, who was to become the State of Israel’s first Chief Rabbi. In 1914, he wrote his doctorate for the University of London on the subject, without solving the problem of which color or colors were produced by the snail. Herzog was convinced that the source of these colors was the Murex snail, and this disproved an earlier attempt by a Hasidic Rebbe, Gershon Hanoch Leiner, who thought the source was a kind of squid. Having shown that this was not so, Rabbi Herzog still had to clarify which one of the three species of the Murex snail was the one cited by the Bible. All three could be used for dyeing. There was archaeological evidence that these glands could be crushed and dried, and could produce colors that did not dissolve in water. But which of the Murex was the correct one and how was it to bond with fabric?
Dr. Sterman points to chemistry to supply the answer, observing, “Some people say that the history of chemistry is the search for dyes.”
“It emerged that the difference of color – blue or purple – depended on whether or not the dye solution was prepared inside or outside a room. Inside, they produced purple, but outside, the bright rays of the sun played a part in the dye chemistry, turning the purple into sky blue. How this was discovered was also a question of pure chance.
In 1985, the researchers, who were doing work on these incredibly smelly substances, found that by moving all of this material outside and exposing the dyes to sunlight at a precise stage in the dye preparation would leave you with blue. Once changed, it would remain that same color, even 2,000 years later. A few years later, Rabbi Tavger made the first real blue fringes according to Jewish law (halakha) in over 1,300 years. This amazing chemistry was known to the ancients. How they knew it we cannot be sure, but they knew it.”
The color blue is not only connected to the Murex snail. “In the books of Exodus and Ezekiel,” continues Dr Sterman, “we have mention of God sitting on a throne made of sapphire which is also a very impressive blue color. Sapphire is probably lapis lazuli, which was mined in Afghanistan.”
To show how it is still expensive, Berry  pointed out that the Isis organization mines lapis lazuli and sells it to make money for their nefarious activities. She went on to say, “In the ancient world lapis lazuli was related to the gods. All over the region –Mesopotamia, Egypt, Canaan – there are precious items all of which have lapis lazuli in them. It should be no surprise that in the Bible this sapphire stone is said to be related to the Throne of Glory (Exodus: 24:10). There are parallels elsewhere in the region. Another item on exhibit from almost 5,000 years ago from Iraq is of a goddess sitting on a blue throne. Similarly, Marduk the god of creation from Babylon, sat on a throne of lapis lazuli.”
The fact that blue was identified with an elevated status – either of earthly power or spirituality – is clear from the fact that in the Bible, the High Priest in the Temple wore a garment or garments that were dyed blue. Hiram, king of Tyre (Phoenicia), supplied Solomon’s temple with experts “skilled to work in… purple, crimson and blue fabrics (Chronicles 2, 2:6). In addition, archaeologists have now discovered fragments of fabrics worn in the Judean desert or on Masada with blue markings on them. In the first Temple period, the Jews used these colors for their own purposes. Examples of cloth from this period have been found in which these colors have been used to paint two bands across the cloth. The wider the band the more important you were.
Certainly blue or purple was used throughout this region. On the coast of Israel at Dor, near Haifa, archaeologists have found large pools and vats containing the remains of Murex snails, a further indication that the craft of manufacturing these colors was at some time shared by neighboring countries. In the exhibition there are examples on display from Persia, Sri Lanka, Sardinia, Egypt, Syria and ancient Israel. These colors adorned garments, frescoes, flasks, and buildings. Jeremiah even describes foreign gods painted with purple. They were also used on amulets. Indeed, in many Arab countries today buildings are colored blue as a sign of Divine protection. Many of these colors, however, did not come from snails, but rather were created from plants. This is true of the Karaite community, whose prayer shawls carry stripes of blue. All these examples show that whatever its origin, the color itself remained precious.
As for the more modern period, the color blue made its appearance in the discussions in Zionist circles concerning the flag of the state-to-be. For the first Zionist Congress in 1897, David Wolfsohn, Herzl’s assistant, was asked by Herzl to present a design for a flag. When the question came up as to the colors of the flag, Wolfsohn declared, “We have our own flag – the tallit.” In this he may have been a little off. The blue and white tallit was not used in Orthodox circles, although some may have had a blue stripe. The real origin of the form and color of the flag was to be found in a poem written in 1864 by L.August Frankel, which describes the flag:
“Lines of a white cloak / broad white stripes will adorn it / like the cloak of the High Priest / crowned with ribbons of blue thread...”
The exhibition includes the original flag flown at the United Nations when Israel became a recognized state.
The “Out of the Blue” exhibition runs at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem until Passover, 2019.