The exploration to find the genuine hilazon—the snail that produces the tekhelet that was worn by the Kohen Gadol and that we are commanded to wear on tzitziot—has triggered the imaginations of Jews throughout the ages. The secret was believed to have been lost after the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash by the Romans. So it is no surprise that the atmosphere was both electric and eclectic as more than 350 scholars, scientists, and academics from throughout the Jewish world gathered at the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, on December 30, for the Tekhelet Conference, honoring the 100th year anniversary since the doctoral dissertation of the late Chief Rabbi Dr. Isaac Halevi Herzog, “The Dyeing of Purple in Ancient Israel.” Written for the University of London, investigating what he called “porphyrology,” it was the quintessential scholarly and groundbreaking work on the topic, completed when he was only 25.
One of the chosen who have delved into the mystery is Dr. Baruch Sterman, who created the nonprofit organization Ptil Tekhelet in 1991, together with Rabbi Eliyahu Tevger, Dr. Ari Greenspan, and Joel Guberman. In 2012, Sterman, together with his wife, Judy Taubes Sterman, published the book The Rarest Blue: The Remarkable Story of an Ancient Color Lost to History and Rediscovered. Ptil Tekhelet cosponsored the conference together with the Azrieli Foundation, Yad Harav Herzog, Yeshiva University, and Yeshiva University Israel Alumni.
Crossing religious and political lines, the conference was opened by MK Isaac Herzog, head of the opposition in the Knesset and Rabbi Dr. Herzog’s grandson, who said that his grandfather’s combining of Torah and scientific research remained a source of pride to his family.
Lectures, presentations, and roundtable discussions were held on topics including “The Relationship Between Science and Torah in the Writings of Rav Herzog,” “Innovation in Halacha,” “The Future of Tekhelet R&D,” and more.
But by far the most exciting announcement of the day was made by Dr. Naama Sukenik, a researcher at the Israel Antiquities Authority, who revealed that the first ancient tekhelet-dyed fragment of fabric originating in Israel was recently discovered in the stockpile of artifacts recovered from the Wadi Murbaat excavation over 60 years ago.
“Until now, our most important discovery had been the piles and piles of Murex trunculus (hillazon snail) shells from the area, which served as a silent testimony to the presence of an ancient dyeing industry in Israel,” Dr. Sukenik explained. But this newest finding from the times of Bar Kokhba, “sky blue fabric from the Dead Sea region,“ is definitive proof of both a colored fabrics trade and strict adherence to the biblical commandment of tekhelet in ancient Israel.
“Tekhelet and Life’s Temptations,” a psychoanalytic interpretation of the resistance to tekhelet, was presented by Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb, who said, “There is a power of resistance within us. We repress the evil within us, but we also repress the sublime, the power of good within us. We do not want to be all that we could be or should be. It is too challenging, too difficult. But we live in a time of the redemption, and our reaction to it should be to elevate ourselves to the most angelic and sublime form. We should see the fulfillment of the commandment of tekhelet, the mitzvah that is at the root of our being, as an integral part of that process.”
Other presenters included Professor Rabbi Avraham Steinberg (an Israel Prize laureate), Supreme Court Justice Neal Hendel, Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin, and Rabbi Menachem Burshtein (director of Machon Puah).
Rav Dr. Meir Soloveichik, Rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel, NY, and Director of Yeshiva University’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, brought the conference to a close with an analysis of the symbolism of the contrasting white- and tekhelet-colored fringes of tzitzit.
“While the white strings represent that which we can simply understand, the tekhelet represents the mysterious and the limits of human understanding. For centuries, Jews wore purely white tzitzit. A Jew can fulfill the mitzvah with only white fringes, but only when the concrete and the mysterious are on display side-by-side are Torah and Judaism truly represented,” said Rav Soloveichik.
“Additionally, the union of blue and white fulfills a commandment as well as the dream of Zionism itself. Israel is simultaneously a modern democratic marvel and a symbol of the Jewish people as the Chosen People. This conference is not only a celebration of a scientific discovery and the furthering of Jewish Law, but an opportunity to ponder the symbolism of this combination and recognize our place in the enduring Jewish story.”
The Process Of Discovery
In a pre-conference Hebrew interview with Arutz 7, Sterman said that Herzog had arrived at the conclusion that there was one snail that was the correct one, Murex trunculus, but he thought tekhelet should be the color of the sky, and the Murex didn’t give the right color. He died in 1959 without solving the problem, said Sterman, so no one used the color from that snail, even though, scientifically, it seemed to be correct.
On Herzog’s erudition in his doctorate, Sterman writes in his book:
“Herzog’s doctoral dissertation displays a mastery of such diverse subjects as archaeology, Greek and Roman literature, chemistry, Talmudic and Midrashic texts, and philology, and it includes references to Semitic languages, Sanskrit, and Chinese. According to his son Chaim Herzog, the rabbi had a good knowledge of some 12 languages.
“He read Aristotle and Pliny (in the original Greek and Latin) and recognized their descriptions of the purple-producing snails as the Murex. He had familiarized himself, too, with the work of Lacaze-Duthiers, and knew full well that the scientific community had declared the case closed and the puzzle of ancient shellfish dyeing solved. Tyrian purple came from Murex brandaris and fais haemastoma (a reddish purple), and tekhelet came from the Murex trunculus (a blue purple).
“In 1985, in Machon Shenkar, a researcher named Otto Elsner, whose interest was historical, found a phenomenon that Herzog didn’t know about—that on cloudy days, when they made the color from that hilazon, it came out purple, but on sunny days, it came out blue, as described in our sources.”
Sterman writes about the fascinating process of this discovery:
“Elsner was particularly well suited for the task since as a young chemist he had worked with woad dyeing in his native Poland before immigrating to Israel.
“Because of the unavoidable rancid smell that accompanies dyeing with snails, Elsner conducted his experiments near an open window. That seemingly insignificant choice of location led to a groundbreaking observation. Elsner gathered the snails, extracted the glands, and collected the dark purple dye. He applied the standard techniques used in woad dyeing, adding the necessary chemicals to put the dye into solution. He immersed the wool, and after removing it he watched it turn from greenish yellow to its final, permanent color. As expected—and as all scholars and chemists had claimed for a hundred years—the wool indeed took on a purple hue.
“On cloudy days, that is.
“But when working in bright sunshine, Elsner saw something quite different: The trunculus dye produced a beautiful sky-blue color. Furthermore, the azure color of the wool that emerged from the brackish liquid was fast and lasting; it didn’t fade, nor did it change color . . .
“Otto Elsner had solved the riddle.
“Ancient dyers, doing their work out-of-doors in the bright Mediterranean sun, surely discovered the role that daylight played in achieving the final color of the dye.”
“Those who knew about this, thousands of years ago, kept the secret and made a fortune from their knowledge,” said Sterman. “Tekhelet was worth 20 times its weight in gold.” He said the word “tekhelet” was found before the Torah was given, in the times of Avraham Avinu, “so 4,000 years ago they knew how to do it, but it only grew in value. It was also in Babylon and elsewhere; Nevuchadnetzer kept tekhelet, it was around during the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. It was so important during the Roman times that the Roman emperors decreed that anyone who held on to tekhelet and argaman was worthy of death, so it was hard for the Jews to keep it.
“We have found clothing here in Israel that was colored during the times of Bar Kochba and you can still see the color. The Rambam says that tekhelet keeps its beauty, and it’s been 2,000 years . . .”
Sterman said that Rav Tevger showed the Ptil Tekhelet people how to make tekhelet. “Today we think there are 200,000 sets of tekhelet in the world. 150 years ago Rav Gershon Henokh Leiner of Radzyn went on a journey from Poland to Italy to look for the hilazon and he thought he found it, but it was a fish that sprouted dark brown ink, and he used it. Rav Herzog decided it could not be tekhelet and all the researchers agree, but those Hasidim, and some others, still wear it.”
Yes, he says, there are some rabbis who, even if you prove it scientifically, will say that there was a break in the masoret and you can’t change it, but he’s not afraid to discuss both opinions. He wanted to give rabbanim at the conference “a chance to see all the scientific evidence and they can decide what to do.” He said that Yitzhak Herzog has—and his father, Chaim Herzog, had—a talit with tekhelet on it.
“G-d wanted for 1,300 years that there not be tekhelet in the world but, just as He wanted that, so He can want that now there will be tekhelet in the world,” said Sterman. “The Ari Hakadosh . . . said that until Mashiach comes, there will be no tekhelet. On the other hand, there are poskim who paskened that there are halachot that can be observed only when there is tekhelet, and when people asked them, ‘So we don’t have to keep those halachot?’ ‘No,’ they said, ‘you have to keep them, because maybe tomorrow someone will discover it.’ Rabbi Nachman of Breslov said a tefillah every day that the hilazon should be discovered so we will be able to do the mitzvah of tekhelet in tzitzit, that it is a sign that the geulah, the redemption, is near.
“Once I met a deeply religious person who said, ‘I see your tekhelet, and when I die, G-d will say, “Why didn’t you wear tekhelet?” and I’ll say, “There wasn’t masoret.”’ And I said to him,” said Sterman, “maybe, but what about if G-d says, ‘Why did you wear tekhelet?’ and you say, ‘I wore it because I love you and want to keep your Torah and mitzvot in spite of all the dangers.’ So I asked, ‘With which answer will G-d be happier?’ And he couldn’t answer me.” v
Ptil Tekhelet (www.tekhelet.com) promotes and produces educational resources about tekhelet as the basis for fulfilling the commandment of tzitzit. It also produces authentic tekhelet, and views the rediscovered tekhelet as symbolizing the common thread linking the Jewish people’s past to its present and future.