Hundreds of participants joined leading scientists, academics and rabbinic scholars at the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem last week to discuss the latest findings on techelet, or biblical blue, a rare blue dye extracted from a particular marine creature in ancient times for ritual purposes. A material discovered recently may contain the ancient dye.
Techelet was used to color the tassels on the corners of men’s prayer shawls as well as for the garments of the High Priest serving in the Holy Temple.
The full-day conference, sponsored by the non-profit Ptil Techelet organization and co-sponsored by the Azrieli Foundation, Yad Harav Herzog, Yeshiva University, and Yeshiva University Israel Alumni, celebrated the 100th anniversary of late Israeli Chief Rabbi Dr. Isaac Halevy Herzog’s groundbreaking doctoral dissertation, “The Dyeing of Purple in Ancient Israel.”
According to the Talmud, the source of this unique blue color is a marine creature referred to as chilazon, which is the modern-Hebrew word for “snail.”
Herzog was unable to obtain blue dye consistently from the snail, noting that it sometimes appeared purple. In the 1980s, Israeli chemist Otto Eisner discovered that if a solution of the dye was exposed to sunlight, blue instead of purple was produced.
Techelet is mentioned several times in the Bible; for example, the Children of Israel were commanded as follows:
Speak to the children of Israel and you shall say to them that they shall make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations, and they shall affix a thread of sky blue on the fringe of each corner. (Numbers 15:37)
For nearly 1500 years, in the aftermath of the Roman exile, scholars and experts who possessed the hidden knowledge necessary to produce the real biblical blue no longer existed. Thanks to modern science, archaeological discoveries and biblical research, a wealth of information on the mysterious biblical blue is gaining ground.
A highlight of the conference was a presentation by Dr. Naama Sukenik of the Israel Antiquities Authority. She demonstrated that the first ancient techelet-dyed fragment of fabric originating in Israel was discovered in a stockpile of artifacts recovered from the Wadi Murbaat excavation near the Dead Sea more than 60 years ago. It wasn’t until this year that the material was studied.
“Until now, our most important discovery had been the piles and piles of murex trunculus [chilazon] shells from the area, which served as a silent testimony to the presence of an ancient dyeing industry in Israel,” Sukenik explained. “But this newest finding from the times of Bar Kokhba [leader of the Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire in 132 CE] – 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 techelet in ancient Israel.”
Member of Knesset Isaac Herzog, grandson of the brilliant Rabbi Dr. Herzog, discussed his grandfather’s legacy, saying that the late chief rabbi’s fusion of Torah study and scientific research has remained a source of pride to the family.
“While the white strings represent that which we can simply understand, the techelet represents the mysterious and the limits of human understanding,” Rabbi Dr. Meir Soloveichik, director or Yeshiva University’s Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought, declared. “For centuries, Jews wore purely white (fringes)…but only when the concrete and the mysterious are on display side by side are Torah and Judaism truly represented.”
‘BIBLICAL BLUE’ FULFILLS ZIONIST DREAM
“The union of blue and white fulfills a [biblical] commandment as well as the dream of Zionism itself,” Soloveichik stated. “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.”
Author: Atara Beck, Staff Writer for United with Israel
Date: Jan. 5, 2014