Holy colour of blue
A tallit’s tzitzit with threads dyed in tekhelet blue produced from Murex trunculus snails. (photo from Ptil Tekhelet/Eugene Weisberg)
There’s only one thing missing from the comprehensive temporary exhibit Out of the Blue, which opened June 1 at the Bible Lands Museum Jerusalem (BLMJ) – the reek of the workshops along the Mediterranean coast of Phoenicia and Israel that produced the prized dyes known in antiquity as tekhelet and argaman.
Researchers at the Jerusalem-based foundation Ptil Tekhelet (Blue Thread) maintain that some 8,000 Murex trunculus mollusks were needed to produce a single gram of the luxury pigment. A demonstration of the malodorous dyeing process was carried out – in the garden of the museum – with one of the marine gastropods. A person can only imagine the stink of many thousands of the rotting sea creatures.
The Out of the Blue exhibit documents the significance of tekhelet, together with the Tyrian purple called argaman in the Torah, from antiquity to the present. Not coincidently, the exhibit opened in honour of Israel’s 70th anniversary. It traces the heavenly blue from the time it was a colour revered by the ancient Israelites and other early peoples of the Near East to its use for Israel’s national flag.
“This special exhibition looks at the magnificence as well as the significance of the colour blue in the ancient world, and ties the blue dyed threads mentioned in the Bible and extra-biblical texts to the very design of the flag of the state of Israel today. BLMJ is proud to be the one museum in the world that highlights the relevance and continuity of the roots of civilization in this region and their impact on our world today in a universal and non-sectarian way,” said museum director Amanda Weiss.
Out of the Blue spotlights ancient Near East cultures’ fascination with the colour as a symbol of divinity. In the Egypt of the pharaohs, Mesopotamia and Canaan, lapis lazuli imported at great cost from Afghanistan was used for cultic purposes.
The BLMJ exhibit continues with the lucrative imperial purple dye industry of the ancient Phoenicians, whose name means the “Purple People.”
But, for this reviewer, the core of the exhibit deals with the dyeing of sky blue tzitziyot (ritual fringes affixed to Jews’ tallitot, prayer shawls). In the eighth century, following the Arab takeover of the Levant, that technology was lost. As a result, Jews were compelled to wear white rather than blue ritual fringes on their prayer garments. Research to rediscover the lost dyeing process of the biblical commandment became synonymous with Zionism, the Jewish people’s return to their biblical homeland.
For more than 25 years, Ptil Tekhelet has dyed hundreds of thousands of sky blue tzitziyot coloured with murex snails’ distinctive tint. The azure tzitziyot remind worshippers of the sea, the sky and God’s sapphire-hewn throne, according to Tannaite sage Rabbi Meir, who was a disciple of Rabbi Akiba.
The exhibit includes a collection of the snail (hilazon) shells excavated at Tel Shikmona near Haifa, and dating back to the 10th through seventh centuries BCE, according to Yehuda Kaplan, one of exhibit’s three curators.
“You can see that, for some of them, there is a breach in the shell,” he said during a press tour of the exhibit. It was from those holes that a gland from the snail was extracted, with each yielding only a “minuscule” amount of the rare and highly coveted dye’s raw material.
“These snails, the Murex trunculus, probably about 4,000 years ago it was discovered that they could produce magnificent dyes with the most beautiful colours, dyes that were fast on wool, never faded. And that was something in the ancient world that was simply unheard of, it was priceless,” said Dr. Baruch Sterman of Ptil Tekhelet, co-author of the book The Rarest Blue: The Remarkable Story of an Ancient Colour Lost to History and Rediscovered.
At some point, added Sterman, those dyed fabrics were “worth up to 20 times their weight in gold.”
Other artifacts on display include garment fragments discovered at Masada during archeological excavations in the early 1960s. More than 30 years later, tests using high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) proved the cloth had been dyed with a murex solution.
Out of the Blue concludes with the flag flown outside the United Nations in New York in May 1949, when Israel was accepted as a member state of the international body. A second Israeli flag on display was carried into orbit aboard the American Apollo spacecraft, which docked with the Soviet Soyuz rocket on July 17, 1975, in the first international manned space flight.
Sterman’s nonprofit amuta (foundation) is based on the research, in the 1980s, of Otto Elsner, a chemist at Ramat Gan’s Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, who discovered that, if a solution of the purple dye made from the hypobranchial gland of the Murex trunculus was exposed to the sun’s ultraviolet rays, it would turn a deep shade of blue.
Popularizing that knowledge has been a slow process. According to the Talmud, tekhelet is a specific azure dye produced from a sea creature known as a hilazon. Rabbinic sages ruled that vegetable indigo dyes were unacceptable.
Over the past 150 years, several marine creatures were proposed for reviving the biblical process of dyeing the tassels, among them one favoured by Israel’s first chief rabbi, Isaac Herzog, father of Israel’s sixth president, Chaim Herzog. Rabbi Herzog, who completed his PhD at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1914, believed that the violet pelagic snail, Janthina janthina, was the source of the ritual tekhelet.
Another theory was proposed half a century earlier by Rabbi Gershon Hanokh Leiner, known as the Radzyner Rebbe, who produced blue dye from the black ink of the Sepia officinalis (the common cuttlefish). But chemical analysis identified his dye as Prussian blue, an inorganic synthetic colour derived from iron filings and not from the squid itself.
That dispute continues to reverberate: most of the blue-coloured tzitziyot worn in Israel today are dyed from the inexpensive cuttlefish, acknowledged Ptil Tekhelet. (The tekhelet factory in Radzyn near Lublin in Poland was destroyed during the Holocaust, and the technology was lost but was revived in Israel after 1948 thanks to the prewar research of Chaim Herzog.)
The rediscovery of tekhelet has almost messianic implications – one rabbinic source notes, “The revelation of the hilazon is a sign that the redemption is shining near.”
According to the museum, “The tekhelet blue, which reminded every Jew of their connection to God, remained in the memory of the [Jewish] people and became an integral part of the national symbol of the state of Israel.”
Gil Zohar is a journalist based in Jerusalem.