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Tzitzit (tassel) with blue thread produced from Murex trunculus
A set of tzitzit with blue thread produced from Murex trunculus

Tekhelet (Hebrew: תכלת‎, "turquoise"[1] or "blue";[2] alternate spellings include tekelet, t'chelet, techelet and techeiles) is a blue dye mentioned 49[3][4] times in the Hebrew Bible/Tanakh. It was used in the clothing of the High Priest, the tapestries in the Tabernacle, and the tassels (Hebrew: ציצית, tzitzit [tsiˈtsit], pl. tzitziot) affixed to the corners of one's four-cornered garment, such as the tallit (garment worn during prayer).[3]

According to the Talmud, the dye of tekhelet was produced from a marine creature known as the ḥillazon (also spelled chilazon).[2] According to the Tosefta (Men. 9:6), the hillazon is the exclusive source of the dye.

After the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans, the sole use of the tekhelet (blue) dye was in tzitzit. A tzitzit is made of four strands, a number of which be tekhelet. There are three opinions as to how many are to be blue: 2 strings;[5] 1 string;[6] 1 half string.[7] These strands are then threaded and hang down, appearing to be eight. The four strands are passed through a hole 25 to 50 mm away from the corners of the four-cornered cloth.

Tekhelet is mentioned in the third paragraph of the daily prayers known as the Sh'ma Yisrael (Hebrew: שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל; "Hear, [O] Israel"), citing Bamidbar - Parshas Shelach (Book of Numbers 15:37-41).

Septuagint translation[edit]

In the Septuagint, tekhelet was translated into Greek as hyakinthinos (ὑακίνθινος, "blue").

Biblical references[edit]

Of the 49[9] (or 48 [3][4]) uses in the Masoretic Text, one refers to the whole nation of Israel (Numbers 15:37–41), 44[citation needed] refer to the priesthood or temple. The remaining 6[citation needed] in Esther, Jeremiah and Ezekiel are secular uses; such as when Mordechai puts on "blue and white" "royal clothing" in Esther. The colour could be used in combination with other colours such as 2 Chronicles 3:14 where the veil of Solomon's Temple is made of blue (tekhelet), purple (Hebrew: אַרְגָּמָן argaman) and crimson (Hebrew: כַּרְמִיל karmiyl). Ezekiel 27:7 may indicate the source of the shellfish to have been the Aegean region.[10]

Talmudic references[edit]

The counterfeit dye: Indigo (Historical dye collection of the Technical University of Dresden, Germany)

The Talmud teaches that the source for the blue dye is a marine creature known as the ḥillazon[2] (Hebrew: חילזון, translated as "snail" in Modern Hebrew). The Talmud also mentions a counterfeit dye from a plant called kela ilan, identified[by whom?] as Indigofera tinctoria, the ubiquitous source of blue dye in the ancient world. The Talmud explains that it is forbidden to use this counterfeit dye intentionally, however, if one was duped, the strings are still kosher (i.e., one still fulfills the religious requirement for tzitzit), but they do not fulfill the requirement for tekhelet strings.[11] The Tosefta explains that kela ilan is not the only invalid dye source. In fact, anything but the ḥillazon is unacceptable for making the blue dye.

In the Talmud, Tractate Menachot 44a, the ḥillazon is described as follows:[12]

  1. Its body is similar to the sea.
  2. Its form is like a fish.
  3. It comes up once in 70 years,
  4. With its "blood" one dyes tekhelet,
  5. Therefore: It is expensive.

Other criteria, with Talmudic references include:[13]

  • The fishers of the ḥillazon are from Haifa to the ladder of Tyre (Shabbat 26a)
  • The color of the ḥillazon dye is identical to that produced from the dye of the kela ilan plant (Indigofera tinctoria, a source of the indigo dye), which served as a counterfeit source of the dye (Baba Metzia 61b)
  • Cracking open the shell of the ḥillazon on Shabbat violates the laws of Shabbat (Shabbat 75a)
  • The shell of the ḥillazon grows together with it (Midrash, Song of Songs Rabbah 4:11)
  • It is an invertebrate (Jerusalem Talmud, Shabbat 1:38a)


At some point following the Roman exile of the Jews from the Land of Israel, the actual identity of the source of the dye was lost. Since that time, a period spanning over 1,300 years, Jews have only worn plain white tassles (tzitzit).[14]

The stripes on prayer shawls, often black, but also blue or purple, are believed to symbolize the lost tekhelet which is referred to by various sources as being "black as midnight", "blue as the midday sky", and even purple.[15] These stripes of tekhelet inspired the design of the flag of Israel.

Over the last two centuries, attempts have been made to identify the ancient source of the dye by comparing Talmudic sources to physical evidence.[16] Since then, tzitzit with blue thread has made a comeback, and many people wear such tallitot. However, many poskim (deciders of Jewish law) remain silent on the re-identification of the ḥillazon[2] and so many observant Jews still continue to wear only white tzitziyot.

Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn maintained that according to the teachings of Kabbalah, the ḥillazon will not reemerge until the coming of the Messiah.[2]

Identifying the source of the dye[edit]

Various shellfish have been suggested for the source of the dye.[17]

According to Zvi Koren, a professor of chemistry, tekhelet was close in color to midnight blue.[18] This conclusion was reached based on the chemical analysis of a 2000-year old patch of dyed fabric recovered from Masada in the 1960s.[19] The sample, shown to have been dyed with Murex snail extraction, is a midnight blue with a purplish hue. On the other hand, in 2013, Na'ama Sukenik of the Israel Antiquities Authority verified a 1st century CE-dated fragment of blue-dyed fabric to have used M. trunculus as the source of its pure blue color.[20]

Excavations at Tel Dor in 1986 unearthed an intact ancient dye manufacturing installation based on dye extracted from murex marine snails.[21]

Identifying the ḥillazon[edit]

Three types of mollusks have been proposed as the lost ḥillazon. None have been universally accepted, though the Murex, Murex trunculus, known by the modern name Hexaplex trunculus is currently thought to be the most likely source of the biblical blue dye.

Sepia officinalis[edit]

The common cuttlefish.
A sample of Prussian blue

In 1887, Grand Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner, the Radziner Rebbe, researched the subject and concluded that the Sepia officinalis (common cuttlefish) met many of the criteria. Within a year, Radziner chassidim began wearing tzitzit dyed with a colorant produced from this cephalopod. Some Breslov Hasidim also adopted this custom due to Rebbi Nachman of Breslov's pronouncement on the great importance of wearing tekhelet and in emulation of Rabbi Avraham ben Nachram of Tulchyn, a prominent Breslov teacher who accepted the view of his contemporary, the Radziner Rebbe.[citation needed]

Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog (1889–1959) obtained a sample of this dye and had it chemically analyzed. The chemists concluded that it was a well-known synthetic dye "Prussian blue" made by reacting iron sulfate[disambiguation needed] with an organic material. In this case, the cuttlefish only supplied the organic material which could have as easily been supplied from a vast array of organic sources (e.g., ox blood). R. Herzog thus rejected the cuttlefish as the ḥillazon and some suggest that had the Grand Rabbi Gershon Henoch Leiner known this fact, he too would have rejected it based on his explicit criterion that the blue color must come from the animal and that all other additives are permitted solely to aid the color in adhering to the wool.[22]


Within his doctoral research on the subject of tekhelet, Herzog placed great hopes on demonstrating that the Murex trunculus was the genuine snail ḥillazon. However, having failed to consistently achieve blue dye from the Murex trunculus, he wrote: “If for the present all hope is to be abandoned of rediscovering the ḥillazon shel tekhelet in some species of the genera Murex and Purpura we could do worse than suggest the Janthina as a not improbable identification”.[23] Although blue dye has indeed been obtained from the Murex trunculus snail, in 2002 Dr. S. W. Kaplan of Rehovot, Israel, sought to investigate Herzog's suggestion that tekhelet came from the extract of Janthina. After fifteen years of research he concluded that the Janthina was not the ancient source of the blue dye.

Murex trunculus[edit]

A guide from P'til Tekhelet shows how a piece of wool, dipped into the solution for the dye, turns blue in sunlight

In his doctoral thesis (London, 1913) on the subject, Rabbi Herzog named Murex trunculus as the most likely candidate for the dye's source. Though M. trunculus fulfilled many of the Talmudic criteria, Rabbi Herzog's inability to consistently obtain blue dye (sometimes the dye was purple) from the snail precluded him from declaring it to be the dye source. In the 1980s, Otto Elsner,[24] a chemist from the Shenkar College of Fibers in Israel, discovered that if a solution of the dye was exposed to sunlight, blue instead of purple was consistently produced.[25] In 1988, Rabbi Eliyahu Tavger dyed tekhelet from M. trunculus for the mitzvah (commandment) of tzitzit for the first time in recent history.[26] Based on his work, four years later, the Ptil Tekhelet Organization was founded to educate about the dye production process and to make the dye available for all who desire to use it. The television show The Naked Archaeologist interviews an Israeli scientist who also makes the claim that this mollusk is the correct animal. A demonstration of the production of the blue dye using ultraviolet sunlight to produce the blue color is shown. Another verification of M. trunculus being the source of the dye source occurred in 2013, as Naama Sukenik of the Israel Antiquities Authority verified a 1st century CE-dated fragment of blue-dyed fabric to have used the M. trunculus sourced blue dye.[20]

Other applications[edit]

The Australian Flinders University Biological scientists Dr Kirsten Benkendorff and Dr Catherine Abbott, investigating the anti-cancer potential of the local species of sea snail Dicathais orbita or Australian dogwhelks found the bioactive compounds involved in the production of a purple dye which have many possible medicinal uses, including a novel anti-cancer agent that proved effective in curing breast cancer. They announced in October 2008 that the research into Murex purpurea will also be conducted which has an active ingredient sourced from the same family of mollusc as the Australian Dogwhelk.[27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Compilation; adapted by Rabbi Chaim Miller (2006). Chumash : the five books of Moses : with Rashi's commentary Targum Onkelos and Haftaros with a commentary anthologized from classic Rabbinic texts and the works of the Lubavitcher Rebge (Synagogue ed.). New York, N.Y.: Kol Menachem. p. 967. ISBN 9781934152010. 
  2. ^ a b c d e "Techelet (Blue Thread)". Tzitzit and Tallis. Chabad Media Center. Retrieved 9 April 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c Zohar, Gil. 50561 "Fringe Benefits - Kfar Adumim factory revives the lost commandment of tekhelet". www.ou.org. Retrieved 14 March 2013. 
  4. ^ a b Amir, Nina. "Lost thread of blue, tekhelet color reestablished". Religion & Spirituality. Clarity Digital Group LLC d/b/a Examiner.com. 
  5. ^ Rashi, Tosafos, Rosh
  6. ^ Raavad
  7. ^ Rambam
  8. ^ "Tekhelet" in Hebrew
  9. ^ Tekeleth - Strong's Hebrew# 8504
  10. ^ Gesenius Hebrew lexicon entry for "Isles of Elisha" - more modern source needed
  11. ^ False Tekhelet http://www.divreinavon.com/pdf/FalseTekhelet.pdf
  12. ^ The Hillazon Braita http://www.divreinavon.com/pdf/HillazonBraita.pdf
  13. ^ Threads of Reason http://www.divreinavon.com/pdf/ThreadsOfReason.pdf
  14. ^ On History, Mesorah and Nignaz http://www.divreinavon.com/pdf/HistoryMesorahNignaz.pdf
  15. ^ Simmons, Rabbi Shraga. Tallit stripes
  16. ^ The Mystery of Tekhelet http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8aAJgB4xAIw
  17. ^ The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia - Page 1057 Geoffrey W. Bromiley - 2007 "The most highly prized dye in the ancient world obtained from the secretions of four molluscs native to the eastern Mediterranean: helix ianthina, murex brandaris, murex trunculus, and purpura lapillus. Various shades could be produced"
  18. ^ The color techelet
  19. ^ Kraft, Dina (2011-02-27). "Rediscovered, Ancient Color is Reclaiming Israeli Interest". New York Times. 
  20. ^ a b "Why so blue? Biblical dye was made from snails". www.nbcnews.com. Associated Press. Dec 31, 2013. Retrieved December 31, 2013. 
  21. ^ Wisdom as a woman of substance: a socioeconomic reading of Proverbs 1–9, Christine Elizabeth Yoder
  22. ^ P'til T'khelet, p.168
  23. ^ Herzog, p.71
  24. ^ Robin Ngo (11 September 2013). "What Color Was Tekhelet?". Retrieved 20 January 2014. "Decades after Herzog’s death, chemist Otto Elsner proved that murex dye could in fact produce a sky-blue color by exposing the snail secretions to ultraviolet rays during the dyeing process. Sky-blue tzitzit, then, could be made with murex dye." 
  25. ^ O. Elsner, "Solution of the enigmas of dyeing with Tyrian purple and the Biblical tekhelet", Dyes in history and Archaeology 10 (1992) p 14f.
  26. ^ Navon, Mois (December 30, 213). "Threads of Reason-A Collection of Essays on Tekhelet". p. 23. Retrieved 20 January 2014. "In 1985, while writing a book about tzitzit entitled Kelil Tekhelet, R. Eliyahu Tavger became convinced that the source of authentic tekhelet had been found. Determined to actualize his newfound knowledge, and after much trial and error, he succeeded in applying the process, according to halakhah, from beginning to end. He thus became the first person, since the loss of the hillazon, to dye tekhelet for the purpose of tzitzit. In 1991, together with R. Tavger, Ptil Tekhelet was formed to produce and distribute tekhelet strings for tzitzit." 
  27. ^ Volunteer Service supports fresh ideas http://www.flinders.sa.gov.au/fmcfoundation/files/links/InvestigatorAutumn08.pdf

External links[edit]