Judaism as a culture and religion is admittedly reactive by nature. One example, in terms of Halacha, Jews blow the Shofar on Mussaf rather than Shacharis, since the Romans got scared of battle calls against them and in response they killed many Jews *. Another example is the customs Jews have during Pesach regarding what foods to eat and not eat – many non-Chometz items were made taboo when there was a fear that Chometz might seep in (which goes way beyond the scope of this piece). Therefore, to make a proactive change to reconstruct something that has been lost for a long time is something that goes against this trend and naturally therefore is met with resistance.
I will admit that not everything published here is sourced. Part of this is to make the reader curious where “all this stuff comes from” and excitedly delve into it like I did. There’s plenty of material available on tekhelet.com‘s library section, YouTube page, and books/education part, as well as on techeiles.org, to occupy you for months. I suggest starting there in order to not only verify what’s written here, but also to provide an informed counter-argument in case anything below clashes with your current worldview.
In general I don’t anticipate convincing anyone one way or another or making anyone agree 100% with what’s written. Everyone reading this will have their own prejudices, and that’s the way it should be.
What is Tekhelet?
Tekhelet is a color made from a dye that the Torah commands Jews to wear on four-cornered garment fringes known as Tzitzit. Tekhelet has always been taught to be blue or aqua-blue, though some have posited that it’s “Yarok” (yellow-green: Rashi), Shachor (black or simply a really dark color: Rambam), or purple. For those that held it was purple, Argaman became red and Tolaas Shani became some other shade of red. Due to the Mesorah (father-to-son tradition) being lost approximately 1,300 years regarding color, sea creature and methodology to make the dye, all Jews following Rabbinic tradition stuck with only white strings.
They weren’t sure what the color was or what the Chilazon sea creature was for that matter. No attempts were made to find the creature until the 19th century. Attempts to find the Chilazon were first attempted by the Radziner Rebbe, R’ Gershon Henoch Leiner, then Chief Rabbi Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog (1889–1959). Between the two of them the following creatures were narrowed down to the candidates: the cuttlefish squid, the murex trunculus snail, and the janthina snail.
Candidate 1: The Cuttlefish
The cuttlefish squid was what the Radzyner Rebbe spent his life betting on and in fact, it seemed like a likely candidate in terms of matching the vague body descriptions of the Talmud. Only thing is, there were three problems:
- The dye isn’t steadfast as the squid ink is water soluble (after a few washes it fades away quickly),
- The natural color is dark brown and not blue. The Prussian blue is caused by iron filings added to it, which in that case can be applied to any liquid (and is not sourced by the Chilazon), and
- It’s not difficult at all to find (this was the Beis Halevi’s argument).
Yet, even though R’ Herzog pointed these out to the Radzyner Chassidim they continued to wear the cuttlefish tzitzis (and still do). Their answer to 1) is that they’re still researching ways to make it more soluble, and to 2) the iron filings were reminiscent of the vats they “probably” used iron vats/ovens, so the ancient Tekhelet would have had these filings mixed in. Maybe, maybe not, but the blue source here is not the Chilazon.
Whatever the case, everyone agrees that the Radzyner Rebbe thought “outside the box” and not like the masses.
Candidate 2: The Janthina Snail
The Janthina was one of R’ Herzog’s favorites, but he quickly ruled it out as the dye temporarily went purple, then quickly changed to brown. R’ Herzog admitted that this was a problem. He liked that the body had a bluish color and that it’s hard to find.
Candidate 3: The Murex Trunculus Snail
To preface, it should be noted that in many semitic and nearby languages Chilazon means snail. In Arabic it’s Halazun, in Persian (not semitic, but from a nearby region) it’s Chilazuna, etc. When R’ Herzog chose his candidates, he did so while being proficient/fluent in over a dozen languages. Also, the Ba”Ch identified Chilazon as Shneck, which in Yiddish means snail.
The Murex trunculus snail was the other snail candidate that R’ Herzog chose. His only issue was that the snail produced a purple color. There actually was one occassion where R’ Herzog discovered the blue color as well but was sad he couldn’t replicate his results.
This problem would linger until the 1980’s.
The Discovery in Brief: “Whoops!”
Otto Elsner, a dye chemist from the Shenkar College of Fashion and Textile Technology, discovered the blue color by accident. Crushed murex gland stinks, as it essentially rotting fish. (Think of the worst fish market in town and multiply it by 100. In fact, there’s a Gemara that states that if a woman marries someone who becomes a Tekhelet dyer, if she asks for a divorce she will be granted one for the very reason that he will always stink so bad it directly affects Shalom Bayis. At any rate…) Until 1983 the murex snail only produced the purple color. Mr. Elsner left the main room and placed a beaker of murex on a windowsill on a sunny day. The UV rays of the sun then broke the chemical bonds which added red into the color (making the color violet – argaman), and left a brominated indigo blue color. Voila! The blue color was rediscovered without adding any chemicals, and the color is the EXACT color as the Kala Ilan color, which beautifully matches the Gemara stating that only Hashem can tell the difference between both color sources.
This was the first time murex snail-based blue was discovered since R’ Herzog discovered the blue color as stated above.
Kala Ilan Indigo
What is Kala Ilan? Kala Ilan is indigo blue derived from an plant. In ancient times unscrupulous Tekhelet dealers would create this dye – which was cheaper to make – and sell it as Chilazon-based Tekhelet to users thinking they were wearing the real McCoy. There were also those “looking for a deal” and were wearing it to look frum to their neighbors. This shade of blue is so identical to chilazon-based blue that Chazal had to state that only Hashem could identify the difference between the two. Chazal mandated Tekhelet to be steadfast and Kala Ilan blue fades over time. Kala Ilan is strictly from a plant, as implied from the word Ilan which generally means tree.
As an interesting aside, in Mandarin Chinese the word “Lan” 蓝 literally means “blue.” The symbol has three parts. The top is a pair of “eyes,” the middle is that of a person in a somewhat reclining position with his arms extended, and the bottom is a well of water. The well of water reminds one of the blue. Take it at face value.
What the Detractors Say
The detractors say a lot. Among which:
- The discoverers were academics, some secular, and not Haredi Rabbis.
- Even though there’s no adding to the solution, the Gemara doesn’t say anything about exposing it to sunlight.
- The dye pits aren’t exclusive to Tekhelet, and have been used primarily for purple dying.
- Aristotle’s/Pliny’s descriptions referred to purple dying and doesn’t mention blue dying once (courtesy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n8AEPFLOtHY)
- The descriptions in the Gemara don’t literally fit the murex description. This is voiced by R’ Yisroel Reisman and responded to by R’ Aryeh Leibowitz.
- The older sources that state that the Chilazon won’t be returned until Moshiach comes means it applies forever and context doesn’t matter.
- There’s no Mesorah.
- It’s Halacha is like Kala Ilan (source 1 | source 2).
- Safek Mideoraisa L’Chumra (you are stringent when it comes to doubts regarding Torah law) doesn’t apply here since it isn’t even worth the status of a Safek, being that the archeological arguments aren’t halachic in nature (doubt) (Source 1).
- It’s supposed to surface every 70 years and we see it doesn’t.
- The current method of extracting dye from Murex trunculus involves removing a gland from the snail, which would involve the melacha of gozeiz, removing part of a living creature. (According to many poskim, one violates this also by removing part of a creature that has since died.) Clearly, this could not have been the method of removing the dye from chilazon in earlier days, as can be proved from the Gemara (Shabbos 75a), since although the Gemara mentions other prohibitions, it omits mention of this one. (source)
First, in response to the above:
- Who cares? R’ Herzog, while other Rabbis had things to say about him, was the first to accidentally create the blue dye.
- The Gemara doesn’t mention a lot of minute details. Doesn’t mean it wasn’t part of the equation.
- Both blue and purple were colors of royalty, therefore it may have been used for both. Also, there is a place in the Gemara stating that the Chilazon was used for blue and another place where the Chilazon was used for purple.
- So? When it comes to the Goyim the Jews are generally an afterthought – not everything revolves around us to them. (as an aside, here’s the text of Pliny the Elder: purpura-murex_plinysnaturalhis00plinrich.) An additional three points:
- Purple was the primary color of royalty, though blue was there as well, and
- The Gemara states that a Chilazon sea creature was used for both. For Jews this mattered, for the non-Jews it didn’t.
- The word “blue” didn’t appear until much later on, as “Kachol” is a loan word from Arabic.Therefore, other words may have been used to describe the color as being derivatives of another color. Purple is blue along with red, and Yarok (Rashi) is yellow/green, green containing blue in it as well.
- Lots of things are open to rabbinic interpretation, some interpret literally and some don’t. For example, the Gemara also describes the Lulav/palm tree as having a “heart.” While we know what a “heart of palm” is (palm hearts are the immature center of a palm tree that the grower harvests while it is still soft, and is consumed as a vegetable. Source.), would we state that a palm tree literally has a living, breathing heart? No. What if nobody had seen a palm tree in over a thousand years and used the Gemara to locate it? That’s the point.
- The reference here is that Tekhelet is “Nignaz” (literally, “set aside” but too many people mistranslate Nignaz as “hidden” which is Nistar). Nignaz is referred to mean until Moshiach comes, but it can also simply refer to a very long time. For example, Yosef was Nignaz from Yaakov for 22 years. It could mean 1,000 years which works with Tekhelet which wasn’t used for at least that long.
- A couple of points:
- Neither is eating turkey, yet it’s become a Kosher bird. Same with the way our Tefillin and Sifrei Torah are made. Same thing with how Bar Mitzvah’s are set up. To make something better is always a good thing, even if “it wasn’t always done.” See R’ Bentzion Twerski’s endorsement.
- On the topic of turkey, a different kind of Mesorah can be done if the item is exactly identified. The only time where a father-son Mesorah is needed is where the description is too vague, which some feel is not the case with the Chilazon.
- This is what I call a backyard-bully argument. It’s like saying “anything I don’t like is Kala Ilan.” Kala Ilan is an issue where someone knows he’s buying the fake instead of the real one so that he can save money and “look frum,” and knows what the real one already looks like. Also, Kala Ilan is from a plant (hence the word Ilan which means tree), not an animal. This is not the case.
- That’s a bit extreme and also sounds like a backyard-bully argument. Firstly, while you might not be able to use archeology for halacha, you can still use it for metzius (source).
- That’s correct in that it virtually doesn’t surface at all. Much effort needs to be exerted to catch and grab those little suckers, and is used to explain to the Jews in Bavel why it’s so expensive, not so much for Halacha. R’ Benzion Halberstam in his video “Glimpse into the Mind of a Posek” (28-29 mins. in) adds that 70 years and Tekhelet is seen when the Romans had a certain event where a healthy Roman was riding on the shoulders of a crippled Jew (representing Yaakov who limped) and this Jew needed to walk carrying the Roman around. It was meant to symbolize that the Romans were “on top” and the Jews were forever crippled. such that Esav was on top of Yaakov and the Romans were considered “Edom” like Esav was called. This event was meant to be a once-in-a-lifetime event. Once-in-a-lifetime may refer to 70 years because 70 years historically was used to describe the length of ones life. At this event the Chilazon surfaced in much greater numbers in order so that people could more readily sell the blue cloth to others at this event. Beautiful.
- This is one of the weakest arguments I’ve read at all. Gozeiz has been referred to shearing wool and can be used to take pieces of a live animal, but the melacha applies only to Shabbos and not during the week. I understand that if the animal for Gozez is this creature, this creature therefore cannot be the Chilazon. What makes it weak is that a) more animals can have shearing done, b) the melacha on Shabbos would be closer to “Disha” than Gozez, and c) Gozez would apply to hair and any item that can regrow. Once the snail gland is removed it cannot regrow.
What the Positive Ones Say
- There’s no downside and only an upside.
- If one has the opportunity to do a Mitzvah MiDeoraisa once should do so.
- Hashem rewards those that at least attempt to do a Mitzvah, whether or not it was fulfilled.
- It meets the requirements of Tekhelet, therefore nothing else really matters.
- The Ramba”n states that Tekhelet covers all 613 Mitzvos, not liking Rashi’s Gematria of Tzitzis being 600 since the Torah has it missing a Yud, making it 590.
- We need to be able to see Tekhelet as it psychologically inspires us to do Mitzvos as opposed to being further subject to the epidemic of pornography (loosely quoted from R’ Dr. Abraham Twerski in “Why having the blues is a good thing.”)
Words of Caution
- Don’t wear it with a linen garment unless you’re 100% sure it’s Tekhelet because otherwise the blue string might not be Tekhelet and not tzitzit, and therefore would render the garment Shaatnez (R’ Shachter and R’ Abraham Twerski). However, if you’re wearing cotton or wool, it’s win-win.
- It can get costly, which is by design. One pair of tzitzit isn’t a problem, it’s when you need to change your whole wardrobe, or in the case where a father has many sons, at 2-3 pairs per son it’s very easy to go broke.
Why Don’t Orthodox Thinking and the Tekhelet Innovation (Techeiles Hachodosh) Mix
Orthodox is a term not inherently Jewish. In fact, Ortho is a Greek prefix meaning “straight,” “upright,” “right,” or “correct”. Dox means opinion, praise. Therefore, it means the “straight/correct opinion,” and is a term more used in Christianity (Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Eastern Orthodox in Germany, etc.). Torah observant Jews assumed the name Orthodox in response to other Jews calling themselves Reform (sort of a nod to the protestant reformation in Christianity) and, whether the Torah observant Jews said “we’re Orthodox” or the Reformed Jews said, “you’re Orthodox,” the name stuck. To be Orthodox implies not changing a single thing from what’s been going “straight” for centuries. It’s to keep things status quo until Moshiach comes.
The reason Tekhelet and Orthodox thinking don’t mix is because a major change such as color on a garment is something that “hasn’t been done before.” Tekhelet therefore is supposed to meet the same pushback as:
- Quinoa on Pesach,
- Using horseradish as Maror on Pesach,
- Expensive/lavish Bar Mitzvahs (as opposed to schnapps and sponge cake mit ah bissel herring),
- Super-light Sifrei Torah (due to the super-thin parchment used now thanks to modern technology, as opposed to pre-war ones that weigh generally 25-30 pounds),
- Tefillin that’s “gassos” (gassos means it’s made from a cow hide which is much thicker, making it much harder to become Pasul, but is only available thanks to modern technology) as opposed to a much thinner piece of leather, made from goat/sheep leather and referred to as “dakkos”,
- And more.
In addition, without Tekhelet, Judaism will go on and people will continue to “live just the same” as they always did. Some like R’ Abraham Twerski above feel that this generation is different and need it now more than ever.
The above is why I feel that we as Torah Jews need to stop thinking Orthodox in order to perform Mitzvos better and in a more proactive manner. “We lived just the same” and “this is how it’s always been” are statements of wishing to be static and not break the status quo. As Jews we need to continue to strive to grow to serve Hashem in the best manner we can think of. I believe that the availability of the potential to wear Techeiles is a way to turn a half-mitzvah to a full mitzvah which ultimately will bring us closer to Hashem, at least through the very attempt to purchase and wear it.
*=Mishna Rosh Hashana 4:7 – Judaica Press (p. 403) – “Originally, the Shofar was blown during the Shacharis; once owing to a misunderstanding by the Roman soldiery that it was the signal for revolt there was a massacre of the Jews and so the Rabbis ordained that it be blown during Mussaf. This custom has been retained.”